New PPL Play Series Aims to Break Barriers

PPL has found itself returning to its former calling as a theater during 2021’s Plays Across the Walls series. This Spring, PPL will again play the part of theater during the Breaking Barriers: Plays at the Library series.

After a few months’ work, we at PPL are excited to announce the newest project on our programming schedule: Breaking Barriers: Plays at the Library. 

The project, created by SUNY Potsdam Department of Theatre and Dance Assistant Professor Rivka Eckert and PPL Adult Program Coordinator William Eckert, is a four-part series looking at issues that are controversial and central to our community through the lens of theatre arts. 

The emphasis is on strengthening connections with local community groups and using plays to begin community conversations. The four staged readings will take place at the library, with the first performance tentatively scheduled for April 8. We are partnering with the following community groups: Adirondack Diversity Initiative, John Brown Lives!, Renewal House, and Associated Colleges of the St Lawrence Valley, which comprises SUNYs Canton and Potsdam, Clarkson, and St. Lawrence University. Based on our partner feedback, an artistic team of local directors, actors, professors, and theatre-makers select plays that speak to the concerns of each group. In working across university and community lines, we are better able to collaborate and exchange ideas towards a shared vision of strengthening civic participation through the arts.

The project was born from 2021’s Banned Books Read Outs held at PPL during Banned and Challenged Books Week. Rivka suggested reading banned plays and we both talked about reaching out to community organizations to get input as to what issues they would like to see addressed. From there, we decided that instead on making the focus on banned plays, wanted to focus on the community connection and conversation over issues that matter to the people that make up this community.

Additionally, after we held performances for Plays Across the Walls in the library’s main reading room in November, it has added a new level of excitement over how we can explore the library as a space for theatre.

Actors will read scripts in the style of a staged or choral reading, reading from music stands with spoken stage directions. Following the readings, community organization liaisons will guide audience members through a conversation meant to engage in the themes, concerns, and impact of the play. The actors reading the plays will also talk about how they prepared for reading.

Rivka said the play reading series will provide community organizations, audiences, and performers the critical opportunity to use theatre to begin a conversation and take actionable steps towards being a stronger community.   

“After almost two years of a pandemic that has kept us largely apart and isolated, these five performances and community dialogues are a way to heal, laugh, wonder, and make positive change together. In short, we get to meet one another, and the stories we carry, and begin the work of understanding.

By bringing Renewal House, Adirondack Diversity Initiative, John Brown Lives! and the Associated Colleges of the St. Lawrence Valley to the library is a huge deal, she said. 

“Often spaces get marked as belonging to a certain type of person or people, and others can feel excluded from participation. Using the library, a bastion of civic exchange and free thought, as a performance site claims the space and conversation for everyone,” she said. “What better place to learn, discover, and watch performance that engages in the critical issues of our community than the library?”

Questions that motivate the project: How can we strengthen the North Country community through theatre? How can we support one another in deep listening linked to tangible actions and accountability? How can we re/claim the library as a space for civic exchange, performance, discourse, and change?

“I grew up believing that the library was a place of wonder and order,” Rivka said. “I remember librarians helping me browse card catalogues to search for topics that weren’t covered around my dining room table or in my classroom. While the card catalogues aren’t there anymore, the library and the Breaking Barriers Play Reading Series stands as a place where we can dream and search together.”

This project is made possible with funds from the Statewide Community Regrants Program, a regrant program of the New York State Council on the Arts, with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature, and administered by the St. Lawrence County Arts Council.