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Theatre, Community, & Conversation begins Friday at PPL!

Communication is at the heart of understanding, and beginning Friday, April 8, Potsdam Public Library will be host to the first of a four-part series looking at issues that are controversial and central to the community through the lens of theatre and a community talk-back.

Breaking Barriers: Plays at the Library begins the community conversation with Paula Vogel’s play How I Learned to Drive, 6 p.m. Friday in the library’s main reading room.

Tickets are free and available on Eventbrite at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/how-i-learned-to-drive-by-paula-vogel-a-staged-reading-tickets-295441492457 and on the PPL Facebook page under events.

The play was selected with the help of community partner, St. Lawrence Valley Renewal House, an organization that, according to their mission statement, “respond(s) immediately to the needs of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in St. Lawrence County through services which empower victims and increase community awareness.”

For How I Learned to Drive, actors will read scripts in the style of a staged or choral reading, reading from music stands with spoken stage directions. Following the readings, there will be a conversation between Breaking Barriers creators, participants, and community organization liaisons meant to engage in the themes, concerns, and impact of the play.

Renewal House Executive Director Ilene Burke, in an email wrote, “Being approached by the creators of the play series was very exciting for us, because it shows a readiness to have a conversation about sexual assault and an opportunity, through a different platform, to bring awareness to our community.  Oftentimes, our community has only a vague idea of the violence that happens around us.”

The project was created by SUNY Potsdam Department of Theatre and Dance Assistant Professor Rivka Eckert and PPL Adult Program Coordinator William Eckert. 

How I Learned to Drive tells the story of Li’l Bit, now a woman of around thirty-five years, coming to terms with the abusive and emotionally complex relationship that she had with her Uncle Peck. The play works in a non-linear way, using flashbacks, monologues, and a heightened sense of the surreal to show how Li’l Bit relates to her memory and trauma.

“We are hopeful that this play will assist in having an open conversation surrounding sexual assault, while strengthening our community’s knowledge and response in supporting victims/survivors,” Burke wrote.

Rivka Eckert said Renewal House’s reputation as a stable and reliable service provider for families in the North Country precedes them.

“I knew that the complexity of the work they do serving survivors of domestic assault and sexual violence and the important roles they fill within the community as a safe and healing space for survivors would make them strong community partners,” she said. “My hope is that this project will introduce more people to the variety of services they offer, destigmatize some of the stereotypes around asking for help, and break down some of the barriers around the stigma and shame that can be associated with being a survivor.”

She said Vogel’s Pulitzer-prize winning play was chosen because of the nuanced and poetic way the play moves through the trauma and impact of sexual abuse manifest in the characters’ lives. 

“The story is not what you expect and offers haunting portrayals of how abuse changes lives, which gets at the goals of our project,” Eckert said. “There is just so much to say and feel by the end of the play. Perfect for starting a conversation!”

The play will be directed by Jennifer Thomas. Thomas is an associate professor of performance at St. Lawrence University. Her recent productions include: She Kills Monsters, #metoo & SLU, and Spring Awakening. “(I’m) grateful and excited to present work beyond the walls of the theatre and the university setting,” she said. 

Jennifer Thomas

Aja Samuel, stage directions, is a sophomore at St. Lawrence University. She is a Performance and Communication Arts major and a Spanish minor. Her most recent roles include Tilly in University theatre’s production of She Kills Monsters (fall ‘21) and Ensemble in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (spring ‘22). 

Aja Samuel

Emily Brisson will be reading the part of L’il Bit. Brisson is a current senior at St. Lawrence University studying Pre-Law with an English and Government major and a minor in film. Throughout her time at St. Lawrence she has participated in Spring Awakening, #MeToo and SLU, and She Kills Monsters and is excited to get one final script in before graduation. 

Emily Brisson

Danny Thomas will be reading the part of Uncle Peck. Thomas is a father and husband in Canton, New York. He works in the biotech industry as a Customer Success Manager. He has worked in theatre primarily as a sound designer and foley artist, but does enjoy the occasional opportunity to be on stage, under the lights.

Danny Thomas

Patsy Buckley will be reading the part of the Greek Chorus. Buckley is a senior at St. Lawrence. She is majoring in performance with a minor in education. She is grateful for this opportunity. Next year she is looking forward to moving out west and finding shows to audition for.

Patsy Buckley

In addition to Renewal House, Breaking Barriers creators are partnering with Adirondack Diversity Initiative, John Brown Lives!, and Associated Colleges of the St Lawrence Valley, which comprises SUNYs Canton and Potsdam, Clarkson, and St. Lawrence University. Based on partner feedback, an artistic team of local directors, actors, professors, and theatre-makers selected 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. 

Future plays will be held on the following dates:

Friday, April 22, 6 p.m.: Polar Bears, Black Boys, and Prairie Fringed Orchids, by Vincent Terrell Durham with community partner Adirondack Diversity Initiative

Friday, May 5, 6 p.m.: Baltimore, by Kirsten Greenidge with community partner Associated Colleges of the St. Lawrence Valley

Friday, June 10, 6 p.m.: Curios and Crinolines, by Elaine Kuracina with community partner John Brown Lives!

To learn more about Breaking Barriers and its creation and purpose, visit https://potsdamlibrary.org/new-ppl-play-series-breaks-barriers/

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.