“La Alma? They want me to do what?"
I don’t think I ever said it out loud, but at several points during the process of working with Mirror Image Arts and getting to know the people of the La Alma neighborhood over the last year, as I helped them create the map/script for The Heart, The Soul, the immersive theatrical experience that debuts this week, I felt like I was out of my depth.
My past life as a teaching artist had me in schools all over Denver, and I would occasionally end up near La Alma/Lincoln Park, but beyond a quick stroll to see murals along Santa Fe Drive, a lunch or three at Swift’s and a run through local antiques shops for any Frankoma pottery they might have on hand, I was in and out...like so many who venture that way.
"Immersive theatrical experience?”
I trained as a playwright by sitting in a room with a handful of people, talking about plays that we wrote by ourselves in our own little rooms back at home. I did have experience devising plays with actors, but I knew very little about creating anything where the audience was supposed to do anything but watch.
Mirror Image Arts is best known for its ever-expanding and increasingly popular bullying-prevention program, Find Your Voice, which embeds in schools throughout the metro area. But the group's ultimate mission is to use theater to inspire a community dialogue, whatever form that may take. Including an immersive theatrical experience.
When Meghann Henry and Andrea Rabold of MIA attempted to describe this massive project, I knew it would push me out of my bubble, so I just said, “Yes,” even if I didn’t quite understand it. Soon after, I found myself at La Alma Recreation Center with representatives of MIA, MY Denver (the mayor’s Key to the City program, which provides every Denver child between five and eighteen free access to recreation centers, pools and cultural facilities) and the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation. I think that was the first time everyone collectively understood that none of us knew what this purposely vague-sounding “immersive theatrical experience” was going to be in fifteen months.
There was comfort in that, as well as in the groundwork that the main organizers had already laid out.
MIA’s lead facilitator, Maya Osterman-Van Grack, along with Rabold and Henry, had been dropping by the center since at least the summer of 2016, just to get to know people there and build trust. By January of this year, there was a youth advisory board meeting every other week for the Speak Up, Speak Out program, where young people from the neighborhood could build skills, cook up some healthy food with Chelsea Anderson from MY Denver, and ultimately decide what this “interactive theatrical experience” was going to be about.
The starting point was technically “exploring the social determinants that affect healthy eating and active living,” but that’s not a very sexy sell to teens or anybody without an advanced degree in grant-speak. Acting classes proved a better start. And the tentacles extended from there.
I've lived in twelve different cities in seven different states, and La Alma is one of the deepest, most open and most welcoming communities I’ve ever experienced. The neighborhood is also going through a major transition right now, with development moving into this area. So when the youth advisory board chose to explore the health angle through the lens of community, coming of age, and change, it felt right to me. By this summer, the group had conducted more than 45 interviews with folks from the neighborhood.
Henry and Osterman-Van Grack continued to try to track down a few people, because when residents keep talking about a woman called “The Candy Lady,” you know you need to see what that’s about. They finally found her in July.
At that point, we were knee-deep in a development workshop with local artists who specialize in devised theater, exploring the myriad stories we had plucked from the interviews. I was beginning to sense that these artists were more than capable of creating brilliant stuff, and that I wouldn’t have to write a play about La Alma. That was happening all around me; I’d just have to record it.
Anyway, the Candy Lady didn’t just swing by after her interview. She didn’t just bring snow-cones for us. She brought the snow-cone machine, funnel cakes and fried Oreos. Turns out, what started as a way for her and her son to meet people after they moved into the neighborhood has made the Candy Lady into a sort of “neighborhood mom” — and for a moment, we felt like her kids.
There are so many great stories in La Alma to tell; the hard part has been letting most of them go. The Candy Lady will definitely make the cut; she'll be at opening night, along with Mimi Banis, who runs the Osage Cafe and Culinary Academy. And La Alma’s badass 2014 pool remodel is in there. Did you know that the rec center started out as a shed full of lawnmowers that not-so-mysteriously all ended up in the pool?
The teens didn’t just collect interviews. They have stories of their own. And in a way, they are the story.
Getting to know La Alma and the wealth of stories within it, working with these artists and the youth who live here, has forever changed the way I think about neighborhoods, community and even the collaborative effort of theater itself.
I still don’t know exactly what’s going to happen when The Heart, The Soul premieres on Thursday, December 7, at La Alma Recreation Center. By the end of last month, we had about 75 percent of it figured out.
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The rest will likely be as much of a surprise to me as to the audience. I can’t wait to experience it with the people of La Alma who lent us their stories.
Larry Mitchell is the playwright-in-residence for Mirror Image Arts. The Heart, The Soul will run December 7 through 10 at La Alma Recreation Center, 1325 West 11th Avenue. Tickets are free; reservations are available online.