features + interviews

Finding the Personal in the Political

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Erick Betancourt and Karen Kandel in The Assignment. Photo by Russ Rowland.

[Full article published in TDF Stages, May 1, 2017.]

How one social justice theatre company uses real-life stories to inspire its art

Last summer, Houses on the Moon, a socially focused, community-committed theatre company, began developing a pair of projects about gun violence. Now, with the subject seemingly in the zeitgeist on stage (On the ExhaleChurch & State, and When It’s You are just a handful of the other productions that have wrestled with this incendiary issue this season), the troupe is presenting Camilo Almonacid’s world premiere play The Assignment in rep with gUN COUNTRY, an evening of true stories by people whose lives have been impacted by guns. (Co-produced by the hip-hop and theatre artist collective Rhymes Over Beats, the projects are at the A.R.T./New York Theatres. The Assignment plays through May 7, and gUN COUNTRY plays through May 3.)

Founded in 2001 by Emily Joy Weiner and Jeffrey Solomon, Houses on the Moon has always explored controversial topics in its work, including immigration, eating disorders, adolescent sexuality, and bullying. But thanks to a recent infusion of funding, new collaborators, and a legit Off-Broadway venue, The Assignment is the company’s highest-profile offering to date.

The company’s theatre-making process is meticulous. The artists build stories over time with people touched by a particular social issue through interviews and writing groups. “It’s really important to me that our work never tells you what you’re supposed to think,” says Weiner, who directs The Assignment. “We explore very liberal concepts and issues, but it’s important that we have a spectrum of stories trying to come from a human point of view.”

Jenna Worsham, who directs gUN COUNTRY, concurs. “In theatre, we often curtail stories to have the most political impact, sometimes to the point that it isolates and polarizes audiences,” she says. “What Houses on the Moon does radically well is that they always put the story first. They let the person say whatever they want to say. They trust that the personal is inherently political, and that if you take a group of people who think differently, as we do in gUN COUNTRY, and put them in conversations together, it ends up breeding discussions better than some really well-constructed play that might have only one perspective.”

The Assignment is a two-hander about an ex-con and his college English professor whose lives were altered by gun violence. The play’s plot was inspired by true stories that emerged during a gun-violence writing group facilitated by Houses on the Moon. Karen Kandel, the actress playing the professor, is the co-artistic director of Mabou Mines and a busy Off-Broadway performer. “She’s the experimental theatre world’s queen!” says Weiner. “I couldn’t have done a casting call and gotten her. I met her through a friend who knew what I was really looking for. Karen and I sat down for coffee a year and a half ago and — seven hours later — we were at my house drinking wine. She cancelled two international trips for other projects so she could do it.” Meanwhile, Erick Betancourt, who plays the ex-con, returned to school in his twenties and graduated a year ago with an MFA. Somehow, Houses on the Moon always finds the people with passion for the parts. “These guys are giving their souls to this project,” says Weiner.

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