Theatre that Gives Life to a Community

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Will Weigler '77 builds plays so that people can be heard
From the Spring 2009 Caller

Imagine a Northwest community made up mostly of loggers and Native Americans, and imagine they don’t have much to do with one another. How would you bring them together? Will (Chaz) Weigler ’77 recently took on that challenge, and his answer was to have them work together to create theatre.

Will spent eight months with residents of Darrington, Washington (population 1,100) and the 400 members of the nearby Sauk-Suiattle Tribe creating a musical play. People from both communities, aged from 18 months to 85 years, came together to tell their stories and dramatize their historical relationships with one another and their common relationships with the mountains, forests, and rivers that surround them—and they performed the show to sold-out audiences. It’s a perfect example of what Will has been striving to do with theatre for many years now.

Applied theatre caught Will’s attention in a big way when he was an undergraduate at Oberlin College. He had hitchhiked to St. Peter, Minnesota, to attend an international conference on people’s theatre, which celebrates the lives and concerns of people and their communities. Looking to start his career after graduation, he thought about where he had most felt “alive and happy and connected.” He went right back to St. Peter to the theatre company that produced the conference, ready to immerse himself in this vision of theatre as a catalyst for community building.

That work has become Will’s life work, and it’s taken him down many paths as he has explored the role of theatre in diverse communities. He spent time in Portland producing and directing Peace Child: A Musical of Hope with 75 kids at the then-new Portland Center for the Performing Arts. That led to his co-founding a youth theatre company, Young Actor’s Forum. Turn Loose the Voices, a video adaptation of their performance about young people’s perspectives on prejudice and the value of diversity, has become a widely used teaching tool for diversity awareness training. Will’s reflection on the process of collective play creation became an award-winning 2001 book, Strategies for Playbuilding: Helping Groups Translate Issues into Theatre.

Will is now a doctoral candidate in applied theatre at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. He is researching brief moments in theatre performances that have stopped audience members in their tracks and prompted a sudden personal insight (and he invites Caller readers to contribute to his study at www.aesthetic-arrest.com).

He manages to finds time for acting, storytelling, and public speaking. For Will there’s always a next big project, and right now he’s working with faculty, students, and local theatre artists to establish an international applied theatre center in Victoria. Will hopes that it will serve as a laboratory for improving understanding of how theatre can effectively promote positive social change.