Polaroid Stories: A Director’s Reflectionposted on February 3rd, 2010 by Brandon Monokian
One of the most remarkable things about theatre is that it affords you the opportunity to escape reality while simultaneously forcing you to recognize the reality from which you are escaping. This is not always the case, and in a modern theatrical climate that is more focused on ticket sales than cultural relevance, most audiences walk away without recognizing much of anything. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t at times captivated by the glorious world of theatrical entertainment for the sake of entertainment, in fact that’s what got me into theatre in the first place. I was that theatre geek that walked around brandishing Little Shop of Horror t-shirts, while belting out show tunes in my room, much to the joy (or annoyance) of my parents.
But midway through my training at Montclair, I became more in tune to the world around me. Perhaps it was that brief moment in time where it was considered cool to be politically and culturally aware that began the reshaping of my thoughts on life and theatre. Barack Obama was in the running for President, and suddenly everyone, including myself decided maybe they should put down People Magazine and pick up The New York Times. Suddenly I realized how much was going on in the world that I had allowed myself to ignore.
With this realization came a self analysis of my life’s future direction. Was theatre really something that was worthwhile? Why am I trying to spend my life entertaining when I could be using my energy and skills to help others? In the midst of this examination of my career goals, I was asked to direct Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. The producers of the show initially booked a female director, but at the last minute she backed out, and I was the only one they knew available to take on the production. When I first agreed to take on the role of director, I merely viewed it as an opportunity to advance my skills as a director; however, as I plunged myself into the production I began to realize that this was a piece of art that could really help other people. Suddenly it clicked. This is what I can do with theatre, with art, to make a difference in the world.
As a man approaching a show widely viewed as a piece about womanity, I knew I wanted to instead view it as a piece about humanity, and I think I did just that. The Vagina Monologues became an incredible catalyst for opening up discussion in the community about the needs and struggles of human beings and how we can both celebrate and accept our differences. I knew that this is the direction I wanted to pursue in my future artistic endeavors.
Then came Polaroid Stories. Polaroid Stories is a dramatic piece by Naomi Iizuka detailing the lives of homeless youth, but at the same time paralleling their lives and situations to that of Greek gods and goddesses. When co-director Keri Costa and I first started work on Polaroid Stories, we thought the piece was really centered on its mythological background, but as research continued we realized that this play was about the very real and very under-publicized issue of teen homelessness. A sort of anxiety set in… one similar to my experience as a man working on The Vagina Monologues, I started to feel unqualified to tell a story about homeless youth, when I had grown up extremely privileged.
Polaroid Stories is a play chronicling a group of ten homeless kids, each experiencing the most extreme circumstances of their lives. It shows them evolving and developing throughout their struggles and concludes with the plea, the demand, for peace. Peace for themselves, peace for others, peace for the world.
The play was created using interviews that Iizuka conducted with homeless teens. As she interviewed more and more teens, she noticed that their stories had strong parallels to Greek mythology, so using Ovid’s Metamorphoses as inspiration, characters were given the names Echo, Persephone, Orpheus, and various other mythological names. For research, I read Metamorphoses, and dramaturg Michele Rae-Dudley organized the opportunity to go to the Covenant House, a homeless shelter for teens, and speak with some of them before the show opened.
A large part of Polaroid Stories deals with circumstance. In Iizuka’s work, Ovid’s story of a god falling in love with a maiden transforms to the most powerful local drug dealer seducing a girl hungry for drugs. The same emotional desire just put in a different situation. The same could be said about circumstance when talking about the kids we met at the Covenant House. They were kids, just like us, only in extraordinary circumstances. Their wants and needs were the same as mine or anyone else: the desire for love, shelter, food, and understanding all present, perhaps even highlighted by circumstance.
We were asked to present some scenes from the play for them which they responded to enthusiastically. Then they asked to act for us. A few of the kids broke up into two different groups and quickly devised scenarios to improvise. The first group presented a sometimes comic, yet always gripping situation of two couples dealing with infidelity, which eventually turned tragic as they came to discover they had all been infected with HIV.
In the second scene, a boy younger than me re-enacted a personal experience in which he tried to get a bed at a shelter but was turned back to the streets when he found they had reached capacity. For some reason, that idea of a young person being turned away from having overnight shelter had never once crossed my mind. The scene made both the play and the social issue incredibly immediate.
As we left, a staff member at the Covenant House thanked us for giving a face to an important issue. Initially the concept of teen homelessness being faceless did not register with me. When you think of a homeless person, you think of the old man on a street corner with a cardboard cup asking for money. You never think of the kids that look exactly like yourself. That’s what makes Iizuka’s work so important. It uses recognizable names and stories of Greek mythology to give faces to these children that are both recognizable and identifiable. The work also treats the kids with the dignity and respect they deserve.
More than ever before, I now had the need to tell this story well and to tell it correct. I also knew I had found a place in the theatrical world I needed to be a part of. There is a vast amount of incredible socially conscious art out there that the average person must be exposed to. It is a commitment I must make to keep pursuing the production of this art. To introduce people to the faces of those in need. To spark discussions that can lead to solutions. To relentlessly seek making this world a more beautiful place.
Brandon Monokian received a B.A. in Theatre Studies at Montclair State. He works as an actor, director, writer, and t-shirt designer.