Telling their story: “And I Know” tackles homelessness
If there’s anything playwrights Ryan Gage and Shad Scott would like the audience to understand when they see their new play, “And I Know,” it’s that homelessness is more than the images you see on television.
While the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen in the U.S., the division between the working class and the homeless population is getting smaller.
“These people are closer to us than we think,” Gage said before a recent dress rehearsal.
“And I Know” which opens Friday night and runs through May 12 at Venture Theatre, culminates an eight-month process for Venture and AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers Jessie Obee and Amy Dixon. They interviewed dozens of homeless people living in shelters and involved in various programs in Montana.
Those interviews were turned over to Gage and Scott, both of whom are veteran Billings playwrights. Their challenge was to create a script that built multidimensional characters into a drama that stayed true to the interviews, yet were not too painful to witness.
Many of the homeless people who were interviewed for the project have moved on, but some plan to attend the production. One woman who spent years living on the streets designed the poster and several homeless women living at a local shelter made blankets and provided other props for the show.
The play is directed by Christie Anderson and features a cast ranging in age from a third-grader through actors in their late 20s.
At rehearsal, Anderson gathered the actors into a circle, had them hold onto one another and put themselves in their characters’ shoes. She asked questions like, “Did you eat today?”
As part of the preparation for their roles, the actors toured a Billings homeless shelter.
“We found out at the shelter that they call the people living there guests. They believe that they’re not there permanently but they’re on their way to a better place,” said 13-year-old Makenzy Gilsdorf, who plays Molly, a homeless teenager.
River Newell-Cline, 20, plays Molly’s older sister Emma. For her, performing in this drama made her re-examine how society treats the homeless population.
“It makes me feel angry the way homeless people get treated,” Newell-Cline said. “I’ve seen high school kids throw cans at homeless people they see on the street.”
Newell-Cline said the power of a play like this one is that it can change attitudes toward the homeless and perhaps get more people involved in finding solutions.
“I shared the play on my Facebook page and I couldn’t believe how many people shared it,” Newell-Cline said.
Obee and Dixon discovered that over the course of time they worked on the Homelessness Project and the play, the number of homeless children in Billings rose from 389 in February to 500 in April.
“I think that number speaks for itself,” Dixon said.