I am just finishing up being directed by the great Marie Sirakos in a performance of the internationally acclaimed children’s book, My Father’s Dragon, in celebration of the author’s 90th birthday. Marie is a playwright and community events organizer whose work includes a piece called Empty Chairs, an art-installation, community-driven work about loss and suicide. Marie is a personal hero of mine, and it is an honor to interview her for this week’s blog.
1) Hi, Marie! It’s a pleasure to have you here! A subject dear to my heart is the interrelationship between performance and community. You have been involved in numerous projects over the years — everything from serving as Executive Director of Light in Winter to playwriting to educational theatre to your work with Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services. How did you come to believe so much in this kind of work? Why do you do it?
I have always been interested in the arts and also in human issues. I grew up in a performance context with dance and theatre but also with a strong volunteer work ethic provided by my family and friends. My girlhood was full of plays, music, dance, but also with work like helping with the inventory for Meals-on-Wheels and visiting with patients at our neighbourhood nursing home. I guess I would first say that I am devoted to the arts and especially interested in how the arts can illuminate other subject areas and shed light on the basic foci of human life. That’s why directing the Light in Winter Festival was so very satisfying to me. Combining the Arts with Science for greater understanding/exploration of each seems only natural. We were able to pull in the minds of arts based folks and bring greater understanding to areas of science and vice-versa. Also, because there is a lightness to artistic expression and it is often associated with human enjoyment, many minds open up immediately when artistic expression is presented. I find it very powerful.
2) I am particularly interested in sharing your work with suicide prevention. Could you go into more detail about the different ways performance is a part of outreach, awareness and program development?
When people can see the issues of life illuminated on stage, it can reach into their awareness in ways that are not always possible otherwise. When I was directing the Role Players for Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services, we had many opportunities to work with audiences by incorporating their suggestions for how characters should act within a scene or situation. Such a collaborative theatrical process, one that involves the audience in the process, can be very powerful. In other educational settings, role play involving students directly creates an opportunity for them to practice saying things that may be difficult to say in real life such as “are you thinking of suicide?” And to have the opportunity to discuss these situations with their peers as well as the educators in the room. And finally, I have had the opportunity to produce plays for audiences that have outreach, education, and program development as their primary focus. From these experiences, wonderful discussion is created, and connections are made to individuals in the community that we may not have had the opportunity to begin a dialogue with otherwise. Performance is one of the most powerful social tools I have ever encountered, and I continue to discover ways in which it can be harnessed to bring communities together.
3) For readers who may be looking to initiate similar projects, what advice do you have? Are there resources in print or online?
For starters, take a workshop in improvisational theatre. Take a dance class. Explore the arts for yourself and find your own manners of expression that feel most powerful to you. Theatrically, I am very influenced by the work done by Viola Spolin and Anne Bogart’s SITI Company. There are workshops available for both of these theatrical methods. Some reading on each that I would recommend include The Viewpoints Book by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau and Improvisation For the Theatre by Viola Spolin. These theatrical methods are intended for use with mature actors, but they can be adapted toward work with young children and young adults. Another important book that I have gained a great deal from is Theatre for Community, Conflict & Dialogue by Michael Rohd. In the context of creating community theatre experience with the goal of AIDS outreach and education, Michael Rohd has developed and shared with us a number of theatrical exercises that help build connection between community players. And thus, create strong ensembles of players that can then take their skills and collective work to audiences.
4) What is closest to your heart, and why?
Theatre is closest to my heart. It is broad and specific at the same time. Entire worlds, contexts, characters, and environments can be created and shared with an audience out of nothing but a spark of imagination. The possibilities are endless in the theatrical realm. And theatre’s reach into the minds and hearts of audiences can be quite profound.
Marie Sirakos is a playwright, theatre artist, and a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s Theatre Arts and English Literature programs. She has worked as teaching artist for the Hangar Theatre’s Next Generation program on over 30 projects, and her various theatrical direction, acting and production projects have included work with Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services, the Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, the Lehman Alternative School, Boynton Middle School, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Theatre Incognita, the Icarus Theatre Ensemble, and the Kitchen Theatre. She has adapted various literary works to the stage and has written several plays that have been produced as part of the 48-Hour Play Writing Marathon and New Play Festivals at the Kitchen Theatre. She has also devoted her creative energies to large event production over the years including the Ithaca Festival, the Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance, Light in Winter Festival, and Ithaca Winter Recess Teacher’s Week.