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How to End Poverty gives its audience a $1,000 vote

Great theatre makes you think. And the new show opening this week at the Ethel M. Barber Theatre on the campus of Northwestern University takes this notion and ratchets it up a notch. Yes, you’ll find yourself musing about the production after it’s over (it asks perhaps the toughest question facing our nation today, after all). But you’ll also find yourself actively thinking during the performance—so much so that you’ll need to make a decision before the curtain goes down: how to spend the thousand dollars, hovering in a see-through orb above the stage, in the way that will best help the poor in our community.

Rohd talking with audience. How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes (with 199 people you may or may not know) is directed by assistant professor of theatre Michael Rohd, the founding artistic director of Sojourn Theatre. He, along with a cast of sixteen undergraduate students and eight designers, studied poverty for a year and, together, they created a show that is part spectacle, part learning lesson, and part interactive workshop. He elaborated on the project earlier this week, during one of the show’s final tech runs.

There’s been a lot of talk about the thousand dollars that appears on stage at the beginning of the play. Whose idea was this?

That was the idea from the beginning—that we have a set amount of money from the box office to use for the show. A thousand dollars seemed like a good round number. The money comes from the show’s ticket sales.

You and your ensemble of actors and designers spent a lot of time studying poverty to help prepare for the show.

That’s right. We had a class this fall. We did book research. We had experts come in and talk to us. Great folks. We had Mary Pattillo, who’s a faculty member here on campus. She’s a real expert on these issues. We had Mary Ellen Poole, the Housing Planner for the City of Evanston, who was great. We had folks from the Heartland Alliance come in, and the guy from BottomBillion.com, who deals with global poverty. We had a different person every week.

What did you, personally, learn?

People have really strong, passionate beliefs about whether you should work on this problem locally or globally. I thought, going into it, that the standard perception was that all these things should be worked on simultaneously. But I’ve learned that, no, there are a lot of people who feel very strongly about one approach versus the other.

Despite its serious subject, there are a lot of moments of levity during the show. Did you consciously shoot for humor? Did anything funny happen behind-the-scenes when you were putting the show together?

We tried to be really aware that the topic isn’t funny, by any means, but we also wanted to make sure that the show didn’t feel like medicine. We wanted to create a good conversation, and humor and lightness are often a part of that. There aren’t any particular moments of hilarity that come to mind, but I think all of us were trying to be aware of the role humor plays in challenging conversations.

The play's title on a curtain backdrop. You’re known for doing civic-minded shows like The War Project and Witness Our Schools. Was there anything different about this production, compared to past shows you’ve worked on?

Well, this is the first show where we’ve used voting as a form of audience participation. And an audience of two hundred is larger than we often use for participatory stuff. We often do forty, sixty, eighty tops. So two hundred people is a lot.

What’s up next for you?

I got a three-year grant from the Doris Duke Foundation that supports my work with the Lookingglass Theatre Company. We’re going to develop a civic practice lab, which will be a pilot program for arts institutions around the country to look at as we explore that particular kind of work. It’s cool. I’m excited. And a lot of the people I’m working with are old friends and colleagues, so it’s fun to work with them.