The relief of play

ROiL members act for change in Baton Rouge
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  April 5, 2006

Though it has largely faded from the media’s radar, the diaspora of displaced New Orleans residents still needs a lot. There are more than 1700 residents of Renaissance Village, an emergency trailer park on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, created by FEMA in the Katrina’s aftermath. Among other things, they need decent medical care, effective schools, and security from the violence and confusion that’s plagued the temporary villages. With such basic necessities hard to come by, other vital human needs — for community, self-expression, and play — go sadly unfulfilled.

It was to address these needs that Portland residents Joanna Horton and Tessy Seward, members of the Portland theater activist group ROiL, recently traveled to the outskirts of Baton Rouge. For six days in February, they worked with ROiL co-founder Caitlin Corrigan to bring the theatrical arts to the young people of the FEMA park, in hopes of helping Renaissance Village live up to its impromptu name.

Horton, Seward, and Corrigan got used to chaos and disorganization pretty quickly. They’d planned on following a specific workshop template, which would engage teens in turning their Katrina stories into a performance, but soon saw all bets were off, and that they would best meet the community’s needs and circumstances by adapting. When they showed up for what they thought would be their first teen workshop, it was raining, and there were no kids in sight. Undaunted, they got out their umbrellas and hit the pavement, and a little later held their first “workshop” — a session with a six-year-old and his nine-year-old brother, which they devoted entirely to theater games.

As they drew more kids, play became the theme of the week, and together they mimed, made animal noises, and created nonsense stories in rounds. Some games the ROiLers taught the kids, and others the kids taught the ROiLers. The three women didn’t try to force them to talk about Katrina and its aftermath, or to project their own needs onto the young people. Instead, they followed where the kids’ needs seemed to lead, and again and again it took them back to play, engagement, the sharing of tricks and antics. “We went there with our own idea of a workshop,” said Horton, “but just to be with them was what they needed, and enough.”

When ROiL members reconvene in the outskirts of Baton Rouge, April 16 through 24, there will be more structure and support for the group’s vision. The theater activists will be working with the collaboration of the youth organization Big Buddy, whose director will help enroll teenagers — both displaced youths and residents — in workshops that will lead to actual performances. ROiL will also have the help of volunteers from Louisiana State University, who are being recruited to assist with the workshops. The group hopes that involving local activists will lead to regionally grounded precedents for social change, through theater, that can be continued long after its members have headed back north. “As connected as we feel to this region,” said Seward, “the most productive thing we can do, ultimately, is to train people to continue these projects on an ongoing basis.”

ROiL’s long-term vision also includes cultural exchanges between Maine and Louisiana students this summer. They hope to bring refugee and other immigrant youths into contact with the teens of southeastern Louisiana to open a broader conversation about loss and displacement, and to help foster a sense of community that is not just regional, but much larger in scope.

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