Millennials showing the world they can change it

Alex Shade

Alex is a member of the Baltimore-based theatre collective called “The Oven” that produces shows with the goal of creating social change. 

Q: Tell me some background information on your form of activism.

A: We are called The Oven Theatre Company and we call ourselves a social action theatre company. The work, shows, and performances that we do are all in the realm of social activism. We want to use our work to get people talking about things within the community. We recently won the “The Justice For All Award 2016” presented by The Bad Oracle for a stage working for social change in Baltimore.

The way we try to do that is we sit down at a table and honestly say some of the things we think need to be talked about in our specific community. Who are the audiences we should be reaching? Who are the audiences we can reach? What are the best ways to make sure we are getting the message to people who need to hear it and to people who can and want to do something about it?

We do a lot of different improvisation exercises, journaling exercises, and exercises where we interrogate each other as characters to find people we want to play, things that we think are important. and interesting lenses to look at the topic through. We research, write, perform, design, travel and produce all of our own shows.

Q: It sounds like you figure out what topic you want to do a certain performance about through discussion.

A: Pretty much. We try to all stay in touch with things that are going in the world at large, typically in America and specifically in our own communities. Even when we don’t have a show that we’re currently rehearsing, we make sure that we meet four nights a week. We find connections through our group conversations about what we really want to talk about and we try to further the research through a lens of how these are common connections we found with each other.

Q: It seems like you’re creating a safe space with each other and this group to bring these concepts to life.

A: Oh yeah. Our first show called “Commodities” was about the commercial sex industry and the human trafficking of children within that. One of the reasons we decided to do that is because it is overwhelmingly prevalent in Baltimore and the general Maryland and D.C. area because we have many large international airports, popular successful sports teams, the National Aquarium and the I-95 corridor. There is so much that happens in this area, so it comes through here and it’s a hot spot for human trafficking.

One of our concerns was how we were going to convey this. How were we going to play characters that have lived this life without getting it wrong, being insensitive or using these stories without taking away their voices? How do we do it in a way where we’re doing it justice and getting it right? We approached it from a standpoint of how these people’s lives have been overwhelmingly traumatic, and regardless of who you are or where you’re from, everyone has experienced at least a little bit of trauma in some way, shape or form. So we decided to approach the show as if we were these characters and looked into what could have happened to us younger in life that could have changed the course of our lives. Most of the time, children who are coerced into the commercial sex industry are between the ages of 11 and 13. We started putting possible scenarios onto our own lives and we had to open up a lot and delve really deep into our own lives, experiences, and traumas to understand how these characters are really living in this world.

Q: I think it’s beautiful how you all are using performance to reflect the human experience.

A: Going to school for theatre, one of the largest things I learned there is that’s really all theatre is. The reason people go to theatre is about seeing yourself on stage. It’s about being able to see yourself in the characters in front of you. It’s about understanding something about the world through the lens of somebody else because of a shared experience. That’s just the human experience.

We tried to turn these characters into people rather than just victims or survivors; they are humans also. Something that seems to do for the people in the audience is to make them say “I’ve never thought about it this way. I didn’t realize that this was such a big issue.” We want to get people to see these victims and survivors in a way that they could relate to as opposed to saying these people are statistics of the things that are happening. I think something very important and interesting about doing activism through theater is conveying to people that yes, this issue is happening and yes, it may seem like it has nothing to do with you and it might not seem like it is happening around you, but when you see it in this lens of shared human experience and this shared common humanity, it kind of asks people to do a little bit more and it asks people to care a little bit more. Not in a pulling or pushy way, but we’re all here together.

Q: I’m curious as to how you decided to pursue this avenue of your craft and this pursuit of activism. How is it that you discovered this opportunity for yourself?

A: When I was in college, I took a bunch of different kinds of classes in the theatre department to see what I liked and I took a class called Theatre for Social Change. In my 4.5 years there, that was probably the most impactful class that I had. It made me think of all of these people who told me “you can’t major in theatre, you’re not going to do anything with that,” and after that class I felt like “well yes I can.” I can do something with this. I can do something that’s not me fighting a bunch of other actors in New York just to be in a Broadway show. I can do something that’s a little different and use what I love to do to really say and do something. The kind of stuff we do isn’t so much like “let’s put on a performance,” it’s more like “let’s research, write, create, perform, and start a conversation.” This is what I want to be doing.

Q: What are some of the other topics you’ve covered in your performances?

A: We started meeting in the summer of 2015 when we decided to write the play about human trafficking. The original production of it was called “Gone” and it had a whole stage production with lights, sound cues, props and set pieces. Then once we decided to start touring it, we couldn’t do all of that so we brought just the five of us and our costumes, makeup, and a chair for each of us and started performing it a little differently and began calling the show “Commodities.” We have been very busy with that for a year.

Whereas “Gone” and “Commodities” were more about talking about human trafficking with five different people’s stories within it, this next show is about these five different people, the same cast as “Commodities,” and we’re each writing our own little play with our own characters in their own worlds and throwing them all into the same room and we’re seeing how they affect each other and how they react to each other. We’re trying to have reactions to reactions to the election and the current political climate. It’s a little further removed than just “fuck Donald Trump” or “I can’t believe this is happening,” and more so looking at characters and people in the world who are seemingly very different, probably don’t know each other in real life, and are geographically from different places in the country or different classes or cultures or religions. All of them are still facing different things in their lives right now that our government isn’t willing to address, look at, or is actively working against them for. We’re trying to cover things like toxic masculinity, the struggles of coming out and suicide rates, abortion, addiction in families, activism, and intersectionality. We’re trying to put all of these people together to give a broader feeling, so maybe all of us are not so different after all.

Q: I think it’s interesting that you are using perspective as a means to examine very complex issues.

A: We’ve learned that with the kind of work that we do and the way we do theatre, we don’t want to yell in people’s faces and say, “get up and fight back.” What we’ve found that works best is to just learn about this person a little bit and learn to feel some empathy for this person and what this person is going through. We try to say, “let’s just take a step back and take a look at some people’s lives,” and hopefully if we do it well enough through the art that we make, people will become a little more empathetic and understanding as to how this is supposed to be, what’s going on, and how we can look at it through seeing a character on stage. But seeing them on stage and seeing other parts of them and other sides of them hopefully will spark, “oh, maybe you’re like this for a reason, or maybe you’re just as scared as I am.”

Q: Through this connection to your audience, you’re affecting them on an individual level. The more people who see these performances can create big waves of cultural change through individual perspective.

A: It’s really hard to get the word out there especially in a society that doesn’t really value theater in the way that it does film or music. It’s often hard to get people to care about theatre as much as we do and to get audience turnout. I don’t know a lot of people my age who aren’t actors who think, “let’s go see a play on Friday night,” and on top of that, “let’s go see a super sad and depressing play about human trafficking.” Once people come in and see the show, they usually leave saying, “that was something like I’ve never seen before, thank you so much for that.” We are all so beyond thankful for that and we are all so humbled that we get to do this and that we have managed to create things that make people not only look at theatre a little bit differently, but look at these preconceived notions of what they thought previously a little differently.

Q: What advice would you give to someone else who is also very passionate about activism in their own way, but may not know where to start?

A: Since becoming this kind of an actor and theatre artist, I have found myself doing a lot of different kinds of activism but I realized that I have kind of messed it up a little bit. I have been to a handful of protests, rallies, and marches and I have tried to have a more political-activist presence on my social media and in groups of people, but I’m not the most well-spoken or the most well-versed in those situations. I’ve noticed that the kind of activism that I do with the theatre company is really powerful and it really changes people’s hearts and that’s what I’m good at. What I’ve come to notice is there’s a way to be an activist and to think that you’re being helpful but to really be harmful. I’ve tried to stay away from doing things that I’m not all that great at, but I’ve noticed that I have some really great friends who are very well-spoken and are great at getting up in front of crowds and making very long, well-written think pieces to get a point across, so I leave that to them.

It’s important to care what you’re talking about, but I’ve found the most success in being an activist by doing it through what I’m really good at because that’s the best way I can get across what I’m trying to say. My biggest piece of advice that I can give to someone wanting to get into activism is to begin by looking at what you already like doing and what you’re already good at, then figuring what you can do with that.