You’re at a garden party in a friend’s front yard, engaging in light-hearted conversation between sips of a fruit-flavored cocktail. Without warning, you’re jolted from the comfort of small talk by a man on the sidewalk yelling at a woman who looks like she might be living out of her car.
You’re shocked to hear his abusive and belittling shouts and feel a sense of relief when a passerby confronts him. Glancing around, you notice the stunned faces of those at the gathering seem to mirror your confusion and mixed feelings about homelessness in Long Beach.
What you haven’t realized yet is that you were never truly a party goer, but an unwitting audience member watching the first four minutes of a play called “Charisma” by Long Beach playwright Fionnuala Kenny put on by a recently-launched theater group, East Village Caravanserai.
The experiment was one of many small salons, play readings, performances and fundraisers co-founders Sherry Diamond and Victoria Bryan have organized over the past almost three years to gauge the community’s response to their mission: To provide accessible, site-specific theater with an eye to encourage constructive dialogue on current controversies.
“We took a very volatile issue, where reasonable minds might disagree, and had a more genuine and deepened understanding of what the challenges are for each of those two characters,” said Diamond, who played the homeless woman.
Their first public event on Saturday, “Dido & Aeneas” started out in the street in the chilly night air with performers singing and engaging pedestrians on Long Beach Boulevard before coaxing them to enter The Found Theatre to experience the rest of the short opera.
For Diamond and Bryan, Caravanserai is about engaging more audiences than those who have the financial means to seek out cultural experiences by making their events free to attend, as well as including people off the street, as Bryan calls it, “the unintended audience who can stumble upon it because we’re going to play the work so that they may.”
And while the nonprofit is not the only local arts group attempting to tackle social justice issues in varying ways, the Long Beach Opera and University Art Museum as examples, East Village Caravanserai is bringing theater into the mix.
“This is no criticism of Long Beach Opera, but I can’t afford it,” Diamond said. “[If there’s] a social justice themed-production that people interested in affecting social change can’t be a part of then we have to fill in those gaps.”
Although an ancient story, in “Dido & Aeneas” exile, displacement and family violence are themes played out by students from the University of Redlands, directed by former Arts Council for Long Beach board president Marco Schindelmann, as an approach to addressing recent headlines involving the refugee experience.
“What can we do about homelessness?” Diamond said. “What can we do about our ‘Dreamers?’ What can we do about incarcerated children at the border, the school-to-prison pipeline, all these things that we can come to a deeper understanding of through theater and not a 3-hour production in Los Angeles with parking and a 2-hour drive each way and dinner, but in 4 minutes, or 10 minutes, a 10-minute play that just hones in on the issue.”
The word “caravanserai” is Persian and describes the roadside inns built along trade routes throughout the Middle East where travelers could find shelter for a night, share stories and pass on information. Bryan, who lived in Iran for six years and recently traveled to Armenia with Diamond, was inspired by this ancient method of storytelling.
“We like that concept for our idea of theater, a coming-together, theater that speaks to all of our shared issues and concerns and then we take that information on with us, or on to other parts of our lives,” Bryan said.
And both have seen the positive effects theater can have on the psyche.
Bryan founded STOP-GAP in 1979 where she provided weekly drama therapy programs for victims of abuse, refugees and seniors in Santa Ana. In Long Beach, she’s an educator at Cal State Long Beach and also the former executive director of the Arts Council.
Diamond met Bryan in 1998 through STOP-GAP where, as a registered drama therapist, joined to develop the program’s drama therapy component. Diamond also serves with Bryan on the board of directors of Long Beach’s Garage Theatre.
Caravanserai’s second production, an opera by Mozart called “Idomeneo”, will take place on Saturday, April 13 at 6 p.m. at the East Village Art Park, 150 Elm Ave., while knowing attendees and unsuspecting passersby can expect to run into more salons, theater performances, short plays, spoken word and other events throughout the year.
“We anticipate the East Village will be the heart of our work so the Art Park is a great example of that,” Bryan said. “It can be a living room, it can be a front yard, it can be a restaurant, those are the kinds of spaces that we have used and will continue to use. That’s not to say we might not at some point go beyond that.”
Those interested in collaborating with East Village Caravanserai, including dancers, artists and other performers, can email [email protected].
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