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Theatre Creates Community

I was just going to drop off sandwiches, but I ended up staying.

As Managing Director of Educational Theatre Company, I plan a lot. I make connections, I talk up our programming, and then I pass it off to a Teaching Artist to execute. I show up at the performance and take photos. I’ve never been a participant in an ETC program, until now.

I showed up on the first day of our Devising Hope program in partnership with Challenging Racism with excitement. It has been a program, years in the making…literally.

During the height of Covid-19, ETC became a part of Arlington County’s DRE Together program, and I trained to lead conversations in our community on how to dismantle racism. I knew that ETC could use theatre to help put a lens on the racial disparities in Arlington. Our teaching artists would thrive at this project because telling the stories of our participants is what ETC does best! Enter Challenging Racism, the non-profit that led training sessions for the county, and a growing partnership began.

Together our nonprofits created “Devising Hope: The Stories that Bind Us: Race, Reflection, and Resilience” and we were fortunate to find funding for the program through the Arlington County AWARE grant (Artists Working to Address and Reimagine Equity).

As we hunted for a partnership organization to kick off this program, I went back to one of the longest connections ETC already had, our partnership with AHC, Inc.

We already had a history - 15 plus years of ETC programming for youth and adults. It didn’t take much to convince them that this would be an engaging way to hear from their participants at the AHC Serrano Apartment complex.

On the first day I showed up with food anxiously awaiting who might appear to participate. The ETC Teaching Artist, Kullan, and the Challenging Racism workshop leader, Dawn, and I waited for the participants to arrive. We had a list of 8 people who wanted to come, but it was time to start dinner and no one was there. Kullan asked me to stay in case the group was small and a little hesitant to participate in the theatre exercises. Each session had a vocal and physical warm up so they could get comfortable to open up and create an ensemble with each other.

Only 4 participants showed up that first day, but as we started eating our food, the magic happened. Immediately the participants were bursting with information and stories. Kullan and Dawn even had to pause the conversations to go back to the beginning and explain what would take place over the next 3 sessions. At one point, Kullan checked her phone to triple check that it was recording because she kept hearing great story after great story! She obviously didn’t need to worry about them being hesitant, they just started talking and didn’t want to stop!

I heard firsthand what it was like to be Black growing up in Arlington County or to be a woman from Colombia leaving her family and coming to the US to establish a new life. The group organically gave space for people to share their stories and discuss commonalities among race, gender, and even age.

Everyone left the room buzzing and couldn’t wait to return next week. Including me! But wait, I was just delivering the sandwiches. I wasn’t teaching the session, I didn’t have to be there, but I wanted to be there and connect again. I needed to soak up the stories and hear every last word. I did what I never do as Managing Director, I became a participant!

Over the next 3 sessions, we played theatre games - we repeated tongue twisters, shaped imaginary clay into objects, walked around the room with different levels of status and then settled down to share stories and discuss the Challenging Racism topic of the day. The residents were skeptical at the theatre games at first, but were willing to try and ended up having fun and laughing at their silliness.

We internalized systematic racism and how it affects so many aspects of our life that we don’t always even recognize it; from the education system, transportation, housing and much more. We acknowledged the disparities, and even had uncomfortable conversations where we disagreed with each other. We examined how our upbringing and parents shaped who we are.

The emotion of the participants stories, how they lost friends at a young age just because of the color of their skin, that they could never read until they self-taught themselves as an adult, how a message on a white board allowed a participant to connect with her father who had lung cancer, were real and raw. There were cathartic tears.

By the 3rd session, the participants were entering the room ready to connect - joking with each other and the staff, eating sandwiches and complaining about how good but hot the hot peppers were! We were bonding - we knew who would eat all the pickles and who would take home the hot peppers to make his amazing chili, and that everyone would take at least one (or three) Dove heart chocolates. The food, funded by The Foley-Hoag Foundation, became just as much of an ice breaker as anything else - it opened the group up and created a common bond.

As Kullan approached the performance, she knew we were onto something. We had a week off where she had the huge task to take the conversations, which she recorded, and turn them into a devised script. The group gave her so much content that she had to pick and choose which stories to include.

We planned a rehearsal a week before the performance to read over the script, but would anyone want to perform? We had a few ETC actors who were coming to read, but I didn’t want it to be just them on stage! We needed residents of AHC represented, our ETC actors didn’t live through these moments, they did!

But the participants came, they had missed each other during our week off. It was a scary but freeing thing for the group to see and hear their words. Even though the script was anonymous, they still had the instinct to protect their stories and make sure they were told just right. It was a piece of them they were putting out in the world to be heard. They listened and read the script, and at our performance, there were 9 actors on the stage.

It wasn’t the most polished performance (they had only rehearsed once), they weren’t all actors, they tripped up on their words and spoke off the cuff instead of what was in the script, but that wasn’t the point. The performance was real and raw. You could see the pride on their faces. The audience got a first hand point of view of the struggles the participants had experiencing racism in their Arlington communities, but they also heard hope - lots of it. Hope that by connecting and having conversations they will continue to see each other’s experiences and reflect on their own. They had truly devised hope! Theatre can do that for a group of people, it creates community, it supports open honest dialogue, and gives people the courage to speak up and make a change.

Isn’t that what we need more of right now? Community conversations…and sandwiches.

- Ashley Hammond


If you know of an organization that would like to participate in a Devising Hope session or if you know of any funders who might want to help this program continue, please reach out to the ETC office at or by calling 703-271-0222.


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