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Community-based theatre: professor’s play centers on Fairbanks Flats history

March 26, 2012

Community involvement is vital to creating theatre for Amy Sarno, an associate professor of theatre arts, pictured here.

Amy Sarno 

For nearly a decade, Sarno has been working with the residents of a west-side neighborhood of Beloit who were fighting to renovate Fairbanks Flats, a formerly segregated housing complex constructed in 1917 for Fairbanks Morse Engine’s African- American workers.

In 2007, members of the Fairbanks Flats Revitalization Committee enlisted Sarno to educate the community on the history of the housing complex through a play. Sarno’s prior involvement with the community—combined with her history of doing community-based theatre—made her the right person for the task.

The play, titled Do You See What I’m Saying?, evolved from a collection of oral histories from people who lived in the Flats. Sarno collected the oral histories in collaboration with 2007-08 Fulbright Scholar Darren Kelley and a number of students.

Sarno’s task was to create a play that represents the issues and ideas of the community from their own perspective. The challenging part of this was to balance the issues that are important to the community with dramatic themes in the play.Sarno also found that everyone in the community has a different version of a story; understanding how everyone in the community is connected to one another is vital to ensuring the information is accurate.

In order to tackle these difficulties, Sarno has an ongoing dialogue with the people in the community, and she works with a group who reads and responds to her drafts of the play. Sarno will be writing her third—and, hopefully, final—draft this summer. By 2013, Sarno expects to have a final product that can be shopped around at different theatres.

“The tricky thing about community-based theatre is that the community has to lead,” Sarno says. “Sometimes things slow down.”

Do You See What I’m Saying? was previously introduced to the Beloit College community in a 2009 reading of an earlier draft.