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Community-based theatre: One professor’s play takes on Fairbanks Flats’ oral histories

March 27, 2012

Community involvement is vital to creating community-based theatre for Amy Sarno, an associate professor of theatre arts.

For nearly a decade, Sarno has been working with the residents of a west-side neighborhood of Beloit who are fighting to renovate the Fairbanks Flats, a 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.

Amy Sarno 

The play, titled Do You See What I’m Saying?, evolved from a collection of over 70 oral histories from people who lived in the Fairbanks Flats or had involvement with the flats such as city councilors and bank representatives. Sarno collected the oral histories in collaboration with 2007-08 Fulbright Scholar Darren Kelley and 27 students.

Sarno’s task was to create a play that explores how much we think history has changed despite the fact that it changes very little. The challenging part of this was for Sarno to figure out how to take ideals that develop over time and make them dramatic. Sarno found that there are many versions of the same story, and some of them are not historically accurate but are dramatically interesting. If the goal is to educate the community, however, Sarno said identifying fact from fiction becomes very important.  

In order to tackle these difficulties, Sarno has an ongoing dialogue with the people in the community. She works with a group of about 10 community members who read and respond to her drafts of the play. The number shifts from time to time, as the group members sometimes invite their friends. 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 part of an early draft.

Source:  Amy Sarno is an associate professor of theatre arts. She teaches both performance and media studies, including courses like Acting I, II, and III and Theories of Contemporary Performance, Taking Action, Audience Studies and Selling Performance in Media. She directs a play each semester. Sarno is also involved in community-based theatre, which comprises much of her research. Her other current projects are on survivors of domestic violence and the erasure of women from history. Sarno can serve as a media resource on topics relating to her teaching and research interests.