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Theater piece uses real interviews to encourage conversation on religious and political topics

The recent theater production at Eastern was a testament to the power of human words.

The Testimony Project was performed January 22 on a bare stage to a small, onstage audience. The performers used verbatim readings of interviews to tackle today’s most controversial religious and political debates.

“We thought that if one made a theater piece that interviewed people on the fundamentalist right, Christians, non-Christians, maybe they would all come, and maybe they would listen, and maybe they would talk to each other,” co-writer and director Stephen Wangh, a professor of arts at NYU, said.

Participating sophomore Elizabeth Loughridge agreed.

“We wanted to start conversation, have people decide what they agree with and what they think,” she said.

Wangh said that as he worked on plays such as the Laramie Project and watched the 2004 elections, he began to have questions about the way politics and religion interacted.

“Religion is making people choose, in America, how to vote, and in other places, the way in which they die,” he said. “I wondered where it came from.”

Wangh contacted Kristen Dombek, a professor of writing at Princeton and a friend from NYU, and found she was interested in similar questions. They decided to explore those questions and to raise them in others.

“We were interested in showing non-Christians how much faith they operate with and to show Christians what they share with non-Christians,” Dombek said.

According to Dombek, the two approached Mark Hallen, director of Eastern Theatre, about the idea because Hallen was a friend of Dombek. They also felt that Eastern, because of its diversity of students, had the right atmosphere for their production.

Participants included alum, friends of the writers and students from actor’s lab. They were asked to conduct interviews over Christmas break on the beliefs of one or two people whose opinions differed from their own.

The participants then rehearsed for five days, developing scenes, skits and monologues based on the reading of their interviews. The result was an array of opinions on topics ranging from the Rapture to homosexuality.

“The work of interviewing people and embodying people with beliefs different from you is an act of compassion,” Dombek said. “It works at getting people to empathize and understand people who are different from them.”

Several of the actors agreed.

“It was a unique opportunity to show people that there are a lot of different ways to be a Christian,” Loughridge said.

Many who had been interviewed were invited to watch the performance, and an open time of discussion followed.

Dombek and Wangh call the production a “work in progress” and hope to develop the piece further, even though they do not know where that will lead them yet.

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