Affordable Housing Debate, Coming To A Theater Near You

Nathan Adkisson

By Nathan AdkissonThe Daily Northwestern

Most Evanston residents would go to a City Council meeting to discuss affordable housing, but a group of amateur actors has decided to take a different approach.

This spring, Evanston’s Next Theatre Company will feature a play about zoning, development and the future of housing. The play will be part of Next’s outreach program, which seeks to put non-professional actors in professional venues.

Julie Ganey, who has worked in theater for much of her life, organized the project and will direct it. She said she got the idea in October.

“I went into the communities of Rogers Park and Evanston and started asking people what the issues are and what was most talked about, and they said affordable housing,” said Ganey, a Chicago resident. “So I started gathering people from those areas.”

The cast includes 17 people from different backgrounds. They include a real estate developer, a family homeowner, someone who used to be homeless and a person who uses a wheelchair.

The play has not been written yet, so rehearsals are times when participants can tell their stories and express their ideas.

“We come together, we do some theater exercises,” Ganey said. “Then we always have a big discussion. We’ve spent the last couple weeks talking about facts.”

The group had its third rehearsal Saturday at the Howard Area Community Center in Rogers Park. All the members were still getting to know each other, so Ganey brought up several issues concerning Evanston housing.

“Evanston has development by displacement,” Ganey said. “In Evanston what seems to be moving families out is the taxes. Families who have been here for 30 years are moving because of the taxes. The Hispanic population is the fastest growing population in Evanston. The commercial development is way behind the residential development. We want to discuss these issues.”

The play is not intended to force a particular view on its audience, she said.

“We are not creating a message piece,” Ganey said. “It’s not like we’ve got a viewpoint that we’re going to put up on stage. It can hold a lot of different views. One of the goals is to get the audience talking. The audience can say, ‘I heard my viewpoint up there,’ and afterward we can have a discussion where people don’t have to yell.”

The group will have five rehearsals, after which Ganey and playwright Ebony Joy will write the script. Ganey leads discussion at rehearsals through a series of games and activities, and Joy, of Evanston, records ideas in a notebook and on video.

Joy said she still does not know what form the play will take. “It’s a piece of marble,” she said. “I’m letting the sculpture come to me.”

Participant Eva McCann, a Rogers Park resident, said she hopes the play will start conversations between people with different perspectives.

“Conversations can get pretty heated,” she said. “This is an interesting and unique way to get people to talk about controversial topics.”

Joy also said she sees the play as a social service.

“The human element is more important than the final product,” Joy said.

Tim Higgins, of Evanston, who works at Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern, is an actor in the ensemble. He said she thinks everyone in the audience will identify with one character.

“You get together with people you see on the street but usually wouldn’t talk to,” he said. “We are presenting the issues as we see them, and that engages the audience.”

McCann said she also hopes the play will generate social dialogue.

“Maybe a light bulb will go on over their heads and they will say, ‘Hey, we need to discuss this,'” she said.

The play is scheduled to be performed May 19 at Next Theatre in Evanston and May 20 at Lifeline Theatre in Rogers Park.

Reach Nathan Adkisson at [email protected]