This week, the Northeastern University Theatre Department at the College of Arts, Media and Design debuts its first performance of the fall semester, Polaroid Stories, a blend of two kinds of tragedy: classical mythology and contemporary life on the street.
Assistant teaching professor Greg Allen, the first African-American male faculty member to direct a show for the department, says he was inspired to choose the play, which the Japanese-American playwright Naomi Iizuka wrote based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, because it reminded him of the public health and housing crisis in Boston, the visceral effects of which are highly visible at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, or “Mass and Cass” as it’s been shortened by locals. Allen felt Polaroid Stories would have a positive impact by promoting empathy for people experiencing poverty, addiction, and violence among not just audience members but the performers themselves.
This kind of community impact has driven Allen’s career since his time as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College, where he decided to major in theatre after a formative experience dealing with racial tensions on campus through a group performance showed him the power of the art form to make real change. “Being a biracial person, I landed all over the map in terms of my feelings about what was going on, and it was painful,” he says.
But after staging a show called All of Us Together, he experienced the catharsis of creative release. “Being on stage always brings us to our deepest thoughts, and those bring us to our best intention. It was just wonderful. At the end we were all on stage singing ‘Lift Every Voice’ and I couldn’t believe that it worked,” Allen remembers. “I realized that theatre can have a real impact on people.”
Since that first show, Allen has made that realization his guiding principle, working with middle school and high school students in Boston Public Schools for 17 years before coming to Northeastern, where he is proud to bring his unique perspective to the Theatre Department. “That’s an impact,” Allen says of his biracial identity, “something I’ve brought to the department that has been wonderful and responsive and productive. I have a home here.”
Allen says he accounted for educational opportunities for both the cast and crew, not just the interest of the show itself, when selecting Polaroid Stories. He also wanted to represent characters that would resonate with participants’ lived experiences so that students could develop the ability to imbue their characters with their own identities. “This is a theatre program, not a theatre season,” he says, noting the importance of making these experiences available to students through the shows put on by the department.
The cast and crew took the opportunity seriously, Allen says, largely leading the play’s development in the short 3-week period from casting to debut. The group watched the 1987 documentary Street Wise and did other research to help develop empathetic portrayals of youth living on the street. But it’s not just the tragic stories that propel the play’s action, Allen notes: “Language really drives it. We’re jumping from street slang to railing against the gods in classical Greek style of the chorus.”
The setting reflects this dually modern and traditional lens, combining them into a seamless reality of its own, where broken beer bottles belong as much as Greek columns. “I describe it to people as the multiverse,” says Allen. “It’s not unlike Doctor Strange or Spiderman.”
Starring Donovan Holt ‘23 as “D” (for Dionysus) and featuring characters named SKINHEADgirl as well as Euridice, the cast is finding new ways to ground this heady multiverse in authentic emotion with every rehearsal and performance.
“With repetition and audience response, the play continues to grow and the actors continue to hone their characters,” Allen enthuses. “That’s when the play really starts to sculpt itself.”
Polaroid Stories runs October 13-23 at the Studio Theatre in the Curry Student Center. Find tickets and more information here.