THANKS TO an early, freakish interest in campaign work and progressive nonprofits, I've been to more town hall meetings, city council hashings-it-out, and state legislature hearings than is strictly practical, at least for someone who wasn't reporting the news (I've done that, too). Occasionally, these meetings were productive; often, they were insufferable. Parks and Recreation does not lie.
And when I saw Sojourn Theatre's How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes at the Portland Playhouse during its opening weekend, I was reminded of why this is: The people who show up to these "official" meetings, week after week, are usually the same dedicated mass of advocacy groups, hardcore NIMBYs, and conspiracy theorists.
Well, fuck that (process-based) noise. How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes bills itself as many things, but it's really a sneaky way of getting those of us who would rather do anything but voluntarily show up at a city council meeting (and, okay, a few who would go without making a fuss) into a room to actually talk—to each other, even!—about alleviating poverty where we live. And not just to talk about fighting poverty, but to come to a consensus about how best to allocate $1,000 from ticket sales to actually do it.
In How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes, audience members are assigned to teams (a shoutout to my pals on Team Yellow!), and led through facilitated discussions; between conversations, the ensemble performs short segments that humanize the experience of poverty, and, in some cases, straight-up explain what it is. All this culminates in an audience-wide vote to decide where the money goes. That may seem a little after-school special, but you know what? There are plenty of things that could happen to you during a play—getting spat on, having to pee really badly, having a stranger fall asleep on your shoulder, getting sososo bored—that are way worse than, you know, learning something.
With that in mind, introverts who are allergic to participatory theater and those who worry they'll be preached at should calm down: The deluded sanctimony that sometimes clouds public discussions, from city hall to online comment sections, is wondrously absent. And yes, you have to take part in group discussions, but these conversations are mercifully short—so short that I, an avowed hater of small talk, actually thought to myself once or twice, "Gee, I wish this compulsory discussion time with strangers was longer." WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?
The better question is what is right about How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes? And the answer is almost everything. Involuntary, surprising self-reflection is, after all, the whole damn point of going to theater. It's not to swoon over costumes or count down the minutes until we can go do something else—although too often, that's what it ends up being.
At the end of the performance, we voted to give our $1,000 to direct aid—that is, to an organization that gives funds straight to people living in poverty who've determined for themselves what would be most helpful. Our donation went to someone identified only by his first name, who'd requested funds to help pay for a security deposit so that he could move from transitional to market-level housing. After the vote, someone in my section asked our facilitator if the outcome changes much from performance to performance. She said that it does, but that our vote was "the biggest landslide" she'd seen. We'd come to an overwhelming consensus, without needing weeks of community meetings to process our options. We only had 90 minutes. But then, the drama of How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes is an illusion: It's one of the few situations where it's impossible not to do the right thing.