In fall of 2022, Theatre Horizon debuted TOWN on the lawn of Eisenhower Science and Technology Leadership Academy, a Norristown middle school. The performances featured more than 60 performers, nearly all of whom were non-professional actors from Norristown with personal stories to tell.
To tell those stories, playwright Michael John Garcés conducted more than 130 interviews with Norristonians, and the creative team learned everything they could about the town and its residents: touring historical sites, hosting open mic nights, and taking early morning birding walks with a naturalist. It’s one thing to make a play about Norristown, but Theatre Horizon wanted to make a play of Norristown, involving community members in every phase. Theatre Horizon’s artistic director Nell Bang-Jensen saw TOWN as a chance to transcend the “no-budget community theater” conventions that civic practice can imply.
“In exchange for people sharing their stories, for offering their vulnerability, for sharing themselves with us, we in turn have to offer our skills as theater creators to add magic and theatricality, to add a heightened language to showcase people at their best and most exciting,” Bang-Jensen says. “That's the exchange we can offer as artists and people who can imagine these different worlds: not to create something that's just reality, but to lift people out of it and get them to see themselves, their lives, their community in a new way.”
“It's vital to engage community members, specifically community members who haven't felt a sense of belonging at the theater,” Bang-Jensen continues. “We wanted them to be part of the process, and I thought the best way to do that is make a piece about Norristown and about their lives, because that's where their expertise is, and people love talking about themselves. I was careful to choose collaborators who have done this work in really intentional and inclusive ways.”
Garcés, for example, has been the artistic director of Cornerstone Theater Company, which specializes in community-centered theater work, since 2006. Music for TOWN was composed and performed by ILL DOOTS, a Philadelphia band with experience collaborating with community members to develop original compositions.
“I was interested in working with musicians who have a sound as eclectic as Norristown itself and who, in addition to being talented composers and sound designers, would understand the heart and mission of the project,” Bang-Jensen says. “The balance ILL DOOTS strikes as teaching artists in their own right, theater performers, and immensely talented instrumentalists made them the perfect fit for being part of this sprawling project and its development.”
Theatre Horizon paid everyone involved in the production, including children, offering stipends of $300–$1,000 to community participants, based on their time commitment. Inclusivity and support for less theater-savvy participants permeated virtually every aspect of the production. In their recruiting for the cast, for example, Theatre Horizon used the term “tryouts” rather than “auditions,” figuring people without theater experience might find it a more approachable term. And while the play was loosely inspired by Our Town, they billed it publicly as simply a play about Norristown, so as not to push away anyone not already familiar with the Thornton Wilder play.
“I think to dive into Thornton Wilder with those community members would have quickly felt like trying to get people to do homework or eat their spinach,” Bang-Jensen says. “We were all really careful to say we want to do a play about you and your life and Norristown. The connections to Our Town were great as a starting place for us as artists and a framework and a container, but less relevant to the actors who ended up in the show.”
Thoughtful communication with the public is critical for community-driven projects, and how an organization listens and responds to feedback is as important as what it initially says. When Theatre Horizon first conceived TOWN, it sited the play at a municipal parking lot, drawn to its central location, proximity to Theatre Horizon, and familiarity to residents. Through interviews, story circles, and workshops with prospective cast and audience members, however, the team realized that the original parking lot—adjacent to a courthouse where many residents have had traumatic experiences—would not be the neutral site they’d hoped for. This led to the production’s relocation to a middle school (formerly Norristown’s public high school) known by several generations of residents. Since that relocation, Theatre Horizon has also started a drama club for students at Eisenhower, its first theater program in 20 years.
Many performers and audience members alike are already seeing Norristown—and themselves—differently. Marisol Rosa-Shapiro, who served as community coordinator for the project in addition to performing in TOWN, conducted audience interviews after the performances and recalls a conversation with a young teacher who has many family members in Norristown, including someone in the show.
“I think this production really gives people hope,” he told her. “Young people in Norristown don't get to see a lot of positive representations of themselves and the place that they're from.”
Rosa-Shapiro is not a Norristown resident herself, but her role in the project demanded she get to know Norristown and its residents well. She attended city council meetings and local civic and cultural events, joined every local Facebook group she could find, engaged with Theatre Horizon’s existing network, forged new connections outside of it, conducted one-on-one interviews, and led story circles.
“Every night, being up there on stage with everybody, it was just like, I wish we could just do this forever,” Rosa-Shapiro says. “It's so deeply joyful. It really was, to me, just unforgettable, just so special. Probably the most special thing I've ever been involved in.”
Yasmin Brown is one of the non-professional actors in the play. A four-decade resident of Norristown, she played Isaac Norris, for whom the town was named. By day, she’s an early education teacher at the school that shares a building with Theatre Horizon, right upstairs.
“We take walks with the kids every day. We would have people stopping in their cars while they were driving. ‘Hey, weren’t you the one that was in TOWN?’” Brown says. “We just went to the library with the kids, and a young lady said, ‘Oh my goodness, you're the actor from TOWN.’ And she told me how she knew the person that one of the stories was about. It was her neighbor. She was like, ‘I know that's him, because he talks about that Janet girl all the time.’ It seems like I'm constantly having somebody say something about it.”
Brown is one of many contributors who shaped the play, including in her role on the 14-person community advisory board, which offered insights and feedback on TOWN’s development, helping to ensure the play was accessible to the community that inspired it. She’s seen firsthand how Theatre Horizon works with the community. The theater company offers its stage to her school for its holiday performances and graduation ceremonies, engages students there in theater making exercises, and even helped set up classroom space and desks in the theater for the students to attend their elementary school classes via Zoom during the pandemic. From there, a drama club emerged.
“I'm such an advocate for the theater,” Brown says, “because now it’s truly trying to make something open and accessible and welcoming to the folks in town.”
Support for the school above it is part of a larger Theatre Horizon initiative to become a “third space” for the local residents, somewhere to spend time that isn’t one’s home or workplace, somewhere people can gather and form a community, not just a crowd. Theatre Horizon’s community advisory board, of which Brown is a member, was formed as part of this initiative. Bang-Jensen notes the history of regional theater organizations setting up shop in places like Norristown—whose population is 34 percent Black and 26 percent Latino, according to recent Census data, compared with 10 and 6 percent in Montgomery County as a whole—then presenting work for largely white audiences. In recent years, Theatre Horizon (founded in 2005) is working toward recentering itself to better align with the Norristown community, emerging as a leader in the regional theater field.
“What are the events that will foster a sense of belonging for everybody? We are a theater, so my hope is the arts can get there, but I also recognize that may not be the first invitation for folks,” Bang-Jensen says. “It might start with a place for my kid to have supervision or do a drama club. It might start with a place to get a vaccine. It might start with a place to go to an open mic.”
Sometimes, the play itself is what brings people together, even if those connections are separate from the theater work. A local group for runners that appears in the play, for example, has added several new members since the premiere. Another actor found participants for the weekly line dancing class she organizes at a local senior center, just from talking to other performers on the project.
Bang-Jensen was excited to see the individual growth of the performers as they developed the play. “There was a really satisfying moment when working with one of the students in our autism drama program,” she says. “He had a line about being bored, then there was a moment where he had another line, participating in the conversation a few lines later. He realized he needed to make an emotional shift. He had a conversation with his guardian, who would come to every rehearsal, about, ‘I think if I put my head in my hands when I'm bored, the audience will know that. And then I'm going to look up before I say my next line to show that I'm interested.’ It sounds really simple, but this guardian was like, ‘That was a profound socio-emotional development: This kid on the autism spectrum really thought about how other people were reading emotions on him. He hadn't made a connection like that before.’”
Bang-Jensen observed the actors’ progression beyond their individual roles as they learned how to relate to one another and put the whole of the play above any of their own parts.
“I started seeing them making choices. I knew we really got there when one of the kids was like, ‘Actually, I think it makes more sense for Jetta to say this line not me because she's the one telling this story. That was really exciting to me to watch how they started to see that they were telling a story outside of themselves, that they were in service to the play and to the piece and to the community we had built.” Months after TOWN’s premiere, Theatre Horizon is still feeling its effects. It employs many of the play’s participants as front-of-house staff, teaching artists, and performers. Seven of them performed in Theatre Horizon’s holiday concert. Cast and crew from the play regularly gather at the theater for shows, pot lucks, and reunions. The company’s community advisory board remains active, too, and the theater has incorporated many recommendations already, including a new mural in the lobby, light boxes and banners outside to showcase artistic work, and a new residency program specifically for Norristown artists.
“People have begun to come to us with ideas for the theater, even without us asking,” Bang-Jensen says. “The fact that people feel like they can do that—and this space is for them—is something I do not take for granted. TOWN has made us question at every turn why we're making the decisions we're making, who was part of each decision-making process, and who, ultimately, will benefit. If we are truly serving our community, we need to consistently and relentlessly be in conversation with them.”