‘Cultural Conversations’ festival aims to foster current-events discussion via visual, performance arts

Local artists will use various forms of performance to talk about guns and gun ownership, a discussion of freedom, safety and security with the seventh annual “Cultural Conversations.” The program, titled “The Right to Remain Violent: Gun Control F/or a New Civilization,” will offer a new way to talk about how guns define who we are now and who we will be in the future.

The program’s aim is to foster and promote new works dealing with themes of local and global diversity. It’s an opportunity for artists to showcase their work, but it’s also an opportunity for Penn State students and faculty and the community to be educated and informed of serious issues that affect our daily lives.

The program is led by Susan Russell, assistant professor in Penn State’s School of Theatre and artistic director of “Cultural Conversations.” In 2006, her first year at Penn State, she realized that the university could help fill the gaps of new works being created because it could offer a safe place for playwrights try new material and explore a kind of writing they wanted to work with.

“Cultural Conversations” is the only university festival of its kind in the United States. Every year, Russell chooses a different social theme to talk about, using music, theater, dance and visual art to present the issue at hand. Whether they are local, national or international, all of the artists Russell brings in circle around one social issue for a one-week event, featuring new works and discussions among students, faculty and community members.

“Because I wanted to address our own community, I decided to keep the artists local,” Russell said. “This is a local conversation with local artists and local community participants about very local decisions that we get to make.”

In creating “Cultural Conversations,” Russell began with two resident playwrights, herself and Penn State theater professor Steve Broadnax. In addition, Russell chose to bring in local officials and experts in their respective fields who could answer specific questions that audience members might have.

“I ask the audiences who come to this festival to not only see the plays but actually see their culture through the plays,” Russell said. “I think the most profound thing about the festival is that, yes we do the plays, but the real work begins afterwards; when the actors or the speakers or artists come out on stage, and then I bring in local law enforcement officials or mental-health officials.”

For the past six seasons, this unique festival has brought hundreds of audience members together over five days to witness artistic debates on very important issues such as race, religion, ethnicity, gender, violence and sexual orientation. Beyond new plays, “Cultural Conversations” features new dance pieces as well as student-generated one-acts on themes of diversity. During the festival at the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center, the lobby will be filled with visual representations on gun violence, gun control and Second Amendment rights. These new works will be presented by the Penn State visual arts department.

When Russell approached Broadnax about graduates doing a play for “Cultural Conversations,” Broadnax asked MFA actor/writer Allison Jaye if she would write a piece for the program. Russell was so impressed with it she commissioned Jaye for this year’s festival, with a play that centers on gun control and the Second Amendment.

“Since then it’s been a lot of research and reading and watching,” Jaye said. “It became a lot of work, but I was honored and very excited.”

Born in Southern California and a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Jaye has always wanted to be an actor, but she said becoming a playwright is something that has come to her more recently.

“I’ve always been an actor and I’ve always known what I wanted to do,” she said. “Playwriting actually came to me pretty late, but I’ve been writing plays now for the past six or more years.”

After reading an article in the New York Times last April, Jaye was floored by the U.S. government’s failure to pass stricter gun laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy. “That really became my seed for the play,” she said. “The biggest thing is, I need to make it personal. What are the stories that I can tell truthfully, without having to reach too far?”

Since then, Jaye has conducted extensive research, using references from school shootings such as Columbine and Sandy Hook and other tragedies such as the Boston Marathon bombing.

“A lot of the research is based on Sandy Hook, but I wasn’t just looking at school shootings,” she said. “I also researched the NRA and the things they are talking about. And the simple fact that these things have been happening for nearly 15 years now.”

With that in mind, Jaye went to one of the most important relationships in her life — the relationship she has with her sister, with whom she is very close.

“Making this play about a girl and her family was something that I could really get behind and write about very easily,” she said.

The girl, Sarah, has slept in the morning of the shooting, but her parents, who work at the school, are among the victims.

Jaye embodies three different roles in the play: Sarah; her twin sister, Elizabeth; and Mary, Sarah’s aunt, a retired commanding officer. As the characters navigate through this tragedy, Sarah needs help trying to put the pieces together; trying to find answers.

“It’s not a play that asks why,” she said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter why. It’s happening,” she said. “That’s what this play challenges — to get rid of excuses; that ‘why’ doesn’t matter. That’s not the question we need to be asking. What we need to be asking or demanding is how to make it stop.”

In doing her part for this six-day festival, Jaye hopes to encourage interest and participation and to provide a new work that people can relate to.

“I can be vocal about it, and I can elicit conversations, emotional responses, and hopefully constructive dialogue from what I do, which is write and create,” she said. “This play doesn’t offer solutions but it does encourage discussion.”