Philly-based playwright puts the audience to work to create space for multiple narratives

Listen 4:34
Mary Tuomanen performing

Mary Tuomanen performing "Hello! Sadness" at FringeArts (Provided)

At Haverford College, the Friend in Residence program brings Quaker thinkers to campus for extended stays, working with students and faculty in different contexts, to explore current topics, and to deepen the school’s Quaker character.

This semester, the Friend in Residence has been Mary Tuomanen. The Philadelphia-based playwright and performer was named Best Theatre Artist by Philadelphia Magazine in 2015 and was Theatre Philadelphia’s 2017 F. Otto Haas Emerging Philadelphia Theatre Artist, among other awards.

Tuomanen works in a variety of settings, including solo shows, collaborations, and stints with many of the city’s theater groups. At the core of her work is the theme of social justice, and she brought it to bear on her Haverford residency.

“With the students, I’ve been investigating questions of social justice and art,” she told WHYY’s Dave Heller on NewsWorks Tonight. “What does it mean to make political art at this particular moment, and what does it mean in the larger historical context? How do we create narratives of resistance in our time?”

She’s discovered those narratives can be interpreted differently in different times. In 2014, Tuomanen wrote a solo work, “Hello! Sadness!” in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict, as she was feeling somewhat lost in her efforts to enact social justice.

“People saw that piece that year and thought, ‘Hmm, she seems really mad. We’re not sure why,’ ” she recalled. “Then I performed it last year at FringeArts and everyone was like, ‘Oh, we’re on board.’ It was the night of the travel ban and everyone thought it was so pertinent. It’s been interesting to see how work I’d been thinking about for a few years is now actually having a moment in 2018, as more people are woke than usual.”

Tuomanen will conclude her residency with a performance by Applied Mechanics at Haverford on Saturday.

“This is on Record” portrays journalists, artists, and other documentarians in three different decades as they tell the story of their time. The audience has a role, too, explained Tuomanen.

“It’s an immersive piece, so the audience is part of it,” she said. “They walk through it and can affect it with their different perspectives and opinions. We are trying to create art that acts like the utopia we want, where there is no one narrative. Where everyone has their own experience that is valid and there is space for it.”

In June, Applied Mechanics will give another performance at the Glass Factory, which will be informed by the audience contributions at Haverford.

Click the play button above to listen to the full conversation.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.