SHERIDAN — What does it mean to be a good neighbor? What is the best way to interact with people from different backgrounds?
These were some of the questions examined in a workshop this week by Sheridan High School graduate Grace Cannon and three of her college classmates.
Sheridan Speaks! aims to use theater and storytelling to address social issues and lead to discussions between performers and audience members.
The free workshop occurred Wednesday evening at the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library and Thursday morning at The Hub on Smith and will also take place Thursday at the WYO Performing Arts and Education Center from 5-7 p.m.
The four workshop facilitators study applied theater at the City University of New York School of Professional Studies.
Cannon had been thinking of doing a workshop in Sheridan for some time, and she worked together with classmates Ashleigh Bragg, Elise Goldin and Nicole Kontolefa to bring the program to life.
“I thought it would resonate because there’s such a foundation and appreciation for the arts, as well as a strong sense of community,” Cannon said. “There’s a pride in the place and who people are and how they identify here.”
Cannon was born and raised in Sheridan and participated in musicals, plays, concerts and various summer performances. She wanted to give back to her hometown community that has supported her many endeavors throughout the years.
Cannon said applied theater ideally allows time for self-reflection and imagination.
“It’s important to come and be in a room with a group of people and work things out,” Cannon said. “It’s so important to reflect on yourself and the people you live around in your community, in-person, in a room (and) to be able to connect one-on-one, face-to-face.”
Cannon is also considering moving back to Sheridan after she finishes school, so the workshops serve as a test run for how receptive the community is to that type of performance.
Cannon said the workshop will hopefully lead to conversations most people avoid.
“We live in sort of a divisive time,” she said. “That’s why I think [we went] local and invited people to show up and have that conversation that maybe sometimes people avoid because it’s kind of scary and feels kind of risky.”
Wednesday marked the group’s first time running the full workshop in public, which lasted three hours and had around 30 attendees. Audience members spent the first hour getting to know each other and sharing stories. Most of the final two hours focused on a play involving a few scenes between several characters.
The facilitators researched local and state news stories and learned from Cannon to bring a local angle to their performance.
“It’s not just theater practitioners coming in and performing something,” Bragg said. “We’re creating it together with the audience and we’re talking about subject matter that matters to that specific community, so it’s geared toward social issues of whatever population we might be working with.”
The fictional play began with Irma, a lesbian member of the Crow Tribe who recently moved to a new town with her 7-year-old son and wants to open a necklace business in her home. Irma is putting up a gay pride flag outside her front door when she meets Kathy, a new neighbor who greets her warmly. Kathy attempts to welcome Irma around town but receives pushback from her husband and other community members. Eventually, Irma leaves town after a few months due to discrimination she and her son face.
Cannon, Bragg, Goldin and Kontolefa ran through the play once and then asked audience members to focus on what Kathy could have done differently. The audience suggested different ways for the actors to perform, and some audience members eventually acted out the performance themselves. Near the end of the workshop, audience members asked Irma a few questions. One of the queries resulted in a conversation about the difference between proclaiming and not hiding one’s identity.
The final portion of the workshop focused on audience feedback to the four facilitators, which was largely positive.
“I’ve never seen a conversation like this happen in Sheridan before,” audience member Emma Hall said.
Hall added that the people in attendance were a self-selected group and probably more open to the conversation than a random sampling of people around town, but she was thankful the workshop occurred.
“I think it just takes more things like this and reaching a wider and wider audience to get all those different voices in the room,” Hall said.
Another audience member said it was helpful to think about situations that occur unexpectedly in real life so she can be more prepared when they happen.
“It was a really good opportunity to practice the way that I can interact with my community and with people in my town, especially those that I disagree with,” Hall said. “I think that’s something that all of us could practice.”
The workshop brought a unique aspect of theater and discussion to Sheridan and could lead to similar performances — and more open discussion — in the future.