UPDATE: Rising Youth Theatre has canceled Light Rail Plays for Saturday, February 18, due to weather. Performances scheduled for February 19 and the following weekend will continue as planned.
Two women sit side by side in a rehearsal space at Phoenix Center for the Arts, as if they’re strangers riding a light rail train. Over a few minutes, they alternate attaching yellow sticky notes to each others’ torsos, saying aloud what’s written on each note.
In every case, it’s an assumption rooted in stereotypes.
The women are Raji Ganesan and Paula Alvarado, and they’re one of eight teams of performers working on a five-minute play they’ll perform as part of the 2017 Light Rail Plays, being presented by Rising Youth Theatre on the Valley Metro Light Rail line from February 17 through 19 and February 24 through 26.
Ganesan is a Tempe-based performance artist whose work often includes storytelling and dance. Alvarado is one of several local youth working with Rising Youth Theatre on the Light Rail Plays project that pairs professional artists with young people in the community to create works inspired by real issues facing local communities.
In this case, the issue is immigration and prejudice.
As Ganesan and Alvarado rehearse, additional performers and others involved with bringing the plays to life sit around the periphery of the space. Teams take turns sharing what they’ve created together, then others chime in with feedback that affirms the strengths of their work while suggesting ways it could be even more powerful. Sometime the issues are technical – like when the Post-It notes won’t stick to each other’s clothing quite the way Ganesan and Alvarado had planned.
Rising Youth Theatre originated its annual Light Rail Plays in 2014, after getting a $10,000 grant from Arizona Commission on the Arts through the Art Tank program that’s since been discontinued due to reduced state funding for the arts. During Art Tank events held in several Valley cities, arts organizations pitched ideas for new projects to expert panels and audience members, who then voted on which projects should get funded.
The Light Rail Plays are curated by Sullivan with Rising Youth Theatre co-founder and co-artistic director Xanthia Walker. Both hold master's theater degrees from Arizona State University and are active in the metro Phoenix theater community. In 2015, Walker received the New Times Big Brain Award for Performing Arts.
Each year, they assemble an impressive roster of professional artists to work with kids who apply and interview for the chance to participate. Artists who’ve performed in previous iterations of the Light Rail Plays include dancer Liliana Gomez and playwright Kim Manning. This year’s artist lineup includes dance professional Allyson Yoder and theater professional Liz Polen, to name a few.
The teams are tackling a diverse assortment of topics, including unwanted sexual advances, the challenges of going to college, and refugee experiences. Some plays are funny, others dramatic. Several involve creative props like giant eyeballs, although those hadn’t been created in time for this Sunday afternoon rehearsal. Instead, Polen worked with two oversized kitchen spatulas.
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Several of the plays will be performed on moving trains, with actors surrounded by some riders who just happen to be there and others who show up just to watch the plays. Others get performed at various light rail stops, between Roosevelt Street and Camelback Road along Central Avenue. All performances are free, but you can make a suggested $10 donation to Rising Youth Theatre if you go online to reserve your space in advance. You’ll need a light rail pass to watch performances on the trains (daily passes are $4 each).
Rising Youth Theatre asks audience members to arrive at least 15 minutes before plays are scheduled to begin. They’ll have a table set up at the light rail stop at Central Avenue and Roosevelt Street, where people can learn more about the Light Rail Plays and get help with buying a light rail pass if they need it. After that, you basically follow Rising Youth Theatre tour guides carrying “It’s Okay, It’s Only a Play” signs as they guide onlookers through the day’s performances.
The Light Rail Plays take place three times each day on February 17 to 19 and February 24 to 26. Friday performances start at 6, 7, and 8 p.m. Saturday performances start at 4, 5, 6, and 7 p.m. Sunday performances start at 4, 5 and 6 p.m. Get more information or reserve your space on the Rising Youth Theatre website.