This weekend, many of us will get dressed up, head off to the theater, and spend a few hopefully entertaining hours seated in rows, quietly watching the action unfold on stage. That’s not how things will go in Tempe, though, when Rising Youth Theatre opens its Light Rail Plays at Tempe Transportation Center this weekend.
Some in the crowd will have come specifically for the show. But others will be accidental audience members — ordinary people who just happened to be riding the train while the troupe is performing.
“We think that theater and art should be accessible to everyone, and honestly it isn’t in most places,” says Paula Ortega, a Rising Youth Theatre staff member.
The theater company — founded by Sarah Sullivan and Xanthia Walker, both ASU alums with graduate theater degrees — launched Light Rail Plays in 2014 after receiving a grant designed to support innovation in the arts. Now, the plays are an annual tradition. There’s a fresh twist every year as the company incorporates new elements. One year, there were stilt-walkers. This year, it’s live music composed by youth and adult musicians, along with masks, dance, and circus arts.
Each play lasts just five minutes, which makes them more welcoming for people who aren’t likely to spend hours sitting inside a traditional venue.
“It’s great to be able to create theater that people can enter in and out of without feeling they are interrupting a performance,” says Sullivan.
Rising Youth Theatre also puts on more traditional stage shows — several playwrights have worked with the company, many of them producing original works that examine social issues such as immigration, body image, and incarceration — but the troupe can often be found performing in community settings, like a neighborhood park or a former Kmart. (They’re based at Phoenix Center for the Arts, which is located in Roosevelt Row.)
Sullivan says this year’s participants have spent about 40 hours making and rehearsing their plays, which are organized around a central theme she calls “Leaving a Mark.” In all, seven pairs and one trio of youth and professional artists will put on shows, many inspired by personal experiences; topics tackled include identity, perfectionism, activism, and friendship. Several participants are first-timers.
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“Young people and adults work together in a lot of different theater spaces in the Valley, but the way we do it is unique,” says Rising Youth Theatre apprentice Quinn Purcell. “We do whatever we can to remove the power dynamics so that we are all learning together.”
In previous years, Rising Youth Theatre has performed on trains as they moved between stations. This year, performances will take place on and around the platform. You can make reservations online to help the company estimate the likely crowd size, but you don’t need tickets to attend. That’s the whole point.
“We want to bring theater to the people,” Sullivan says, “instead of expecting audiences to come to us.”
The Light Rail Plays are scheduled for Friday, March 6, to Sunday, March 8, at the Tempe Transit Center, 200 East Fifth Street in Tempe. Performance times vary. Admission is free. Visit risingyouththeatre.org.