For six years, the ASU Herberger College of Design and the Arts' School of Theatre and Film has worked with the Tumbleweed Phoenix Youth Resource Center to bring the benefits of the arts into the lives of homeless and at-risk youth. For the past four years, the Center's clients have created public performances centered on the issues vital to their lives, in an ASU-mentored program called Asphalt Arts, and we get to experience these shows as part of PHX:fringe.
I don't believe in spending your time with art or literature merely because it's ideologically relevant. If it illuminates an issue or presents a point of view you're insufficiently familiar with, that's a good reason to experience it, but if it's poorly executed, you still might be wasting your time.
And although making theater is good for people in many ways, including the development of life skills, you're not obliged to watch unless you're a friend or family member. Luckily, Asphalt Arts' Food for Thought has just enough content and impact to make its short running time a solid investment.
One of the things that's been lacking at several of this year's PHX:fringe performances is any sense of occasion. The house and tech staffs at the venues are efficient and pleasant, but along with the artists, they aren't making an Experience with a capital E for audiences. There's little to no delineation of the boundary between pre-show bustle and the beginning of the performance.
So it was refreshing to pick up my ticket for Food for Thought and be told that the cast would come out to fetch us when it was time to be seated. (I'm not sure why Warehouse 1005's garage door sat open through the first two performances last night, but I sported a fuzzy jacket, and the street noise wasn't a big problem.)
We started by choosing laminated cards from tables in the loading zone. Each card depicted a necessity of life, from housing to money to insurance to a private yacht. As directed, we each chose one or two we felt we couldn't do without. On the way in, a cast member asked individuals about their choices.
Once we were seated, a young woman suggested we negotiate with one another to get the things we needed but didn't have. I had picked my must-have card before anyone else, which meant I got my first choice and didn't necessarily have much wiggle room as far as things I was willing to give up, but that was probably not true for everyone in the audience.
The cast helped get us interacting, but the barter activity went on for only a few minutes. I think that, because it was the show's opening night, the company was concerned about going too long in their assigned time slot and cut short most of the audience interaction.
The four young people in the cast were poised and sincere, moving around the space, reciting short poems, and reading from confusing cards. The cards seemed to be quotations from people explaining why they'd picked a particular necessity -- some people focus on staying employed, some on having a place to live, some on staying fed -- all believing that they can work to meet the other needs if they start from that one piece of security.
That was, for me, the most thought-provoking element of the performance, that everybody has a single problem it makes sense to solve first and it's not always the one you'd think. I wish it had been presented with more context. I had a feeling the cards were comments from people who'd done the same exercise we completed at the beginning.
The performance says it addresses hunger among Phoenix's homeless youth, hunger of all kinds, but we mostly addressed the stomach variety at the show I attended. The cast engaged the audience a couple more times, and I just longed for them to be more assertive and courageous when they asked us how we might allocate food so that everyone has some. (Sometimes audiences mistake questions addressed to them for dialogue or rhetoric.) I know they have it in them, and I hope the next two shows are amazing for everybody.
Food for Thought continues through Sunday, March 11, at Warehouse 1005, 1005 North First Street. (Enter from the alley.) Admission is $10 at the door, or call 602-254-2151. See the full PHX:fringe schedule here.