“Twenty-four inches,” says one narrator. “That’s the width of the median strip on Preble Street at the corner of Marginal Way in Portland, Maine.” And then: “Thirty-two inches. That’s the width of an average man who stands on a median strip holding a cardboard sign, measured elbow to elbow.” Most of us have seen these men and women who stand in the street medians, holding signs and asking for money. A controversial 2013 Portland ban aimed to end the practice, then was twice ruled unconstitutional in federal courts. That ban, its history, and the community of “signers” it sought to restrict are the subject of a new theater work in progress, Anything Helps God Bless, by Snowlion Repertory Company. Collaboratively researched and written by Snowlion founders Al D’Andrea and MK Wolf and the show’s ensemble, Anything Helps gets its first audiences this weekend, in a workshop production at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater.
“Anything Helps God Bless is not just a story about signers,” explains another of the show’s narrators. “It’s a story about a city, and about a country where individuals have the freedom to challenge the city for their freedoms.” And Anything Helps certainly includes a range of people. The eleven ensemble members (Harlan Baker, Samuel Carlson, Cathy Counts, Callie Cox, Tom Handel, Patricia Mew, Chris Newcomb, Bob Pettee, Natasha Salvo, Pat Scully, and Eric Darrow Worthley) portray close to 100 different people: Culled from actual public record, we hear from City Councilor Ed Suslovic (the sponsor of the ordinance) and the rest of the Councilors; Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck; Zachary Heiden of the ACLU of Maine; dozens of concerned citizens; and, of course, the signers themselves.
The voices result in a rich range of perspectives. We see signers’ signs. We listen in on motorists’ calls to police dispatch about drunken signers, Councilors and citizens at city meetings and police incident reports. We hear signers discuss injuries, opioid addiction, abuse from motorists and signer etiquette. And we hear the self-reflection of the actors themselves, as they confront their own attitudes toward signers and prepare to interview them directly.
Snowlion Founders Al D’Andrea and Margit Ahlin had been wanting for some time to produce a piece about homelessness, said Ahlin (who writes as MK Wolfe), and as the legal battles over the ban unfolded, they saw the power of chronicling it theatrically, “to trace a story that touches on issues of giving, individuals’ rights, and how we all face people in need.” Meanwhile, the Maine Humanities Council sought grantees for projects treating the Fourteenth Amendment, which proved crucial in court arguments; Snowlion secured a grant, then launched into research.
Their project’s research and methodology are made explicit in the script. On stage, actors read from journals they were asked to keep, talk us through the formal and informal surveys they conducted, and they relate how they approached signers in medians, described their project, and asked permission to record and use their words.
“I hope that the play will help audience members to see the signers in a slightly different and more sympathetic light than they may have in the past,” said ensemble member Patricia Mew. Ahlin notes that at this stage of this show-in-progress, “the audience is the key final ingredient to creating this unique piece of drama,” and invites the public to attend, listen, and respond to this ongoing issue and conversation. Both performances will be followed by talk-backs with the ensemble and audience.
Anything Helps God Bless, a workshop performance. By Al D’Andrea, MK Wolfe, and the AHGB ensemble. Directed by Al D’Andrea. Produced by Snowlion Repertory Company, at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater, December 10 and 11. Visit www.snowlionrep.org/html/anything_helps.html.