When the media portrays homelessness, the approach can be so heavy handed that people can become cold – even numb – instead of empathetic or understanding.
It’s a delicate dance. But it’s one playwright Ashley Brooke Monroe has mastered in her show “Off Your Feet.” The new documentary theater drama is built from monologues based on real-life interviews with homeless New Yorkers.
I spoke with Monroe about creating the play and the difficulty of shaping a coherent story using only verbatim text. Here’s our conversation:
Ashley, you’ve got an incredible resume. You’ve worked on Tony Award winning shows, you’ve dabbled in experimental theater – which includes a director’s credit on a musical about The Slenderman. How did you end up on the streets, iPhone in hand, ready to record testimonies from homeless individuals?
You know, I was living in the East Village in New York, and I was constantly seeing kind of the same group of homeless people every time I was walking through this park on my way to and from work. I’m deeply nosy, and I just wanted to know what was up with them. I think one of the great things about theater is that it provides this window into people whose lives are very different than our own, and so when I’m thinking about what kind of plays I want to make, I’m always like, “who does the audience need to interface with that their life is not giving them access to?” Since most people, by their own choice, sort of ignore the homeless all the time, I thought, “I’ll take this opportunity to acquaint them with some people who have fascinating stories that you kind of just walk by and ignore all day long.”
So you’re saying that you’re a wee bit nosy and that your being nosy made you curious about the homeless people in your neighborhood. But I’m wondering if these people – the people you interviewed – were people that you had previous conversation with? Or was it simply that you saw those people’s faces regularly and wanted to know what’s what?
It was mostly just the faces. There’s one story in this play that’s a guy that lived on my block, so I would talk to him occasionally. We had a slight rapport, but I didn’t really know anything deep about his life. But the rest of them were just kind of totally unknown entities before I struck up a conversation.
What was it like to produce documentary theater without any experience?
Like with most of my directing, I just sort of follow my own sense of what feels right. I think it’s a lot about kind of taste, and my particular take on storytelling has always been very … I usually have a heavy hand with the writers I work with. My degree’s in dramaturgy. I’m really into like sort of script analysis and play structure, so for me, I just relied on those skills to venture into this new way. I read a lot of documentary theater. There’s a great theater company in New York called The Civilians that work entirely with verbatim text, so I kind of went back to some source material. I was like, “how are other people doing this?”
Dallas actress Gloria Vivica Benavides portrays one of the characters in your play. The character – like all of the characters in “Off Your Feet”– is based on a real person. And this woman is very unlucky. She moves to New York City after her father dies and she’s immediately conned. Not only that, she’s robbed. She has nothing. No ID. No money. No place to stay. She’s homeless and she has no way out. Can you tell me about meeting this woman?
I met her about six months ago, I would say. She was sitting outside of Radio City Music Hall in New York. Such an iconic location, and I noticed her sitting there. I just wanted to know more about her story, and I was stunned when I heard about it. To me, it made so clear how this, through a series of unfortunate events and things not really her fault, she ends up in this terrible situation, having previously been middle class and leading a really regular life. It just made me feel like any of us could end up homeless if we didn’t have the kind of resources and support and family that a lot of us rely on. I thought it was a really good way into the story because it kind of sets up in the audience, a thing that they can relate to. It’s not someone who is addicted to drugs or make a lot of terrible life choices. She’s led a really kind of honest and decent life, and she just fell into some misfortune. Which I think we can all relate to.
This woman is so normal. She could literally be anyone who stumbles into bad situation. What was it like to hear her story? Didn’t you want to help her?
It definitely prompts a sort of, “well, what could I do for this person?” With her case, I did. I definitely spent a moment thinking, “do I have $800 I could give this woman to help her get home?” I didn’t feel like that was really a choice I could make in that moment, but I asked her … With most of my interviews, I kind of end with asking, “What do you need most right now?” Like, could I go grab you a hot meal? If it’s cold out, do you want to go inside? I’ll go sit with you in a restaurant. I think a lot of them feel a bit self-conscious going into places because people assume they can’t afford it. So, maybe it’s a little shelter, maybe it’s bringing them a hot meal. With that particular woman, what she really needed was toiletries. She was like, “I would just kill for some deodorant or a fresh pair of socks or some lady stuff.” So I went and dropped all I could at the Walgreen’s and came back with a bundle of stuff to try and make a small difference in the comfort of her life.
That must be really hard. I can tell you that as a journalist I often have to remind myself that I’m not a player in the stories that I am telling. I’m a journalist. I’m on the scene to relay the facts and to share stories. How about for you? Was there any inner turmoil about hearing these people’s stories and wanting to be of help?
That’s kind of how I thought of it. Because I am a theater maker, that’s what I do. That’s what I’ve always done. That’s my viewpoint into interactions that I have and my place in the world. That’s what I can use if I want to make a difference in society. It’s what I feel is my best tool. So, to provide a platform for these people whose voices are not told and are often overlooked and people don’t engage with them, being able to give them a platform to have their voices heard because I think their stories are so impactful. I don’t want it to feel preachy, and I hope that it stands on it’s own as a piece of theater without being like, “there’s a lesson to this.” I think it sort of inevitable, by hearing these stories, provides a little bit of empathy. Maybe some people who hear these stories will think differently about the way they interact with people who don’t have the resources they do.
There are five performers in the play, but each one takes on two characters. That means we’re hearing real-life stories of 10 people facing the bleak reality of being homeless. What goes into making that coherent? It’s like collage.
I tried to find some kind of arc to the stories. I wanted it to feel diverse with a lot of different types of voices and perspectives on the situations and lives of the homeless, but we enter with people who are in their early days on the streets, just adjusting to it and trying to figure things out. Then, it gets a little more dramatic with some stories of people experiencing some serious issues. At the end, it kind of has a little bit of an uplifting … it ends with a character who has things figured out a little bit and says he sees a light at the end of the tunnel. I was hoping to provide a little bit of a journey that’s possible for some of these people.
The subject matter is obviously very dark. But there are so many funny and totally relatable moments in the show. When going through what I assume are hours of tape, were those moments hard to find?
Those were kind of easy because I knew I wanted to include them, so any nugget that felt like joy or humor or unusual. The guy that rapped for me and people speaking their poetry and having funny stories. I thought, “that I know I want.” That was kind of easier to get out of it. A lot of these interviews were an hour or two hours long, so the harder part was trying to figure out what is the most useful distillation of this story and what aspect of it is most worth including.
Did you ever feel at danger? You’re a young woman, who’s walking the streets on New York City asking strangers – who might be dealing with a great many problems – to tell you their story of despair.
I definitely had some moments that were a little fearful. You know, I’ve spent the last six years working on this play. That means a lot of nights – sometimes days -kind of wandering the streets and looking for people to talk to. And I’d get a lot of cautions from my parents. They’d say that that was not a good thing to be doing, especially because a lot people on the street are dealing with serious mental health issues, so there’s certainly a certain amount of risk involved in engaging in some of these conversations.
But for me, the benefit of identifying stories that no one is listening to and kind of pointing an arrow at things that I think are important for society to know more about far out weighs any risks that I took on.
There were a couple of sketchy moments and some events that did not make the show, because they would make everyone uncomfortable and nervous, but on the whole I feel comfortable and confident in my ability to read a situation. It’s all in public. We’re on the sidewalk and I just pull up a piece of curb, so I felt pretty okay about it.
You’re taking part in a really cool new play festival. Why are these sorts of events important? What comes from showing work at such a raw stage of the production?
Oh! For me, it’s unbelievably useful. Because I mostly work on new plays – I’m primarily a director, not a writer – that development process: the readings, the workshops and early stage concerts for musicals; that’s all super helpful for figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
On this particular show, I made massive changes over the week. I was cutting dialogue, reshuffling the stories and cutting them up and breaking them into new sections in different ways. And I think that through this process and by working with these amazing actors, I got clarity on what stories I’m missing in order to make it feel like a full piece.
I’ve always sort of explored and let people’s stories unfold and then figure out how they fit, but now I feel some kind of key additions to the piece that I know I’m going to be looking for to assemble a next draft.
What would you like people to take away from your show?
I don’t know. I think for most people the relationship to the homeless is quite complicated. There’s like a mix of guilt and fear and apathy and a whole bunch of stuff kind of rolled in. I think for a lot of people it even changes day to day. You know someday you might hand someone a five dollar bill, but the next day you see someone else and you just ignore them. It’s kind of always shifting based on how we’re feeling in our own lives. It’s weirdly kind of wrapped up in our own identity issues.
So I’m hoping that I provide a sort of avenue for people to consider the choices that they make in interacting with people who live on the streets with slightly more information. If you’re always scared and you lock the car doors when someone comes by asking for money, that’s okay. That’s fine. I’m not saying that anyone’s reaction is wrong. But I think that if you know a little bit more about these stories and understand on a human-to-human level the situations that have led some of these people to be in the circumstance that they’re in that maybe you’ll make each of those decisions with a little bit more perspective.
Interview questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.