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Nice Town, Normal People gives Arroyo Grande residents a space to feel heard 

Despite being on summer break, Arroyo Grande High School (AGHS) is bustling with activity on Aug. 9. A teen clutching a trombone runs toward his fellow summer band camp attendees. A cacophony of musical scales, stand-tune snippets, and clarinet squeaks fills the air in the quad.

But upon entering the multipurpose room, the chaos outside is traded for soft piano notes. The space is minimally staged with a circle of classroom chairs facing one another. I find myself interrupting a rehearsal, but Kyle Berlin and Ashlin Hatch barely break character as they practice. Tonight, the duo will be performing Nice Town, Normal People, an original play about what it means to call Arroyo Grande home.

click to enlarge CAUGHT IN THE MOMENT Kyle Berlin (left) and Ashlin Hatch are captured in the midst of their Aug. 10 performance of Nice Town, Normal People at Arroyo Grande High School. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF RHIZOME THEATER COMPANY
  • Photos Courtesy Of Rhizome Theater Company
  • CAUGHT IN THE MOMENT Kyle Berlin (left) and Ashlin Hatch are captured in the midst of their Aug. 10 performance of Nice Town, Normal People at Arroyo Grande High School.

Berlin and Hatch, who described themselves as "best friends in high school," attended AGHS together and graduated in 2013.

"We stayed in touch during college, and we would consistently talk about what we were learning about our hometown while we were away from it," Hatch told New Times before the show. "Then the 2016 election happened, and it seemed like people were having a hard time having conversations about very important and urgent things. We wondered whether this style of theater-making ... could provide a structure within which people could start having these conversations."

Berlin decided to apply for a Davis Projects for Peace grant, which gives $10,000 to project proposals around the world that intend to promote peace.

After successfully securing the grant, Berlin and Hatch joined forces with fellow AGHS alumus and musician Makulumy Alexander-Hills to bring their idea to life: Rhizome Theater Company was born. The first performance of Nice Town, Normal People, Berlin noted, was almost exactly two years ago in Arroyo Grande. Since then, the play has traveled across the country to places as far—and different—as Chicago and rural Maine, and now back to where it all began.

"It feels emotionally grounded in a way I've not yet felt before," Hatch said of being back where she first performed.

The production takes its name from a slogan donned by T-shirts and coffee mugs at Cafe Andreini, a staple coffee house in Arroyo Grande Village. As simple and uncontroversial as it might sound, Nice Town, Normal People puts pressure on notions of normalcy in small-town America. The play's lines are composed from 100 interviews with local community members, who express a wide range of views and emotions about calling Arroyo Grande home.

As they perform, Berlin and Hatch stand in the center of the circle of chairs where audience members sit, re-enacting the thoughtfully strung-together lines from their interviews, or as they call it, the "collage of words." They use just one prop, a ball of yarn that is slowly unraveled and crisscrossed throughout the production, resulting in a web of string that each audience member eventually holds.

Before the show begins, the marching band outside is faintly heard rehearsing "The Star Spangled Banner."

"There's something meta about that," Alexander-Hills said with a laugh.

Though the play's lines are constructed exclusively from the words of Arroyo Grande residents, it also addresses the more universal experiences and tensions that exist across small-town America. For some, tradition is what makes Arroyo Grande feel safe. But for others, the stagnant nature of places like it means being stuck in a shameful past. One moment of the play recalls the day that buses came to Arroyo Grande to force Japanese-Americans into internment camps. Another remembers having a piece of fruit thrown at them out of a truck bearing a Confederate flag.

"We are not only a feel-good show," Berlin said. "We want people to feel good, but then what?"

Hatch emphasized this inconclusive nature of the production, or as she called it, "an ethos of creating that finds its grounding in questions, not answers."

As a theater maker, Hatch finds that coming in with answers can cause people in the audience to shut down.

"But if you bring in the different points of view and come in with the questions," she said, "then you get something really particular, meaningful, and to me, magical."

click to enlarge EVERYONE'S CONNECTED Audience members in Chicago create a web of yarn for a January 2019 show. Rhizome Theater Company, formed by an Arroyo Grande-raised trio, has toured the U.S. with Nice Town, Normal People. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF RHIZOME THEATER COMPANY
  • Photos Courtesy Of Rhizome Theater Company
  • EVERYONE'S CONNECTED Audience members in Chicago create a web of yarn for a January 2019 show. Rhizome Theater Company, formed by an Arroyo Grande-raised trio, has toured the U.S. with Nice Town, Normal People.

"Some people feel threatened by the idea that there are other people in the community who don't feel comfortable here, or who don't love it as much as they love it," Berlin added. "We want to move beyond that feeling of being threatened, and ask, how can we coexist? How do we make a shared home that works for everybody?"

While talking about these issues can sometimes feel fruitless, Hatch said that Nice Town, Normal People is not about bringing up problems just for the sake of bringing up problems.

"We're not interested in making anyone in the audience feel hopeless," she said. "We want people to hear these words and think, 'Oh my gosh, somebody in my community where I feel supported is feeling unsupported. And I have the resources to help.'"

Beyond the play, Berlin, Hatch and Alexander-Hills continue to make artistic waves across the globe. Berlin splits his time between Arroyo Grande, Buenos Aires, and New York City as an artist fellow with Three Dogs Foundation. Hatch's passion for theater is not limited to Nice Town, Normal People; she works on both coasts as a director and story-developer. Alexander-Hills is a Ph.D. student in Music Theory at Columbia University.

Despite their busy lives, the creative minds of Rhizome Theater Company have no intentions of disbanding, and they even have some new projects in the works. As for Nice Town, Normal People, they hope the local performances aren't their last.

"We hope to continue the work of this show in different communities nationwide, wherever people are willing to partner with us," Berlin said. "Radical openness is our motto." Δ

Contributing Writer Malea Martin is patiently awaiting Rhizome Theater Company's next creation. Send arts story tips to Assistant Editor Peter Johnson at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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