Interactive theater production addresses the housing crisis

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Millions of Americans are facing the threat of being displaced from the homes they rent.

Research by Arizona State University found that in Maricopa County, where more than a third of residents are renters, a combination of factors including a lack of affordable housing and low wages is creating housing insecurity.

So how can a crisis as big and scary as housing insecurity make for an entertaining theater performance?

Mark Valdez and Ashley Sparks created “The Most Beautiful Home … Maybe” out of compassion and a lot of conversation. The interactive theater performance will run Aug. 11–14 at ASU’s new Media and Immersive eXperience (MIX) Center in Mesa.

The show, which combines music, comedy and interactions with the audience, addresses different aspects of the housing problem, including solutions, said Valdez.

“Our own collective viewpoint is that we need to ignite civic imagination,” Mark said.

“How can we create space to start imagining beautiful futures and solutions to what that looks like?”

Valdez and Sparks, who are known as Mark-n-Sparks, are co-directing the play and have been involved in community-based art-making for years.

Sparks, who has long been connected to housing advocates, saw the conversation begin to shift during the pandemic.

“Things started to become possible that we would not have imagined before the pandemic,” she said.

“If you had said that there would be a national eviction moratorium for a period of time, most renters would say that what would never happen. What we’ve seen in the midst of a public health crisis is the opportunity to do something different and try solutions for how to keep people housed and safe for as long as possible.”

Now, with rent increases and a chaotic real estate market, the situation is even more urgent.

Valdez and Sparks held workshop conversations with housing advocates, activists and people experiencing housing insecurity.

“That process of conversation and workshops all started to weave into the components of the art itself,” Sparks said.

“For us, the engagement process is not different from the art-making. They are inextricably connected.”

Early on, the team asked housing experts to read parts of the script and weigh in on it. And it was important for the people involved in the issue to have space to speak freely.

“One of the challenges is saying something out loud,” Valdez said.

“Advocates don’t say, ‘We want a home guarantee,’ because they’ll be laughed out of the room. Now they’re reading a script that says, ‘Let’s have a home guarantee,’ and there are conversations about that because now it’s safe to say it.”

Then they had to balance realism with entertainment. Some of the housing experts they worked with told them, “This sounds like a conversation that we would have.”

“If these are familiar conversations, do you really want to see a play that’s what you’d do in a normal day?” Valdez said.

Sparks said: “As the piece evolved, it became less familiar and more of a space of imagination and surprise.”

The show’s media design is by Jake Pinholster, founding director of the MIX Center and associate professor of media design in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at ASU.

Pinholster said the show is a perfect debut for the MIX Center in Mesa.

“It is really well-suited for here because housing is in a bit of a crisis everywhere but especially in Mesa right now,” he said.

“It’s a live topic, particularly when it comes affordability in downtown Mesa, which is rapidly gentrifying and becoming more expensive. There are communities and neighborhoods that have been here for generations.

“So it’s important for us to use the arts to create a dialogue,” added Pinholster, who is the producer-presenter for the Mesa show.

The show includes a 30-minute section where the audience is playing a game to design the future of their community with housing.

Valdez and Sparks taught a graduate-level course in community-engaged art-making at ASU in the spring. While they were here, they met with several experts familiar with the housing situation in Mesa, including leaders from nonprofits, the City Council, city staff and activists.

“As part of the show itself, one of the things we did is include stories specific to Mesa that are woven into the piece, and two are success stories based on conversations we had there,” Sparks said.

Pinholster said multiple facets of the production were revised to be specific to Mesa.

“In the other cities, we had one part played by an older African American actor because in many of the communities we’re talking about, the dynamics were really about African American populations,” he said. “Here, we recast it into a Latino role. And we rewrote a lot of the script to be Spanish and Spanglish, particularly for his character.

“We’re really trying to make it accessible to the Latino community particularly.”

What should audience members expect?

“Expect to participate and talk to strangers and to have fun and be moved. It can sound scary, but it’s actually very gentle,” Valdez said.

Said Sparks, “You’ll be cared for. It’s consensual. We don’t force you to participate. There is a level of encouragement to the invitation. One thing that’s important to both of us is the spirit of hospitality.”

The team from “The Most Beautiful Home … Maybe” arrived in Mesa last week to begin work on the performance, even as the MIX Center was still getting its finishing touches.

“Every show has a million moving pieces and we’re definitely finding that, ‘Oh, this is the thing we forgot to buy, this little widget,’” Pinholster said.

“Every theater takes advantage of the fact that it has decades of accumulated stuff that’s useful, but we’re starting from scratch.”

Find showtimes and ticket information at beta.purplepass.com/organizer/52992.

Top image: Karla Mosley stars in “The Most Beautiful Home … Maybe," playing at the new Media and Immersive eXperience (MIX) Center in Mesa on Aug. 11–14. Photo by Rich Rayn/Courtesy of Mark-n-Sparks

Mary Beth Faller
marybeth.faller@asu.edu