Tulsa’s Theater Pops is one of several companies that perform locally. Their last production, Heathers, dealt with a range of issues from high school years and beyond, including eating disorders, homophobia, and bullying. After the musical, information on all the topics discussed during the musical was available for those interested in learning more or needing help.
Theater Pops generally performs shows that aren’t mainstream. “Knowing that we don’t do mainstream shows makes us think about things in a different way,” says Cecilia Wessinger, a board member. In the company’s view, the creation and performance of art invokes responsibility. “We want to make sure we’re good stewards of the community” while putting on shows, she says.
For Heathers, that drive manifested as information cards set out for the audience to take on the main talking points of the play – bullying, homophobia, and body-shaming. Information on resources available to help with those problems, as well as questions relating to the social issues of the play, were left for audiences to peruse.
The Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice, which focuses on improving diversity and inclusion through a variety of methods and age groups, helped with this initiative. While the company wants to do theater people will enjoy coming to see, they also want to ensure that if there’s any questions after the play, there’s information to accompany them.
For the next upcoming show, All the Way, a drama about civil rights legislation, the company is taking a different tactic. As performance dates coincide with some of the last days for voter registration, the company plans to have tables where audiences can register to vote.
“We wanted to do something right before the election, to fit with the political climate,” Wessinger says. As she is part of the Voting is Power Coalition, which works to increase voter registration and turnout and stimulate civic participation through education, partnering with an outside group to engage in this was possible.
Funding worries might prevent other groups from following in the same footsteps. With funding for the arts dropping, many local artisans like Theater Pops are being supported by the Arts Alliance Tulsa.
This group helps fund and promote about forty local non-profit arts, history, and cultural organizations, from Theater Pops to the Gilcrease Museum to Circle Cinema. The company still needs to make money with each show, however, and Wessinger acknowledges too edgy theater might not make back the production costs. “When you put on theater that doesn’t make people warm and fuzzy, it’s a little more risky,” Wessinger said. “There’s a certain audience that will come to our shows and be more open to coming,” but conversely, “there’s a lot of people who will be uncomfortable and avoid it.”
Other local theater groups may do fairly unknown or even their own shows, but Wessinger believes that Theater Pops’ focus on “outside the box” shows makes the group able to offer these different events in collusion with their shows. As the season continues, they hope to be able to challenge audiences and encourage action and conversation.