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How Theatre Can Create Positive Change in Our Food Systems

At Food Tank, a food advocacy nonprofit, the co-founder is also a playwright. Bernard Pollack has been developing his play Little Peasants since 2023. It’s about a group of baristas working for a fictional international coffee chain who are trying to become the first store to vote to unionize. As he developed the script from a few scenes to a full-length piece, he approached me for dramaturgical support and to produce a workshop reading in Somerville, Massachusetts (home to some of the best coffee shops out there).

Pollack and I chose to produce the reading at the Burren, an Irish pub, with the intention that choosing the local mainstay as our venue would speak to food workers and food eaters alike. Whether you’re a coffee drinker or not—whether you frequent small businesses, chain restaurants, or a healthy mixture—food and the sources we get it from will always be intertwined with culture and how we experience our daily lives. We were excited to tell this story in such a communal space.

Through his research and writing process, Pollack interviewed baristas who were current or former employees of several national chains and who have been involved with labor movements. In the backdrop of his writing process, some companies are being asked to recognize unions at their stores, like Starbucks, which has had over four hundred stores unionize since 2021 but lacks a national contract agreement.

After some script development, we brought on director Dori A. Robinson and an all-local cast (some who had worked as baristas themselves) to start bringing this piece to music stands. We performed for two Wednesday evenings in February 2024 and welcomed around three hundred guests to the Back Room, the Burren’s space that usually holds concerts and comedy nights. The crowd was a mixture of Somerville locals and folks from the east coast who follow Food Tank’s work.

 A group of people stand on stage reading from music stands.

Jake Mouchawar, Lorraine Kanyike, Ciera-Sadé Wade, Christa Brown, and Rob Cope in Little Peasants by Bernard Pollack at the Burren. Directed by Dori A. Robinson. Scenic consultant: Rachel Rose Roberts. Photo by Steven Duarte Photography.

Food Tank: Bridging Theatre and Advocacy

As a nonprofit whose mission is to advocate for sustainable food systems, Food Tank uses research, writing, and public events to inspire conversation and catalyze progress towards food and environmental equity. Art has always been a key arm of their approach. Their screenings of documentaries at events like the Sundance Film Festival have helped shed light on issues like the control of agricultural resources and the corporatization of our food sources.

Food Tank often creates programming with the South by Southwest (SXSW) “All Things Food Summit,” and in March 2023 Pollack and his co-founder Danielle Nierenberg decided to feature the first few scenes of Little Peasants in front of an audience, which ran concurrent with panel discussions about labor movements in the food service industry. The event amplified the work of farmers, food workers, chefs, businesses, and policymakers who are working to transform our agriculture systems. Pollack told me that they wanted to see how attendees reacted to having a piece of theatre as part of the programming, and the response was overwhelmingly positive with the play receiving a standing ovation.

While that was the first time Food Tank had featured a play in one of their conferences, Little Peasants isn’t Food Tank’s first foray into theatre. Pollack’s first play, Garjana, later reimagined as WeCameToDance, was initially performed as part of a fundraising event and later scheduled to debut at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, but it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The play tells the tale of extraterrestrial beings descending upon Earth, bearing a crucial warning about an incoming climate crisis that mirrors their own world's past. Blending song, dance, and audience interaction, the characters passionately implore for collective action and convey the poignant reality of environmental upheaval—all while inspiring people of all ages to get up and dance. Food Tank took WeCametoDance to Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2021 and maintained a sold-out run of four weeks, despite audiences being slow to return during the pandemic. The response during this tricky time was a sign of optimism that audiences were excited to get back to the theatre, with some even returning multiple times dressed up as their favorite alien and learning their dance moves.

By placing food not just at the center of the play thematically, but at the center of the experience and venue of the workshop, Food Tank and Little Peasants inspired cheers, boos, and many post-show stories from audience members

Interactive Theatre Can Amplify Accountability

In keeping with their belief in the effects of interactive theatre, Pollack and Robinson asked the audience at the Burren to be part of a vote at the moment in Little Peasants when the baristas of Unicorn Coffee demand to have their voices heard in front of the corporate heads of the company. To create the environment of a true union drive, we created buttons that said “Vote No!” or “Union Yes!” that guests could choose from. By the time they had heard characters’ arguments, some were ready with their vote and were chanting and fist-bumping along with the characters, but others still took time to quietly think. While both votes went in the “Yes” direction during our performances, there were still a good number of “No” votes. The vote felt so real that our bartender for the evening thought at one point that this was a real union event. Pollack had written two endings, one where you’d see what could happen when a corporation extinguishes a drive, and the other where the labor organizers are inspired to work toward a unionized future.

“Theatre should never be a passive experience,” says Pollack. “The traditional setup of fixed seating, facing a stage in the front, and silencing our cell phones doesn’t enable the deeper connections and experiences that we know audiences are craving.”

By placing food not just at the center of the play thematically, but at the center of the experience and venue of the workshop, Food Tank and Little Peasants inspired cheers, boos, and many post-show stories from audience members whose parents were in a union, or who were in unions themselves as baristas, firefighters, or arts workers. Many voiced that they resonated with the character of Ashley, a single mother who doesn’t want to risk unionizing because she can’t afford to look for another job if her store gets shut down. Some were surprised to find that they empathized with the money-concerned coffee CEO Monique when she cautioned baristas that that her father faced intimidation tactics when he tried to join a union as its first Black member. Others shared that they appreciated that the medium of theatre helped them understand some of the more complicated aspects of labor organizing that are on such a national stage right now in so many industries.

By partnering with artists, activists, and grassroots organizations at the front lines of the food justice movement and putting their stories in front of people and institutions of power, Food Tank is amplifying their messages.

Art that Makes You Hungry for Food and Change

With WeCameToDance and Little Peasants, Food Tank has started a body of work about the interconnectedness of food, labor, and climate that seeks to empower any arts goer to take meaningful action in their communities. By partnering with artists, activists, and grassroots organizations at the front lines of the food justice movement and putting their stories in front of people and institutions of power, Food Tank is amplifying their messages.

Our barista characters’ struggles and dreams for the future were taken in by local elected officials, including the mayor of Somerville Katjana Ballantyne, deputy mayor of Cambridge Marc McGovern, and Massachusetts congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who emphasized in front of the crowd that art is essential in order for our country and our systems to make progress: “There cannot be radical and transformative revolution without the arts. The play puts a spotlight on individuals fighting for better conditions and turning the tide of change for workers everywhere. It condemns systems that cause harm and celebrates unsung heroes.” We heard many audience members resonate with her call for more justice-oriented artmaking.

A group of people pose for a photo.

U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley with the cast and production team of Little Peasants by Bernard Pollack at the Burren, including Ciera-Sadé Wade, Christa Brown, Rob Cope, Lorraine Kanyike, Tom Bianchi, Bernard Pollack, Danielle Neirenberg, and Gabrielle Jaques.  Photo by Steven Duarte Photography.

A Theatrical Model for Advocacy Organizations

As Little Peasants continues to develop and be shared, Pollack and Food Tank plan to expand into new projects, potentially moving into future territory about the challenges of American farmers in the South. With more work on the horizon, it’s hopeful to know that other theatres and writers are also taking the chance to write about labor and food. Laura Neill’s Foot Wears Horse is about REI workers’ union drive, and it was just workshopped in New York; Cornerstone Theatre Company’s The Hunger Cycle spoke to issues around food security and farming; Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s, which is about a sandwich shop, was the most staged play of 2022; and Stefano Massini drew from true events to depict a union council meeting of a rural Connecticut textile factory in 7 Minutes, produced by Waterwell in 2022. All of us as theatre artists have our own “way in” to tell a story about food, so it’s inspiring to me that Food Tank wants to keep collaborating with artists to achieve their mission.

This process gave me hope that people on multiple sides of a complicated issue like union organizing in the food service industry could connect as part of an audience. When picking a “Yes!” or “No!” button, and during the vote when asked to stand, guests started their own conversations about what they were picking and why. These clear visual indicators of choice created moments of genuine curiosity and empathy as audience members would speak about their own work background or respond to an argument a character made that swayed their vote. Some voiced that they purposefully picked the button opposite to their own opinion to try on a different point of view for the evening, saying afterward that it meant they had to enter a new mindset while they watched the conflict unfold. Witnessing this level of engagement showed me that audiences wanted to be heard, but also that they were willing to truly consider a belief different from their own.

An actor speaks into a microphone in a dimly lit space.

Autumn Blazon-Brown in Little Peasants by Bernard Pollack at the Burren. Directed by Dori A. Robinson. Scenic consultant: Rachel Rose Roberts. Photo by Steven Duarte Photography.

I am grateful that Food Tank is using theatre as one of the means to move their work forward because they are providing opportunities for people to have new, lasting experiences around issues that affect all of us and impact many communities disproportionally. Their work shows that organizations or individuals whose focus is not primarily art can build engagement through a piece of theatre. I am curious to see more instances of these types of collaborations between art and mission-based organizations or individuals, like U.K. innovation agency Nesta commissioning interactive experience The Strategy Room from theatremaking group Fast Familiar about climate change policies, or ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project lawyer Judy Rabinovitz commissioning Detained at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, which shed light on mass deportation in the United States.

With their knowledge and expertise from their primary work in their fields, Food Tank and others from non-arts industries can immerse audiences in the realities of the communities they research or serve by venturing into theatre. On Little Peasants, Pollack’s ability to integrate truths about food systems with engaging, nontraditional storytelling methods created a gamut of responses, from the raucous shouts of “Union Yes!” coming from one side of the Burren to the couples debating on their way out the door, and others still sitting and thoughtfully deliberating the play—and their own choice

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