Local director uses theater to create dialogue on domestic violence

A new football-themed play, "Drafters, A Parable," has roots in a men's workshop designed to champion preventative conversations about violence against women.

Imagine a play without a script, without characters, without a plot.

What’s left?

For Ryan Hope Travis, 29, the answer is artistic freedom.

Travis, who identifies foremost as a professional actor but sometimes directs and writes, is also the artistic director of Syracuse’s Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company. The theatrical company aims to put on performances from an African American tradition on Syracuse stages. Travis expanded its mission to include productions that are rooted in social activism and community engagement.

His upcoming production, Drafters, A Parable, is co-sponsored by Vera House, a Syracuse-based organization that raises awareness for sexual and domestic violence and serves as a shelter and Onondaga Community College. In it, Travis provides a forum for actors and audience members to examine the human condition. Drafters opens on Thursday, Oct. 23 at Jazz Central

When Travis made a call for auditions, he only knew one thing: The play was going to deal with issues of domestic violence.

“This is probably the eighth or ninth play that I’ve done like this. We create the text based on lived experiences, and it enables the work to speak directly to the needs of a community,” Travis said.

Eleven men and three women showed up for auditions. Now they make up the ensemble cast. Without a script, rehearsals began with icebreakers, writing prompts and acting exercises.

“Eventually what ends up happening is something emerges, and what emerged from that process was just a flash of a thought," Travis said. "Someone said: ‘We have enough people to make a football team.’ And from there, it was just like the windows of opportunity opened up in my head."

With the recent media attention on NFL players such as Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson who are involved in domestic violence cases, this is a prime time for this play and for conversation about domestic violence.

“In my mind, I see an arch of a story, a beginning, middle and an end and flashes of moments,” Travis said. The rest is up to the actors.

For cast member Robert Jackson, 33, a minister and a father, the nature of the play allows the cast to be more involved.

“We actually create our characters ourselves and can really give it our all. We are telling our stories to help somebody,” Jackson said.

Each production finds its own life, and the culture of the rehearsal determines what the play is going to become.

Travis pairs actors together and tells them to take 10 minutes to come up with a scene and then perform what they created.

“I take what they show me and shape it and distill it down to a clean cohesive storyline," Travis said. "Then, I’ll record it and transcribe exactly what was done. So, what we have the next day is a script that came from this real and organic process."

After three weeks of rehearsals and 60 minutes of script (so far), Drafters will focus on a fictional, semi-professional, Syracuse football team that reacts to a sexual violence accusation made against a teammate. It explores how the players react and how they navigate the negative attention surrounding their team as the accusation disrupts their world.

“I’ve always had an open mind raising my son," Jackson said. "I tell him: There is nothing you can’t talk to me about. He’s a football player, and I want him to be able to look up to me and not the Ray Rices out there.”

The idea for the production was conceived a year ago when Travis was invited to participate in a workshop at Vera House. The workshop, The 12 Men Model (a one-time, three-hour, intensive program for men), provides a space for healthy conversations and preventative dialogues on violence towards women. The program is not just about education; it’s about challenging belief systems, Vera House’s Director of Education, Loren Cunningham, said.

The 12 Men Model is an ongoing movement that relies on the men who've completed the workshop to invite new people to attend.

“It really challenges the ways that men see themselves and how we see women,” Travis said. “After the workshop, I knew I had to do a play about what we had learned.”

Travis encouraged the men in the ensemble to participate in The 12 Men Model. Their experiences in the workshop will allow them to start talking, confiding and hopefully trusting one another in rehearsals.

“We hope that men who attend our workshop will use their passion, their gifts and their resources to extend Vera House’s reach," Cunningham said. "Travis is an example of this ripple effect. His play might reach areas of the community that we couldn’t."

Drafters will have five performances between October 23 and 31.

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