A play opening Friday in Minneapolis explores the topic of adoption in a new way. "In the Heart: The Adoption Play Project" is based on adoption stories from 200 people.
"It's the kind of thing that people don't really know how to talk about," said Alan Berks, co-artistic director of Wonderlust Productions. "And yet it's a really important part of people's identity, whether they are a birth parent, an adoptive parent, or an adoptee or even siblings."
Berks and his co-director, Leah Cooper, don't take the easy route when it comes to play making.
"What we do at Wonderlust specifically is, we sort of flip the order of how things are usually done," Cooper said.
Usually, a company gets a script, rehearses a cast, and puts on a play. But not Wonderlust.
"We start with a community of people that we think have great stories that aren't very well understood or well known, and have a big place in our community," she said. "And then we gather their stories and turn them into a play, and then we also cast them alongside professional artists."
It's a long process. First, there are story circles where people talk about their experiences. Then there are workshops to explore and develop ideas for inclusion in the final production. It takes two years.
Wonderlust has done shows with veterans and shows on depression. Berks said the company picked adoption because it touches many people. It's a complicated subject, even before international or multi-ethnic adoptions come into the picture.
The story circles were eye-opening for everyone, Cooper said.
"You'd have somebody there who maybe placed a child and nobody in their life knows that, it's still a secret, sitting right next to somebody who was part of an open adoption," she said. "And they get to hear each other's stories and discover what a huge difference that is."
The Adoption Play loosely follows "Alice in Wonderland," and opens at a wedding. Jen is a Korean adoptee in a white family. Her sister Alice is getting married. Jen's talking with a surly server.
"You sure know how to make people feel small," Jen says.
"Do you belong to that party of people with the money?" the server asks.
Jen replies with a question of her own. "Do I look like I belong?"
"Story of my life," Jen sighs. "I do."
Eventually they drop down a rabbit hole to a place where the raw issues of adoption come to the fore.
Professional actor Megan Anderson plays Jen. She was adopted — unhappily, she says. She was wrestling with whether to keep acting when she came across an audition call for the Wonderlust show.
"It said they needed a female adopted Korean adopted by white people who is a little angry and a little sassy," she said. "And I was like, 'I have to audition for this.'"
The collaborative atmosphere at Wonderlust has re-energized her faith in acting. There are 35 people involved in the cast, only eight of them professionals. Bill Bednarczyk is a community actor who came to tell his story.
"There's a lot of pain. I hope I can get through this," he said. "But I was hoping this would be a healing process for me."
He and his late wife adopted a baby girl. She's now in her 30s and estranged from him.
"She's made some choices," he said quietly.
Elements from his story are in the play. He learned a lot from other people's adoption stories, and hopes audiences will too. This is his acting debut, which allows him to check an item off his bucket list.
The finished production is being staged at Mixed Blood Theatre on the West Bank in Minneapolis. It runs through Dec. 18.
Asked what she hopes audiences will take from the play, Megan Anderson thought carefully. "I think understanding and compassion for everybody's experience," she said. "That everybody's experience is different. And just taking that to heart and not judging."
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