Sean Christopher Lewis is taking theater out of the theater and placing it face-to-face with audiences off the beaten path.
That's literally the way the action unfolded in Rwanda and the way writer/actor Lewis is unfolding his new solo show, "Dogs of Rwanda." Even the main performance space at CSPS in Cedar Rapids is too big for the root intention of this intimate show, so he's presenting it Friday and Saturday (Jan. 17 and 18) in the smaller first-floor black box, known as C Space.
He premiered it in living rooms and backyards in Ohio in early October, and wants to continue along that creative path. He says the key is keeping it "dynamic enough and flexible enough" to adapt easily between parks, galleries, private homes and small theaters.
Fiction based on fact, the story emerges from the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, waged by the ruling Hutus against the rebel Tutsis in the East African nation. On his website, Lewis offers this plot teaser:
"At 16 years of age David found himself in Uganda as a church missionary. When he follows the girl of his dreams into the woods to help a Rwandan boy they’ve stumbled upon, he enters a world from which he will never fully be able to escape. On the 20th anniversary of the genocide he witnessed firsthand, a book David wrote regarding his experiences that Spring arrives with a note from the Rwandan boy he once tried to save. 'You didn’t tell them everything,' it says. 'You didn’t tell them everything.' "
Lewis, 36, of Iowa City and one of the co-founders of Working Group Theatre, kept extensive journals from his travels to Africa to conduct theatrical projects with young people, including adults orphaned through genocide in their youth.
During the multiple flights it takes to get to East Africa, he would strike up conversations with missionaries, many of whom had never been out of their home states and comfort zones.
"There was a juxtaposition I always found really fascinating," he says, between their hopes and goals and the harsh realities they were headed into in their quest to build houses.
"What I loved about it from a dramatic standpoint -- you have idealistic people who are going in the intents of doing something really good in a place that's incredibly complicated," he says. "What's good and not good in the history of those places is so tied up in so many different things that it’s just wracked with so much dramatic possibility."
In Rwanda, for instance, he visited historical genocide sites and discovered that even though everyone who was alive in 1994 had been affected by it, they didn't talk about it.
"It's more of an agreement not to talk about it, for fear that it will bring up emotions that could lead to another strife," he says. "It's not like an agreement that was handed down by the government -- it's more of an agreement that the people in the country have kind of quietly, silently made with each other."
So his task as a playwright became finding a way to make events that happened 20 years ago relevant to audiences today, half a world away and a generation removed.
The more he read about the Depression-era Federal Theatre Project, which encouraged out-of-work actors to develop socially-relevant art for the masses, the more excited he became about using this convention to engage with viewers in a way that's intimate, artistic, informative and theatrical.
Because the back-story is dark and ugly, Lewis needed to find ways to lighten the theatrical experience. He found that by using a first-person approach to connect with his audiences.
"It's such a heavy subject matter. It's a piece that i knew needed a level of humor and likeability within the character for it to really work," he says. "(Audiences) should feel like they're getting a story first-hand from someone who came away from amazing trip and he needs to expunge it."
Indeed, the seeds were planted as soon as Lewis and his wife, playwright Jennifer Fawcett, headed home from Africa.
"From the moment that we left Rwanda in 2011, there were elements of the story floating around in my head," he says. "I kept writing and wrestling through it."
Then about a year ago last October, Lewis went to Ohio to begin working with the director who helps him shape his one-man shows.
"I was saying, 'Let's lock ourselves in a room,' " and eventually, the play emerged. It runs a little more than an hour.
Using the solo model makes him work harder and smarter as a performer.
"You can't hide onstage when your only acting partner is your audience," he says. Ohio viewers embraced this show in ways he hadn't imagined.
"During the curtain call, I literally had audience members who would get up and hug me. It's just kind of amazing -- I've never had that happen at the end of a show."
Lewis is eager to bring the show to other spaces, from church basements to private homes. All that's required is a chair for him and "the basic ability to turn a light on or off." He says not to shy away from the subject matter -- that people will respond to the core message.
"The message isn’t so much about the harrowing experience of genocide," he says. "My true impetus for it -- what I was amazed by in that country -- is the concept of forgiveness and what it means when we forgive somebody, and what brings it on. Is forgiveness for the person doing the forgiving or is it for the person who gets the forgiveness? That -- and the question of how to be good in a world that seems to to just keep getting more and more complicated."
He believes that in good theater, "the theme should be something any person from any walk of life should be able to look at and say, 'I see myself in it.’
"That's the thing I'm really proud of with this piece," he says. "Even though the subject matter is very international, and very big and harrowing in scope, it still relates in way that people can leave it and still have questions or thoughts and insights for their current life."