Catching The Community Bus

Catching The Community Bus

‘Shelter’ takes playgoers on a journey


When Artist’s Laboratory Theatre’s artistic director Erika Wilhite is excited about something, she talks fast. Really fast. Mile-a-minute, rat-a-tat-tat machine gun fast. When she talks about the theater’s upcoming production of “Shelter,” it’s a little hard to keep up.

The cause of her excitement is obvious: Artist’s Lab has been working on this particular project for over two years now. “Shelter” is the third in a series of productions using material gathered through the Southside Civic Lab, billed on the Artist’s Lab website as “an ongoing community-based performance series designed to address community needs, including access to transportation, racial equity and neighborhood revitalization.” The finished product is not due until next summer, and it will incorporate all of the material the company has scrupulously gathered into a single production. The ultimate goal? To produce a piece of theater aimed at giving the community-at-large a better idea of what’s going on in the world right outside their doors.

“This neighborhood is an interesting place to be right now,” says Wilhite of the complicated ecosystem known as the south side of Fayetteville. “And this isn’t an interrogation; it’s an investigation. If you don’t live here, you may not be aware of how many people are living in the woods nearby, who only get their meals from community lunches and dinners, who spend their day at 7Hills [Homeless Center] trying to get jobs. But I think it’s important to know about this, because we, as a region, have the means of solving these problems. This is our contribution to that effort.”

Artist’s Laboratory Theatre artistic director Erika Wilhite says, “There are so many conversations about neighborhood development. It’s just a matter of time before things do get better, meaning — more accessible and offering a high quality of life for everyone — not just everyone with a car, or for those able to ride their bikes on the trails.”

Artist’s Lab collaborators — Wilhite calls them “neighborhood ambassadors” — have spent two years observing and interviewing their neighbors as they gathered information for the project. One area of intense focus has been the Ozark Regional Transit bus system — a means of transportation that, no matter how imperfect, is the only link to jobs and shopping for many Southsiders.

“We’ve been observing the challenges people are having through our interviews.” says Wilhite. “We’re noticing where things can be improved. We’re partnering with Ozark Regional Transit, and we’ve learned so much.

“They’re doing a solidly excellent job with what they have. But they have so little.”

Wilhite says one of the first things the theater company did after forming the unusual partnership with ORT was to offer to sponsor the installation of a bus shelter.

“We’re trying to decide where we want it,” says Wilhite. “We want to be careful and mindful of the need.”

The two organizations — one governmental, one artistic — are working so closely together, “Shelter” will take place on a bus as it moves from stop to stop, fulfilling Artist’s Lab’s mission statement of site-specific theater.

ORT’s executive director Joel Gardner says the unlikely friendship seemed like a natural to him.

“It was a great opportunity to meet Erika and her group, and hear them talking about their visions for [site-specific] theater,” says Gardner. “One thing led to another, and we were in. I thought, ‘We’re going to be in this thing all the way up to our necks,’ because it sounds like such a fun project.”

Gardner has high hopes for the production.

Erika Wilhite is happy that her theater company is part of the public transit conversation in Fayetteville. She says, “We’re a different community now. We have an awareness of the need, and we can’t pretend that this city isn’t growing at a rapid speed. If we don’t do something now, everybody is going to be miserable on the roads.”

“I hope [their project is] able to show that there’s a real purpose behind public transit, that people use it for a wide variety of reasons,” he says. “I always go back to infrastructure. All of the systems I’ve worked in have treated public transit as a part of the infrastructure. Here, it’s not yet treated as part of the infrastructure. I’m hoping in the very near future it will be. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, you can use transit to get around.”

Wilhite is determined that Artist’s Lab will be a part of disseminating that message.

“As a theater company, we have the values of justice and equity and community,” she says. “Since our toolbox is storytelling, that’s what we’re throwing down in our effort to help.”



Artist’s Laboratory Theatre:


WHEN — 7 p.m. May 18-19, 25-26

WHERE — Walker Park, 10 W. 15th St. in Fayetteville

COST — Pay what you can with a suggested donation of $20

INFO — 439-6046

Categories: Theater