Life on the Streets: Polaroid Stories

Kevin Brustuen


Polaroid Stories, a play about homeless youth living on inner-city streets, tells the story of young people searching for self-identity in the face of powerlessness. Ovid’s Metamorphosesis is the foundation which playwright Naomi Iizuka used to write her play Polaroid Stories, which Bozeman Actors Theatre brings to Bozeman stages in April.

Ovid, a popular first-century poet in Rome during the reign of Caesar Augustus, wrote Metamorphoses in 8 AD as a paean to the emperor. Metamorphoses is a collection of fifteen books, each telling ancient myths which Ovid crafted to illustrate power and abuses of power, and thus proclaim the legitimacy of Augustus’ reign. Metamorphoses includes stories about misuses of power which Iizuka uses as a lens for examining the disenfranchisement of homeless youth in Polaroid Stories. The homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence that so often become the norm for at-risk youth permeate the storylines of Polaroid Stories.

Bozeman Actors Theatre brings Polaroid Stories to life on the Eagles’ ballroom stage opening April 9 and running for three consecutive weekends, directed by Mark Kuntz. His passion for telling Polaroid Stories stems from his years as an actor touring nationally and internationally, finding homeless people in every country, in every state, the poverty and misery of life on the streets plain for all to see. Yet, he would go to the theatre and perform in front of people every day who blocked out such ubiquitous examples of poverty so they could go about their normal lives, unaffected by the misery around them.

Naomi Iizuka, one of the most commissioned playwrights in contemporary theatre, wrote Polaroid Stories in 1997. Iizuka has published nearly 30 plays, often tapping into her Classical Literature education for the sources of her drama. She taught playwrighting at the University of Iowa and the University of Texas, Austin before settling in at the University of California, San Diego. Her experiences growing up as an American citizen of Latina and Japanese heritage in Japan, Indonesia, the Netherlands, and the United States inspired hybrid stories and characters, blending ancient mythologies with contemporary characters, such as Orpheus and Skinhead Boy, characters in Polaroid Stories.

One of the difficulties that contemporary audiences overcome with Polaroid Stories is the non-linear, episodic nature of the vignettes playing throughout the story. Lacking a main plot that drives the play from beginning to end, there is a theme of “seeking one’s identity.” much as the characters in Ovid’s Metamorphoses are searching for their identities in a series of vignettes. Think of Narcissus, Echo, Philomel, Eurydice and Orpheus, with a one-person Greek chorus named Dionysus observing and commenting throughout the various episodes.

Iizuka set Polaroid Stories in an abandoned urban pier, a desolate scene where young people are trying to survive at the far fringes of society, often unseen, unheard, forgotten and abandoned by others, until something goes wrong, when they attract the attention of the powers that be. It’s a life of hopelessness, frustration, and a desperate search for survival.

Kuntz’s concept for presenting Polaroid Stories in the Eagles Ballroom is innovative. Using two long runways that extend out into the audience, the characters can strut up and down these “piers.” occupying the stage itself as well as the piers and the “lake of forgetfulness ”between the piers. All the while, the audience is up close and personal with the action, having a very intimate experience with the characters, the poetry of the language, and a rather voyeuristic experience of being homeless and at-risk.

Ben Leubner serves as dramaturg for Polaroid Stories. Leubner teaches Metamorphoses in his Honors College classes at MSU. He speaks to the connection between Metamorphoses and Polaroid Stories, and especially about the language in Polaroid Stories: “The language can be difficult, as it mixes poetry and profanity. It’s lyrical and prosaic, and tells a story in the language of contemporary youth.” Watching a performance of Polaroid Stories helps one understand the poetry in the language.

Polaroid Stories has a cast of ten. For the first time in Bozeman Actors Theatre’s history, they are bringing in an outside actor, Tsiambwom Akucha, a young man from Atlanta who fills the role of Orpheus in the play and also serves as a choreographer. The cast performs several hip-hop dances as part of the performance, another first of its kind in Bozeman. Iizuka did not include dancing or choreography in the original script. Akucha explained why adding hip-hop dancing to the script makes sense and adds to the play when he talks about the homeless and at-risk young African-Americans in inner cities across America. He explains, “these young people, teenagers really, feel dispossessed with no sense of power, no sense of belonging, or of having any image of who they are or what their purpose is in life. So they dance—they dance in an expression of freedom, an expression of self-identity, and when they dance these hip-hop dances, they transform themselves into an individual who has an identity, and a purpose in life.”

It’s easy for us to ignore those at-risk people we see on the streets, or huddled under bridges, or in public spaces out of the rain and cold. In fact, we – this author included— often go to great lengths to avoid eye contact or physical contact, to say nothing of engagement of any kind. Part of the purpose of drama and art is to jar audiences out of their comfort zone, encouraging people to see things differently or at least to see things they hadn’t recognized before. Bozeman Actors Theatre’s mission statement includes performing “cutting edge, thought-provoking, difficult drama.”

Polaroid Stories meets this mission, and in a most wonderful fashion, hopefully raising public awareness about a very real problem in our own community.
Homelessness is a problem here in Bozeman, as it is almost everywhere. It’s part of life, and apparently always has been. But that doesn’t mean we should accept it or pretend poverty and at-risk people do not exist here. As far back as the Old Testament and the Torah, written over 27 centuries ago, poverty and homelessness were noted and exhortations given to care for these people: “for the poor you will always have with you in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’”  Director Mark Kuntz, who acted in Polaroid Stories once and directed it several years ago, hopes this play makes an impact on Bozeman audiences, raising awareness of our region’s homeless and at-risk population, especially among the young people of the valley. “I would love to see audiences react to this play by becoming more involved in volunteering for and donating to organizations that work with at-risk populations,” says Kuntz.

On any given day Bozeman has around 100 homeless people on the streets. This does not include a not insignificant number of homeless and at-risk students in the Bozeman School District nor a sizeable number of homeless MSU students. With this play—Polaroid Stories—Bozeman Actors Theatre hopes to bring awareness and support to these at-risk populations and to the organizations that support them.

Performances had been scheduled at the Eagles Ballroom, downtown Bozeman, starting at 8 pm on April 9, 10, 11, 16, 17, 18, 23, 24, and 25. For tickets or more information, please go to the Bozeman Actors Theatre’s website at
www.bozemanactorstheatre.org, or call (406) 451-4677. 

This was made by