Step up to the table and meet Angel, an interior designer who ended up homeless. Sharon, a recovering heroin addict who’s now a caseworker for other addicts. Chris, long ago part of a famed surf and skateboard crew. Mike, who got evicted at the same time he was facing a health crisis. And Chanel, who feels drawn to danger.
They’re all real people who were “food insecure” at some time in their lives. But now they’re also puppets, the stars of “Who’s Hungry,” written by Dan Froot, which plays through Saturday at the Charlestown Working Theater. The puppets are on one side of a specially built, 24-foot-long dining table, and the audience is on the other.
“We call them community narrators,” says Froot. “I actually trained as an oral historian for this project. With each person I sat down with them over the course of six months and did 10 one-hour interviews which were transcribed verbatim and put together into a book-length oral history.
“We wanted to tell stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told, and we wanted to tell them in intimate ways, and we found puppetry would be just the way to do that,” he says.
“We” in this case means Froot and acclaimed puppet artist Dan Hurlin, best known in Boston for his show “Disfarmer,” which played at the Institute of Contemporary Art back in 2010 as part of the Emerging America Festival. The two Dans along with composer Amy Denio created short puppet plays for each of the narrators. Puppetry, Froot says, creates a special intimacy that will help create a connection for audience members who have never been hungry or homeless.
“We wanted to keep the scale small and trade in that anonymity you have with larger audiences for a sort of warmer, conversation-sized audience for post-performance discussions,” says Froot.
At least as important is that “audience members have to pitch themselves in a sense into the puppet objects in order to believe they are alive in some way,” he says. “That’s an empathetic act. The puppeteers, as expert as they are, all they really do is move the puppets around. It’s the audience that assigns them feelings and thoughts.”
When Froot, an assistant professor of world arts and cultures at UCLA, had children of his own more than a decade ago, he thought about having enough to feed them “and became interested in the people in my own backyard who didn’t have that privilege.”
He is at pains to make clear that the show doesn’t necessarily focus on hunger or homelessness in each story, because that does not define the lives of the narrators. (Chris has since died.) Froot says, “It’s much more about people who have to make choices on a daily basis: ‘I need bus fare to go apply for that job, so I’m not going to eat breakfast today,’ or ‘I can’t pay the fuel bills and eat lunch for the next two weeks, so which am I going to do?’ ”
Each of the narrators is seen in a different style of puppetry or object art, from Japanese bunraku to shadow puppetry to carved wood painted to look like Delft china. And as is often the case in a Hurlin show, the puppeteers are visible to the audience.
“They’re so expert that you don’t really see them manipulate the puppets,” Froot says. “Everyone’s doing the same thing — watching the puppets, so it’s a very democratizing experience, which felt really important, because this piece is really about de-stigmatizing homeless and hungry people, about decreasing the distance between people of different means.”
At a conference, a mutual friend introduced Froot to Jennifer Johnson, co-director of Charlestown Working Theater, and they began talking about bringing the show here. They landed a New England Foundation for the Arts planning grant of nearly $4,000, and eventually a six-venue tour came together. “Who’s Hungry” visited Martha’s Vineyard and Wesleyan University in Middletowon, Conn., this fall before Charlestown, and will hit three more New England sites next spring. Additional NEFA grants to each venue financed the tour, Johnson says, including $10,000 to Charlestown.
The theater is partnering with some surrounding events with Charlestown’s Harvest on Vine food pantry. Johnson heard that the pantry is serving 700 to 800 families. “I had no idea,” she says.
“People are really struggling,” Johnson says. “How do we take some responsibility for that?”
Hosting “Who’s Hungry” is one way.
Froot and Hurlin have been friends and sometime collaborators for a quarter of a century. “Who’s Hungry” was originally called “Who’s Hungry — Santa Monica,” a follow-up to “Who’s Hungry — West Hollywood,” which had a different cast of narrators.
Froot volunteered as an assistant cook in a Santa Monica shelter for six months — “embedded,” he says — getting to know the community and working through shelter staff to meet some residents who had already managed to move on. From those groups he chose the six narrators for “Who’s Hungry.”
His next effort, he says, will focus on three yet-to-be-chosen families in three different parts of the country who are also struggling with the hardships that can lead to hunger, and their stories will be presented as live radio plays.
“I always have been interested in food,” says Froot. “Theater is nourishment for the soul the way food is nourishment for the body, and the alchemy of cooking is very similar to the alchemy of theater. Take different ingredients or elements and put them together, and they combine in a way that they become something else entirely. That’s a kind of magic to me.”