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'How to End Poverty' Audience Chooses How to Donate $1,000 After Show

How do we end poverty? And can we do it in 90 minutes? It’s an ambitious goal, especially for a theater production. "How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes" (with 119 people you may or may not know) doesn’t actually solve poverty, nor does it pretend to, but it does make audience members think critically about poverty and how to help those in need. The Cleveland Public Theatre show is a partnership with United Way of Greater Cleveland that donates $1,000 to a local organization at the end of each night.

It’s an interactive experience, with audience members participating in conversations with people around them and the actors. They start by asking multiple choice questions like this one:

There are approximately 554,000 homeless people on any given night in the United States. How many housing units are currently going unused in the U.S.? Is it A) 18.5 million B) 4.2 million C) 930,000 or D) 2.9 million

The answer is A. There are 18.5 million housing units going unused in the U.S., according to the production. Questions like that get people in the mindset of thinking about solutions to poverty. A lot of it is local, like how many hours a person would have to work each week at a minimum wage job in order to afford the cost of the average rental unit in Cuyahoga County. The answer? 71 hours.

The show is not all game-show style questions. There’s singing, dancing, and appearances from local officials, like Republican Senator Matt Dolan, whose district covers part of Cuyahoga County, and Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon.

Cleveland Public Theatre artistic director Raymond Bobgan says it was important to him to bring this performance to Cleveland.

“We have such an issue with poverty here in Cleveland, and at the same time we have such great wealth and great ideas and great leaders, and I just felt like having this conversation could really make a difference,” he said.

Bobgan says one of the most important parts of this production is that strangers are able to have conversations about a difficult topic, which he says will make a big difference in the community as people start to have those conversations outside of the theater.

“This can really be a game changer,” Bobgan said. “It’s just this drop in the bucket, but that drop is going to have this real ripple effect.”

The show is leading people up to the big finale: Audience members will decide at the end of each night where to donate $1,000 from box office sales. They have to decide between five areas of need: education, system change, making opportunities, direct aid, and daily needs.

Each night is different as the audience changes. They all have different perspectives to share with their fellow audience members, and some of those opinions are read aloud by actors to try to persuade audience members in one way or another.

On Wednesday night, the winner was system change. The money went to Enterprise Community Partners, which advocates and creates affordable housing. Each night a different United Way organization will be chosen (United Way partnered with Cleveland Public Theatre for this production).

One audience member, Jennifer Hurd, was excited to see Enterprise win the money. She’s familiar with the organization.

“They’re really driving change, so housing first is one of their aspects, which is around chronic homelessness, so I think they’re just going to continue to look at ways that they can really drive change holistically for the masses, as opposed to just one individual,” Hurd said.

Other audience members were hoping another area of need would win the money. Joyce Moss thought the money would be better spent toward people’s daily needs.

“Education, everything is wonderful, but if you don’t get the basics, then you can forget it,” Moss said.

At the end of the night, people walked away knowing some of their ticket money went to an organization that will make a difference, and they gained a better idea of the effects of poverty in Cuyahoga County.

lisa.ryan@ideastream.org | 216-916-6158