Eugene theater director draws talent from the world of the homeless

Hard as it is to put on a performance of any kind, imagine the difficulty of pulling one off when all the actors are homeless. But if anyone can keep it — and the cast — together long enough to take to the stage, it’s undoubtedly Judith Voss.

Lanie Baley of Street Code Theatre performs a scene during a rehearsal of a multimedia piece on homelessness.

Lanie Baley of Street Code Theatre performs a scene during a rehearsal of a multimedia piece on homelessness.

She calls her troupe the Street Code Theatre, and they’ll do their “personal performance” show Saturday at the Wildish Theater in downtown Springfield. They range from teens to retirees, and what they all have in common is the experience — either now or in the past, for a few days or a few years — of not having a place to go home at night. The show is titled, “A State of Grace.”

“I started this group on a leap of faith, unaffiliated with any agency or organization,” Voss said. “None of these people are professional actors, most have never had any sort of theater experience, but they’re all wonderful — and they’re all worth caring about.”

Some of the pieces that make up the program involve all the actors on stage at once, while others are solo performances that range from poetry to dance to video. One actor plays guitar riffs between elements of the show. But everything on the agenda portrays a particular truth about the uncertain and fluid lives of the homeless.

Nailing down the cast was a major accomplishment, and keeping it together an ongoing struggle. On a Thursday during the early stage of rehearsals, 18-year-old Braydin Aurena — one of the most forceful personalities in the troupe — announced that she and boyfriend Conner Horner-Linch would be leaving for Central Oregon to give her a chance to reconcile with her mother, potentially throwing the 10-person cast into a major reconfiguration.

But by the following Tuesday, that plan had been abandoned. The young couple were back at the rehearsal space donated by the First Evangelical Church of Eugene — wearing the black-and-white Street Code Theatre sweatshirts Voss purchased for all of them — and ready to go on with the show. Mere days after that, Aurena, who describes herself as a “proud 18-year-old trans man” and has been on the streets off and on since age 14, ended up in the hospital with double pneumonia but got out in time to show up for rehearsal.

Each get-together begins with a meal of pizza or sandwiches, followed by a “check-in” time during which each person in the circle takes the floor in turn to share the challenges they’ve faced since the last meeting and how they’re coping.

Given the season and the privations of living without a home — several of the younger members of the troupe regularly sleep in doorways or even less-protected spots — rehearsals are often punctuated with hacking coughs or feverish cast members dozing in their chairs between pieces.

One stormy afternoon, married couple Lanie Baley and Allen Miller, who live in their car with their dogs, arrived nearly at the end of the three-hour session because of problems jockeying their vehicle from one overnight parking space to the next.

“I’m really tired today — I have a sore throat and I feel like being in bed,” Baley said. “But we forced ourselves to come.”

Somehow Voss, who never bosses but nonetheless manages quietly to keep order from descending into chaos, carries on, assisted by Ryan Zimmer, who has his own production company, Hi-Fi Video, but volunteers to provide technical direction and videography for Street Code Theatre.

For her part, Voss has decades of experience as a “life enrichment specialist,” both privately and for care centers, schools and public recreation departments. Three years ago, she orchestrated a performance that featured patients at a Eugene nursing home as actors portraying their own lives. But each time she undertakes to help a group share its particular creative expression, it’s a whole new challenge.

“These shows take a lot out of me,” Voss admits. “But it’s something I seem to have to do. Last fall, I thought I was done with this kind of thing — I moved and gave away 20 years’ worth of trunks full of props and costumes. But then I had a vision that I needed to do a show on behalf of people who are homeless. For me, sharing the talent and showing the value of people who are often marginalized in our society is a profound experience.”

As a 51-year-old woman with a doctorate in special education, a master’s in counseling psychology and a bachelor’s in English, Voss sums up her dedication to helping disadvantaged people portray their lives through performance by quoting religious scholar, teacher and author Andrew Harvey. “He said, ‘Don’t follow your bliss, follow your heartache,’ ” she said. “And that’s what I have often felt called to do,” to the point that she foots the bill for her theatrical productions from her own personal funds.

Her goal in directing this particular show “is to increase public understanding about some of the issues underlying homelessness by dispelling myths and stereotypes,” she said, “and in the process to provide each performer with a greater sense of self worth.”

Homeless people often are made to feel less than others, even almost invisible, “and for each to follow through on performing, not only does it give an outlet for personal stories to be heard, but it also seems to be providing a sense of worth, of doing something tangible to feel proud of,” she said.

That’s part of what drew Patricia Hampton to the group, even though her only experience with homelessness was being stranded in Eugene for 10 days once with her dog, waiting for a check to arrive so she could continue her journey. She later returned to Eugene, where she lives in an independent retirement facility.

“I spent those days until my money arrived living in my car in a parking lot,” Hampton said. “I showered at St. Vincent de Paul’s Service Station and ate where the other homeless people ate. I had nothing to keep warm, so St. Vinnie’s gave me a $15 voucher to buy a blanket and a pillow — to this day, I still have the same car, the same blanket and the same dog. And when I heard about what Judith was doing through a friend, I had to become involved.”

She has two pieces in the show. One is a slow dance trailing colored scarves in front of projected photographs while she reads an essay she wrote about “inner homelessness” and “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” by Christoph Gluck plays in the background.

Others portray their feelings about homelessness differently. Dylan Mocabee, a young man whose street name is Fox, recites a rap poem he wrote called, “The Hustler’s Prayer” and also demonstrates his prowess at break dancing.

Sometimes the artistic aspects of Street Code Theatre become hijacked by the realistic.

One night, “I happened to check my e-mail before I went to bed — it was a really cold night — and there was a desperate plea from Braydin and Conner, who were using a computer somewhere there was Wifi available, and they had nowhere to sleep,” Voss said. “I got up and got dressed, and I was able to get them space in a hostel for one night, and I met them there just before the final check-in deadline.”

When she arrived, two other members of the troupe also were there without a place to stay “and with no warm clothes, with just a sleeping bag wrapped around their shoulders, and they asked me if I could pay for them to sleep there, too,” she said. “I was not able to do that, and they thanked me anyway and walked away in the dark. That was heartbreaking.”

The next day, Aurena came to rehearsal with a poem she had written about the experience, “It Was Cold Last Night,” and it was immediately incorporated into the program.

Despite the energy it takes for homeless people simply to take care of their daily needs, Voss isn’t surprised that they have enough spirit left over to turn their lives into a performance.

“My experience is that people have a need to be seen, known and honored on a deep level that is as important as breathing, eating and sleeping,” Voss said. “If I can help give them that experience through this performance, then that is what I am meant to do.”