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Thursday, April 19 News

Puppetry production sets the table for hunger insecurity

During one of their many chats at Samoshel, a temporary shelter in Santa Monica, Calif., Chris Cahill told Dan Froot about the time he was nearly swept away by the Pacific Ocean.

It was the middle of the night, and Cahill was catching a few waves, as he always did when the beaches were empty. He never had a problem tackling the 20-foot swells before, even in darkness. But on this day, they got the best of him.

"He finds himself out there, in the dark, in the middle of the ocean, with no board, and he can't see which way is which," Froot said. "It's sink or swim. At that point, the only thing he can do is rely on his most basic survival skills."

Froot was struck by the story -- not only because it was a thrilling tale of a near-death encounter, but because it was such a compelling metaphor for Cahill's struggles with hunger and homelessness.

Froot was so moved by Cahill's narrative that it became an integral part of "Who's Hungry?," the playwright's experimental theater production that aims to address and destigmatize food insecurity in the United States.

The production, which comes to the Silvermine Arts Center in New Canaan on Friday and Saturday, April 4 and 5, uses puppetry, dance, audio, visual arts and live discussion to weave the stories of five people who have dealt with chronic hunger. A 24-foot-long dinner table serves as a runway-style puppet stage for the production, which features four puppeteers, including Froot, who have created distinct visual landscapes for each story.

"We like to think of it as a multicourse narrative banquet," Froot said of the production.

One of those narratives belongs to Cahill, an original member of the famed surf-and-skateboard crew, the Z-Boys. Froot didn't want Cahill, who died in 2011 from health complications, to be a "poster child for food insecurity." Nor did he want to discuss the politics or statistics of hunger. So, he told the story of Cahill's surfing accident, using it as a metaphor for his struggle with hunger.

"We don't really talk about causes and effects of hunger and homelessness directly," said Froot, who grew up in Trumbull and Bridgeport. "We want to open a little window of interest and empathy into lives of people who happen to be food insecure. We want to provide a human dimension."

To create the show, Froot began by volunteering at homeless shelters, job training sites, food lines and soup kitchens in the Los Angeles area, where he lives. It was at those agencies that he met and interviewed people who had trouble finding enough to eat.

From there, designer and director Dan Hurlin, composer Amy Denio and Froot chose culled excerpts from these transcribed interviews to channel into the production. Hurlin created the sets for each story, Froot developed the script and Denio created a soundtrack.

For the performance at Silvermine Art Center, Froot is partnering with Norwalk Housing Authority, Covenant House, Bridgeport Rescue Mission to provide discounted tickets to the agencies' clients. Live discussion is a vital part of the performance, Froot said, and having an "economically diverse audience" can go a long way toward having a healthy and meaningful dialogue on a oft-neglected yet crucial issue.

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"We like to have local folks from different backgrounds talk to each other," he said. "That's one of the best ways we can reduce the stigma around food insecurity."

Scott.gargan@scni.com; Twitter: @scottgarg

Silvermine Art Center, 1037 Silvermine Road, New Canaan. Friday, April 4, 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 5 at 3 p.m. $25, $20 for members. 203-966-9700, silvermineart.org.