On Stage and En Encena: Local Theater Educates with Bilingual Plays

What do wizards, wrestling and COVID-19 education have in common?

Quite a bit, according to the Olympia Family Theater, an innovative nonprofit community theater in Washington State. The theater engages playwrights and performers in productions that can both entertain and inform audiences, with the goal of creating a stronger and healthier community through the arts.

A recent production, Fully Vaxxed, is a series of bilingual plays that incorporate public health messaging about vaccination for COVID-19 and flu into their dramatic storylines.

The plays are funded by a CDC Foundation grant supporting arts and cultural organizations across the country to create innovative work in various forms of media to promote confidence in COVID-19 and flu vaccines.

“This is the largest grant that we have ever received,” said Lily Raabe, director of Olympia Family Theater. “We’ve never gotten anything like this before. It’s a huge deal for us. People are excited to see this in their community.”

Audience members enjoy one of the Fully Vaxxed plays

The Olympia Family Theater team

Cast members act out a scene from Lucha Virus

To create Fully Vaxxed, the theater commissioned three original, one-act plays, intended for Latino/a/x and migrant communities that have experienced high rates of COVID-19, yet have low vaccination rates. The plays were developed by three writers: Ramón A. Esquivel, Mabelle Reynoso and Miguel Pineda, all of whom worked hand in hand with Latino/a/x youth from around the state to develop and write the three plays.

To inform their stories, the youth conducted interviews with people who had varied and often conflicting opinions about the vaccines. These interviews were then worked into the existing script to create story lines that reflect the real concerns and questions people have about vaccination. The final productions toured across the state, with performances in Wenatchee, Bellingham, Sunnyside and the South Sound.

“El Cruel Coronavirus” from the play Lucha Virus

An OFT cast member puppeteers a shrimp in "Who's Afraid of the Rain?"

The wizard in "The Great American Liver Show"

One of the plays, “Lucha Virus,” tells the story of Benjamin, a boy who can’t decide whether to get vaccinated. He lives with his elderly grandmother, who is obsessed with Lucha Libre, Mexico’s entertaining and colorful form of professional wrestling. One night, Benjamin falls asleep in his grandmother’s chair and in a dream watches his fears play out in an epic lucha wrestling match.

A mystical gate opens between two worlds in the play, “Who’s Afraid of the Rain?” In an otherworldly meeting in a library, a Sasquatch, a Lechuza, a Dragon, a ferret and a shrimp come together to figure out who and what is real, how to work through their differences and how to keep one another safe. The storyline is a metaphor for the challenges of navigating misinformation surrounding COVID-19 vaccines and taking informed actions to preserve individual and community health.

In “The Great American Liver Show,” two characters encounter a wizard and talk about the first person to receive the vaccine. The audience is called in to provide suggestions throughout the play in this improvisational and participatory piece.

It’s a labor of love, it’s an act of community care and it’s an opportunity for us to come together—without shame or judgment—to talk about safety, responsibility and how we’re really doing in the face of the pandemic.

The Fully Vaxxed plays have also recently been performed to the delight of enthusiastic audiences at the Olympia Family Theater. Notably, the performances were paired with simultaneous pop-up vaccine clinics in the main lobby in partnership with the Sea Mar Community Health Centers, providing theatergoers with the opportunity to get vaccinated on site.

A staff member from Sea Mar Community Health Center sets up educational materials in the Olympia Family Theater lobby

A patron of Olympia Family Theater receives information about the COVID-19 vaccine

An Olympia Family Theater volunteer usher takes a selfie while receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in their lobby

A variety of partnerships have made Fully Vaxxed possible, including those with local community-based organizations WashMasks, Nuestra Casa and Wenatchee Café.

“For me, one of the greatest things to come out of this event has been the community partnerships and support we've received” said Mike Taylor, associate director of the Olympia Family Theater.

The theater also worked with Sky Bear Media to film the performances, like the one below. They have been released with an educational resource kit that includes videos, play scripts and educational activities translated into Spanish for communities to use in holding their own educational events.

"It’s truly an honor to produce Fully Vaxxed,” said Raabe. “It’s a labor of love, it’s an act of community care and it’s an opportunity for us to come together—without shame or judgment—to talk about safety, responsibility and how we’re really doing in the face of the pandemic.”

Funding for this effort is made possible through a subaward from the CDC Foundation and is part of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) financial assistance award totaling $2,500,000.00 with 100 percent funding from CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, CDC/HHS or the U.S. Government.

Photo Credit: Jason Redmond/CDC Foundation

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