Play tells Portland panhandlers’ story in their own words

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PORTLAND — As the city continues to struggle with its role as a service center and what that means, a play is set to open later this month that purports to tell the “100 percent true tale” of the attempt to ban panhandling on median strips.

The story played out over the course of 2012-14 and ended when a local ordinance was eventually struck down as unconstitutional by a federal judge. The play, “Anything Helps, God Bless,” is told through the words used by those involved, from city councilors to lawyers, the police and the panhandlers.

The show, which runs Sept. 29-Oct. 8 at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater, is produced by the Snowlion Repertory Theater, a nonprofit, professional company co-founded by Margit Ahlin and Al D’Andrea in 2011.

In addition to the two to three stage productions the company mounts each year, Snowlion Repertory also offers a PlayLab program that provides Maine playwrights the chance to bring new material forward.

Ahlin, the company’s producing director, said, “Anything Helps, God Bless” was the result of a PlayLab workshop; she and D’Andrea had wanted to do a piece about homelessness and poverty for some time.

“As (we) experienced the median strip controversy and watched it unfold in the city government and later the courts,” Ahlin said, “(We) thought it would be good … to trace a story that touches on issues of giving, individual’s rights and how we all face people in need.”

She said funding for “Anything Helps, God Bless,” came from a Maine Humanities Council grant program that was looking for projects focused on the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

That amendment says, in part, that the government cannot make laws that “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process … nor deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws.”

Ahlin said she and D’Andrea created a cast of 11 and then tasked the actors with doing research around the attempted panhandling ban, including personal interviews with key players in the controversy.

“Everyone involved was stunned at the amount of material they were able to gather, and all were touched by the stories of the panhandlers, the thoughtful responses of the other key players and the feelings and reactions of the public,” she said.

Ahlin said six teams of actors and writers fanned out across Portland to find panhandlers who would be willing to have their real names and their own words used in the show. Those who agreed were each paid $20 for their time.

Other material for the play came from the transcripts of court hearings, city council meetings and police calls for service, Ahlin said, along with information culled from public surveys

She and D’Andrea then worked 10-hour days for a month to pull together a script.

“(We were) all surprised to find quite a bit of humor in the piece, as well as thought provoking and moving drama,” Ahlin said.

Overall, she said, the play is “a moving exploration of a community coming to grips with a nearly untenable problem.”

And through the play, “We believe we have helped humanize the monolith known as the homeless, and even shown some of the intricacies of government in an entertaining and informative way,” Ahlin said.

She noted that the play also shows how a” simple public safety ordinance unleash(ed) a torrent of passionate, sometimes outrageous response from all sides.”

What Ahlin and D’Andrea want audiences to do, she said, is “examine their own feelings about being confronted with poverty in the form of (panhandlers).”

“The show turned out to be an entertaining, dramatic and heartfelt way to have a conversation about the issues,” Ahlin said.

“We are immensely proud this show has the power to incite change, and can’t wait to share it with the world,” she said, adding “the controversy made waves in the Portland political and cultural scene which are still being felt today.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

The cast of “Anything Helps, God Bless,” a new play about Portland’s attempt to ban panhandling on median strips. The show opens Sept. 29 at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater.