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Walking around a theater to learn about the "Bill of (W)rights"
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Mixed Blood Theatre takes on America's civil liberties in its production "Bill of (W)rights." (Photo by Ann Marsden)
What would you do if you found a pack of cigarettes in your 13-year-old daughter's school bag? Would you ever read your spouse's diary? Is either situation a big deal? A new production at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis examines America's civil rights, and how they play out in our everyday lives. "Bill of (W)rights" is made up of 10 eight-minute plays, staged throughout the theater building.

Minneapolis, Minn. — "The Billet" is a play inspired by the Third Amendment. It doesn't come up much nowadays, but it prohibits the government from forcing people to house and feed members of the military.

The play takes place in a long hallway. Audience members watch from either end as soldiers take over a woman's home and explain they'll be staying a while.

Mixed Blood Artistic Director Jack Reuler says someone who says they're not interested in politics is like a drowning person not interested water.

"It is all around us, it's affecting the way we lead our lives. And if we put our head in the sand it doesn't mean it's not happening," says Reuler.

Someone who says they're not interested in politics is like a drowning person not interested in water.
- Mixed Blood Artistic Director Jack Reuler

Reuler and Guthrie Theater literary manager Michael Bigelow Dixon came up with the idea for Bill of (W)rights. It's an ambitious production, involving nine playwrights and 24 actors. Each playwright selected a different amendment to the Constitution.

Audience members see the plays in different orders, depending on which group they're assigned to. Dixon says he wanted to create a theatrical experience which would do a better job of engaging the audience in a critical dialog.

"We tend not to hear about our civil rights or liberties until they are threatened," says Dixon. "This just takes the issue of civil liberties and puts it into interpersonal relationships, and asks us to examine on a daily basis what kinds of ways are we living our ideals."

At the end of each play, jazzy techno music fills the building. It's the travelling music, and it signals the audience to get moving. Guides lead several groups through the maze that is Mixed Blood Theatre, a renovated firehouse, directing them to the next play. Audiences get to see parts of the theater normally not open to them. Some plays take place in stairwells and dressing rooms, each transformed into a miniature performance space.

Kelly Stuart was one of the first playwrights who signed up for the project -- she chose "the right against unreasonable search and seizure." She says the play was inspired by something that happened in her own life.

"I actually found a pack of cigarettes in my 13-year-old's bag and was horrified," says Stuart. "You find something like that, and you start wondering what else you are going to find out. Where's the boundary where you need to stop - to not invade someone's privacy - and how's that balanced against protecting that person or yourself?"

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Image America's Civil Liberties

In Stuart's play "Spyware," what starts as a conversation between husband and wife about the welfare of their daughter quickly spirals downward to reveal deep-seated mutual mistrust and paranoia. Stuart says the two characters think they can solve their problems by spying on one another and invading each other's privacy, but instead it only feeds on their uncertainty.

"The Bill of Rights, in order to work, you need trust between people," says Stuart. "And it feels like trust has broken down."

"Spyware's" underlying feeling of claustrophobia is heightened by the fact the play takes place in an approximately 5' x 5' box suspended off the ground. It's where the spotlights are normally kept.

Theatergoers Camille Gryder and Andrew Gockteppe say they were both impressed by the production. Gryder says it's everything theater should be.

"It asked the important questions, it challenges you and it brings up subjects that need to be talked about," says Gryder.

Gockteppe says he felt he learned alot.

"One interesting part of it was if you didn't follow the program [in some of the plays] it took a while to figure out which of the Bill of Rights they're talking about. It was a nice exercise."

Artistic Director Jack Reuler -- who describes Bill of (W)rights as something between a rave and Cirque de Soleil -- says he does not expect to make any money on this production. In fact, he'll probably lose money. But he says money's not the object.

"I've always been of the belief that if the seats are full and the politicians are smiling, then we're doing something wrong," says Reuler. "Increasingly in the last few years, as financial times have gotten tighter, a lot of arts organizations have tried to do safer work. I think it's at those times -- when we really need to be a voice of the populace -- that we shrink away from it."

Playwrights commissioned for the project include Jeffrey Hatcher, Syl Jones, Melanie Marnich, and Jane Martin. Bill of (W)rights runs through March 7 at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis.

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