Ashleigh Bragg, foreground, is a co-writer and co-facilitator of “Don’t Poke the Bear,” which is traveling through Wyoming this week. Here, she acts in an Aug. 10, 2021, performance in Laramie. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Most people who attend theater do so to observe. An interactive play traveling through Wyoming, however, asks audience members to do more than sit back and take in the story. 

“Don’t Poke the Bear” invites attendees to talk, challenge ideas and even steer the outcome. 

“We want folks to come and experience it, but we consider them participants rather than just audience members,” Sheridan theater educator Grace Cannon said. 

The play, which is billed as a forum or workshop, is the brainchild of Cannon and three applied-theater classmates from graduate school: Elise Goldin, Ashleigh Bragg and Nicole Kontolefa. The women wrote the “forum theatre”-style experience as a way to engage the audience at a deeper level, Cannon said. The plot was inspired by actual events and social issues in Wyoming.

Nicole Kontolefa, right, is a co-writer and co-facilitator of “Don’t Poke the Bear,” which is traveling through Wyoming this week. Here, she acts in an Aug. 10, 2021, performance in Laramie with co-writer Grace Cannon. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Within the 2.5-hour experience, facilitators and the audience engage in games and conversations. Facilitators present a short play, then initiate a conversation with participants about its arc and how they would remake it — choose-your-own-adventure style — before acting it out a final time.

The idea sprung from Cannon’s passion to bring untraditional, or “weird” theater to her home community of Sheridan, she said. She and her co-writers based the play on Wyoming news events, social issues and a theme of how neighbors treat one another, she said. 

The title is a reference to the idea that it’s best to leave some things unchallenged, even if they are unjust. 

“I was told this as a young person inWyoming,” she said. “You don’t want to poke the bear, you don’t want to upset people.

“What the play itself explores is, you know, in our interpersonal relationships, ‘how much are we willing to stick our necks out for our acquaintances who are more vulnerable?’” she said.

Laramie resident Nate Martin, an audience member in the Aug. 10, 2021, performance of “Don’t Poke the Bear,” was courageous enough to help reimagine the play’s ending. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

“Don’t Poke The Bear” was performed Tuesday in Laramie and Wednesday in Casper. Another performance takes place Friday at noon in Sheridan, and there will be a virtual finale Saturday at noon that people can attend online. 

Cannon said participants seem to appreciate the experience, even if they  have initial hesitation.  

“Most folks aren’t sure they want to even come to something like this because it doesn’t sound like anything they’ve ever come to,” she said. “It also sounds like they’re gonna have to be on the hook for something that they’re not used to … that’s kind of the way in which this type of work flips theater on its head.”

Facilitators, she added, won’t force anything. 

“It feels like a lot of pressure to like, be active and participate, but when you see what it is, it’s a lot of pretty low-stakes, like, invitations for people to just talk to each other,” she said. “Everybody learns a lot.”

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Katie Klingsporn

Katie Klingsporn is WyoFile's managing editor. She is a journalist and word geek who has been writing about life in the West for 15 years. Her pieces have appeared in Adventure Journal, National Geographic...

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  1. The photo tells it all…… “My friends went to this activist play, and all they got me was this lousy T-shirt”.