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The Haves and The Have Nots ... 11/16/2003
Date: 11/16/2003 Edition: Sunday Section: Local/Region Page: B1
Word Count: 834 word
The Haves and The Have Nots

Important people -- politicians, scientists, corporate CEOs - visit Dartmouth all the time to talk about their work. But sometimes it's the lesser-knowns who stop by that have the most to say. This week, the college's Hopkins Center is bringing in New York playwright and performer Marty Pottenger for three days to discuss her latest project. Although Pottenger has won an Obie Award, which honors outstanding off-Broadway productions, most people outside the theater world have never heard of her. Pottenger, 51, is a former carpenter whose most recent work is about one of America's greatest social ills, one that the Upper Valley has become quite familiar with in recent years. Her play Abundance focuses on the growing divide between what Pottenger describes as "those who have more, and those who have less." Before writing Abundance, Pottenger talked with 200 people across America, including several Vermonters, about the role money plays in their lives. She interviewed millionaires and minimum-wage earners, captains of industry and garbage collectors, trust funders and undocumented workers.

Although Abundance won't be performed here this week, there will be several opportunities to get the flavor of Pottenger's work and how it relates to an Upper Valley where single-family homes start at $400,000 in Hanover while five miles away families are living in decrepit roadside motels for $150 a week. Starting Thursday, Pottenger will lead four sessions of what the Hopkins Center is calling "community discussions about money, resources and power."

Two of the discussions will be held outside Hanover, and all of them are free. On Thursday, Pottenger will be in Windsor at Shepard's Pie Restaurant on Main Street and Friday she's at the Hanover Inn. Both start at 7 p.m. On Saturday, the conversation moves to the Tip Top building in downtown White River Junction at noon and 105 Dartmouth Hall at 8 p.m. "Obviously, this is a great topic for our region to talk about," said Margaret Lawrence, program director at the Hopkins Center. "We're trying to use the arts to look at issues important to (local) communities. Hopefully, it will invite people to participate in a way they wouldn't if it was presented as a lecture."

Dartmouth's decision to invite Pottenger -- and pick up the tab with the help of a $2,000 arts grant -- is an encouraging sign for the Upper Valley, too. It shows the college is in tune with what's happening on the other side of its ivy-draped campus walls. Given the college's never-ending quest to expand its real estate empire (shelling out $4 million for 53 acres in Lebanon being the latest example) and pad its $2 billion endowment, this isn't always evident. But this week Dartmouth is doing what socially conscious colleges are supposed to do -- provide ways for people to talk about issues that directly affect them. On Wednesday, I drove to Burlington where Abundance was playing in the Flynn Center's 125-seat basement theater. For three consecutive nights, theshow sold out in advance. Pottenger uses humor ("Money is the root of all evil; I want more roots.") to show how obsessed Americans have become with money, and the stuff it buys.

Before the play, patrons were asked to fill out a short survey about their personal finances. People wrote down their annual salary, total savings and an estimate of their debts, including mortgages, student loans and credit cards. At intermission, the results were announced. The crowd of 125 had a combined annual income of $3.3 million while their debts totaled $3.7 million. Pottenger does an effective job of using statistics to point out how the thirst for more money makes both the rich and poor look like hamsters inside a wheel, running at full tilt but not going anywhere. Americans spend $95 million a day on lottery tickets. As one character in Abundance points out, "Most of them are bought by poor people. They know it's not happening any other way."

If wealth were divided equally among America's 100 million households each would end up with $250,000. Instead, the richest 1 percent of Americans has an average personal wealth of $10 million.

The wealth disparity, Pottenger's characters wryly explain, exists because "some people work harder than others and those people end up with more." Or it's due to the fact "your mommy's mommy married a very rich man." Hoping to better understand what Pottenger was trying to accomplish by writing a play that focuses on how money has turned America into two countries, I looked up a magazine article about Abundance. In Motion Magazine wrote, "Pottenger's project is not to prescribe answers, but rather to move audiences to think and discuss and laugh and cry -- together. But it is still up to each individual audience member to decide how to take action."

I'm eager to see how the Upper Valley reacts to Pottenger's visit. In trying to bridge the gap between the haves and have nots, time is not in abundance.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon

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