The fight for fair and equitable treatment of laborers is an ongoing struggle. In 2023, we have seen numerous strikes and strike threats, including those by SAG-AFTRA, United Postal Service workers and Starbucks Workers United. It is amidst this backdrop of labor activism and the pursuit of workers’ rights that the play “Little Peasants” emerged.

“Little Peasants” is an immersive performance presented in Somerville by the research and advocacy organization Food Tank. Food Tank’s work is dedicated to using art and storytelling to explore the intersection of food and social justice. Their previous production “WeCameToDance” was an interactive musical examining sustainable agriculture. In that same vein, “Little Peasants” gives the audience a seat at the table of a union-organizing campaign at a fictional coffee shop. Following the complete play, audience members are given the opportunity to vote on the union negotiations alongside the characters.

Given the unconventional nature of this production and its aspirations to engage with and challenge the audience, the manner in which the play is handled is critical. On Feb. 7, The Justice had the pleasure of speaking with the production’s director and Brandeis alumni Dori A. Robinson ’00 about how the team behind “Little Peasants” approached these goals.

Although she did not start in theater, by her senior year at Brandeis Robinson discovered how storytelling could be used to make a positive impact on communities. To her, theater has the profound ability to “create a community and create a world in a short amount of time and build empathy and connection that can never again be replaced because every audience is different.” With this mindset of fostering community and empathy, Robinson developed her senior thesis. Inspired by political theater pieces, Robinson explored the spectrum of Jewish religious identity among students at Brandeis. She had a set of Jewish students volunteer to be actors in the play; however, her casting process was quite unique. They did workshops together, discussing their conceptions of their faith and identity, on which Robinson based her script. She then cast each person as “opposite” to who they were. This production challenged the actors and the audience to put themselves in the shoes of their peers — to listen and attempt to understand perspectives different from their own. It is this convergence of art and community, between cast and audience, that Robinson worked with on “Little Peasants.”

Robinson joined the “Little Peasants” team in late 2023 after the writer and co-founder of Food Tank, Bernard Pollack, had completed the script. She was drawn both to the play’s style and the content of worker justice. Robinson stated, “I think it was just so interesting to me because it’s not something that gets talked about a lot in theater even though it’s such a big, important part of our lives.” In merging worker’s justice with immersive theater, it was vital to create characters that felt real and sympathetic. Pollack interviewed numerous people involved in unions and based all the characters on real people. From this, the actors learned to embody these authentic characters, so the audience will hopefully resonate with their dreams and experiences.

The production team of “Little Peasants” also took extra care crafting each character because, being an immersive production, it is inevitable that audience members will bring their own opinions about union negotiations to the table. In order to create an authentic experience and challenge these preconceived biases, each character needed to read as a real human being — one that the audience could empathize with and even agree with. According to Robinson, the goal was to create characters that would allow audience members to hear each person’s thoughts and say, “I have the opportunity to change my mind about this.” Her dream at the end of the two performances is for the audience to vote differently each time. 

Casting was the next component in bringing the experience of “Little Peasants” to life. Robinson, alongside the dramaturg and producer Elena Morris, curated a cast of entirely non-equity actors local to Boston. Not only was this a way to elevate Boston-based artists, but as Robinson stated, “When you’re thinking about how we produce and consume food, I think we automatically think about caring about what’s local — what’s happening locally.” Though the play itself is not set in Boston, Robinson feels that the locality of the actors brings familiarity and relevance to the performance. This closeness between actors and audience was essential to constructing the final performance. To Robinson, theater works like a triangle: There is the content, the performance and the audience. The goal is to connect all three. Especially within the context of the audience, one must ask what is needed to best understand the narrative being shared. 

Robinson believes that the key to directing a piece that engages the audience in such an interactive way is asking questions — and, of course, saying, “Yes, and.” She stressed the importance of creating a working environment completely open to questions. Robinson consistently asked for feedback from her actors and thought critically about what each moment needed in order to touch the audience. Just as immersive as the final performance, the directorial process was filled with interaction and engagement from the entire team behind “Little Peasants.”

Looking beyond the rehearsal room, at the core of “Little Peasants” is a deep desire to create awareness for issues of social justice in a medium more accessible to audiences. Robinson noted how each of the artists involved with “Little Peasants” have worked at the intersection of theater and advocacy in the past. As the production moves to the stage, Robinson believes that “Little Peasants” can be translated to different cities and touch audiences all over the nation. She thinks that “everyone would benefit from it, and not just benefit from what they learn from it. I think it’s also fun and exciting and funny. So, I think that there would be a joy to sharing it everywhere.”

That being said, the reach of “Little Peasants” can even transcend the four walls of the theater. From theater festivals to conferences to local bars, “Little Peasants” has relevance in various circles. Robinson’s dream for the project is for it to have its own website with study packets, resources and educational videos. As workers rights evolve and labor environments change, the performance will always have a different impact. However, as she pushes audiences to question and think critically through theater, Robinson “does not need all the answers. [She] just needs us all to ask the questions and put it out there.” So my question for you is: Would you like a chance to see the Feb. 21 sold-out “Little Peasants” at The Burren in Somerville, Massachusetts? The Justice has two free tickets available to anyone willing to write a review for an upcoming issue of the paper. Please email for more information.