Beloit College experienced significant racial tensions in the spring of 2015. Inspired by participation in Sustained Dialogue groups and a forum theatre workshop with Julian Boal at the 2015 Theatre/Pedagogy of the Oppressed Conference in Chicago, we created Race Replays to address campus issues head on. Race Replays was presented in October of 2015 as an #blacklivesmatterbeloit event and again in May of 2016 as part of #makingequityrealatBC.
Race Replays is a workshop/performance that uses theatre as a tool to facilitate positive conversations about race. Developed by Beloit student Rebekah Evans and Theatre Professor John Kaufmann, Race Replays uses structured play, improvisation and audience interaction to get people thinking, talking and acting in new ways. Actors present short scenes involving race that one might overhear on a college campus. As you can imagine, things can get awkward, frustrating and offensive. But since it’s theatre, we can stop time, examine intentions and even replay scenes to explore different outcomes. In Race Replays, it’s up to the audience to guide the action to a more positive place. Augusto Boal called theatre “a rehearsal for the revolution,” but we won’t have a revolution if we can’t even talk about race. Race Replays offers a rehearsal space for the honest conversations that lead to understanding and change.
I have been performing Starball for over ten years now. With changing venues and audiences, I never get tired of performing the show. At the start of the show, audience members are asked to write down a remembered dream. The dreams are then collected in a box. Through music and astronomy, we introduce people to the mechanics of the night sky. For the rest of the show, we randomly draw dreams from the box and use them as inspiration to create original constellations in the sky. The show has taken me to many different planetaria, conferences, and inspired new projects. In the summer of 2014 I taught a course at Beloit College called “Astronomy, Art and Archetypes,” a class inspired by my experience with the show. In the morning, students studied astronomy with a physics professor, worked with me in the middle of the day on creative endeavors, and ended the day with mindfulness meditation led by our Spiritual Life director. We took field trips to the Adler Planetarium, the Yerkes Observatory, and tracked the real sun, stars and moon. Students created their own astronomical rituals and a “Beloit Henge” project.
This performance came out of a class that I co-taught with Amy Rider where students from different backgrounds got to know each other over time through written and spoken words. The resulting performance was created by students speaking each others' words and responding to live prompts. Actors also met for the first time on opening night. In the video, you might not notice that Claire is struggling to capture all of Jack’s rapid speech as she relays his story that she is hearing for the first time. Jack doesn’t have to speak as quickly as he “channels” Claire, but notice how they each take on the other’s rhythms and physicalities. This is happening without them having time to “think about” creating a character. One of the reasons I enjoy exploring this kind of work is that characterization happens quite organically. Claire and Jack are both strong actors, but I often find that "channeling" often brings out impressive, un-selfconscious work.
Line One (2004) Actors walk out on stage not knowing what they will be saying in the show. Nor will they be improvising dialogue. Rather, they speak verbatim what they hear through their cell phone earpieces. Each show has a theme and an array of “outside voices” who are told to call in and respond thoughtfully to a question or prompt. Each show was different, and this one had Stephanie being sent on a surprise mission to the space needle. Once she was outside, she called a fellow actor and narrated her journey. I was always intrigued how this structure brought out strong performances from the actors. Often I saw a sincerity and openness I didn’t see in “straight” plays. Often I would see an actor physically and vocally “channel” a stranger in a way that brought a special presence into the room.
Line One (2006) One of the goals of Line One was to expand the range of voices we hear on stage, even if they are outside voices “channeled” by the actors. Over the course of the show we had religious conservatives, drunk/stoned people, a couple who had been married 50 years, young children, people in different parts of the country and even non-native English speakers call in to the show. For the second run in 2006, we wanted to explore richer themes. For the “Welcome to my World” show, we heard from callers with mental and physical disabilities. In the clip, you’ll see Sam speaking the words of a quadriplegic man. The man was open, playful and seemed to enjoy having an audience. There was an extended time before the next call came in, so the man cleverly used Sam to solicit questions from the audience (the only time this happened during a show). An audience question prompted the story of the gun accident that left him paralyzed when he was eight years old. In the clip, you’ll see him talking about the challenges of sex and dating when you can’t feel anything from the neck down.
Preshow Sequence: With Antony and Cleopatra, I was interested in contrasting the cold, reasonable, masculine world of Rome with the warm, passionate, feminine world of Egypt. To emphasize this contrast, I wanted the worlds onstage simultaneously, with a threshold between the worlds. I always enjoyed when an actor would have to move through the threshold so we could see the physical and emotional transition in real time. The Preshow Sequence gives a nice introduction to these worlds. As the audience enters the theatre space, the actors play and improvise on stage without Shakespeare’s text. It was a warm up for the actors, and a chance for the audience to sense the worlds of the play. Above the action, Erin Jorgensen plays the marimba, gently vibrating the actors and audience members out of their mundane “pre-play” existence.
This short sequence also demonstrates the conflicting worlds of the play. Cleopatra lounges on her waterbed, playing with toy boats. This ripples into the “real” world when she convinces Antony to sail as well. I was interested in making the battles “real” and asked for a “battle machine” that the actors could genuinely struggle with. I wanted the winners to have a true physical advantage (4 tugging against 2, for example) rather than to see actors “faking” or throwing the fight. I wanted to keep the favored team honest and the handicapped team fighting for an upset. I think I went too far for this ideal. Web Crowell did make a beautiful “battle machine,” but when the actors really did put their heart and muscle into it, it sometimes broke (granted: spectacularly, wood-splittingly loudly - and expensively). In the end, we had to compromise a little, but the battle scenes still offered genuine struggle, and a ritual of conflict that “really happened.”
With The Memorandum, I had a goal of getting more students excited about the production and into the audience. I worked with a student to create a marketing plan for the play. We sold discounted tickets in the dining hall, made show t-shirts, special posters featuring actors faces, and a series of short promotional videos with students speaking in Ptydepe (the jibberish language from the play). Such measures were successful in luring student audiences to a rather obscure absurd comedy from the Czech Republic.
I was much younger here at the good old Speakeasy Backroom in Seattle (before it burned down!), but the seeds of my future work are present in this excerpt from my solo show, linger. I’ve always been interested in the intersection of structure and chaos, or script and improvisation. For the weeks before the show, I wore a pager (cutting edge technology at the time!) and had friends page me at random times during the day and night. I wrote down where I was and how I was feeling and collected these “moments” in a box. The structure of the show was plotting these moments on the “Linger Life Grid” (which I describe in the video clip). The randomly drawn moments were the chaos and charting them on the grid created the structure. At the end of each show, the charted moments became a “constellation.” This was a clear inspiration for Starball, where the mechanics of the night sky gave structure to the random patterns of stars and audience members’ dreams. The show starts with music, serving the same purpose as the marimba in Antony and Cleopatra or the accordion in Starball: to subtly "vibrate" the audience into a new world.
One of John's greatest theatrical creations: Miss Hattie Kaufmann. Here performing an original piece entitled "Strong Emotions".