College Theatre Festival highlights human connection through action

Scott Powell

A room full of heads topped with multi-colored hairdos, knit beanie caps, mohawks, fro-hawks and rainbow bows all whoop and holler as Sonja Parks, guest artistic director for the 2020 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, triumphantly parades about the stage in the salon of the Hilton Hotel, ushering in this year’s theatrical festivities with a reciprocative African chant between herself and the crowd.

It’s an ancient ritual but one that is symbolic of a new era in the evolution of the performing arts: an era that is not defined by the complex rules, structures, principles and systems that have constrained the art form for much of recent history, but rather its communal roots.

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It’s an era of the theater as a force for emotional engagement rather than intellectualized isolation. This isn’t the refined and removed theater of the proscenium stage with its fancy sets and daintily costumed actors in their pretty little living rooms sipping tea as they discuss their dry philosophical inquiries — oh no.

“Theater initially was about community,” Parks said. “It was ritualistic. It was about engagement — personal one-to-one engagement and communal engagement. As the world is changing and things are becoming much more communal, I think that theater is moving back into that realm that it was always meant to be in, and the Kennedy Center knows that and sees that and goes ‘Alright, if the festival is going to continue to be this kind of broadening of horizons for the students and this opening and expansion of worlds for the students, … then we’re going to have to fully reengage with that communal aspect.”

This communalism doesn’t end with Parks, however. It trickles through every aspect of the Kennedy Center Festival.

Take for example Joel Shura’s workshop on the lost — and often misunderstood — art of clowning, a class which may at first sound like a nightmare generator, given our culture’s current aversion to all things “clown-esque,” but which offers a surprisingly profound and even therapeutic vehicle through which students are able to engage and play with their unconscious and the sometimes odd, though nonetheless powerfully authentic, actions it drives them to carry out. 

“Clowns have been with us in one form or another basically throughout all human history,” said Shura, a member of the Idaho-based clown troupe “Clownzilla.” “We are able to see ourselves in a clown, and we’re able to laugh. … We understand where that clown is coming from easier because they are just living so truthfully in the moment, able to express everything they’re going through, and the audience is able to go through that as well.”

We are able to see ourselves in a clown and we’re able to laugh … We understand where that clown is coming from easier because they are just living so truthfully in the moment able to express everything they’re going through and the audience is able to go through that as well.” – Joel Shura

What Shura’s workshop forges is a connection between performer and audience in which the former is completely at the mercy of the circumstances and situation they are inhabiting. Students are invited one by one up to the front of the room and guided by Shura through a series of simple tasks and circumstances. These could be anything from “Smile slowly” to “Show the audience a special talent of yours.”

At one point Shura hands a performing clown a hand-held strainer with the instruction, “Do something with this that’s different from its intended purpose.” Immediately, the clown lifts up the strainer and begins using it like a showerhead, then points it threateningly at the audience, as if he were robbing a bank, then holds it up above his head as an idol to which he begins to bow down repeatedly, while his audience whoops and hollers with laughter. These are all reflections of what Shura calls “clown brain,” the part of our mind that exists free from any cultural, logical or societal inhibition. 

“Clown brain is the way that a clown perceives a task or how they perceive … the world,” Shura said. “(For example, if) I need to cook a chicken, I would probably prep it, season it, put it in a pan, put it in the oven. That’s the ‘normal’ … human way of doing it. But the clown brain might say, ‘You know what, in order to prepare this chicken, I have to throw it against the ground, and then I have to put a lighter under it. … It’s what that clown has to do.” 

Like the reciprocative chant led by Parks in the opening ceremonies, Shura’s “Clown Town” workshop seeks to expand students’ understanding of theater’s communal purpose and origins through the resurrection of older theatrical practices and traditions that our modern culture has forgotten or lost touch with. Here, it is not the actor presenting their rehearsed, refined selves to their passive audience — they are simply reacting to the spectators who have come to watch them and the wholly new, unknown world they have been placed in.

These clowns aren’t given time to prepare their acts. They aren’t given space to get into character and learn and polish their part before they are thrust into the spotlight. They are simply given a nose, a task and asked to trust their audience’s ability to recognize and empathize with however they choose to carry that task out. It’s this vulnerability that makes the performances displayed in the workshop so powerful.

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These students’ willingness to act without thinking first allows their audience to connect with them on an emotional, rather than purely intellectual, level. The point of connection between the clown and the audience is a complete mystery to both — yet neither can deny its existence, which in turn gives it more power.

“I think we’re seeing a real push in this country finally toward physical theater in general,” Shura said. “We’re getting away from maybe the more scripted work, and we’re getting toward devised work. We want physical theater. We’re seeing movement theater really imbue itself into performance, and we’re seeing more and more physical theater really starting to pop up. (Commedia) Dell’arte has always been around, … but I feel … it’s becoming bigger and bigger, and it’s making such a name for itself, and the companies are doing just that. They’re creating more work.”

In the salon at the Fort Collins Hilton, a crowd of students are engaged in an all-out battle royale, pulling each other’s hair and ears, stomping on toes, slamming into walls and generally raising such a fuss you would think that someone had just tossed a free pair of “Hamilton” tickets on the floor between them. But this isn’t a workshop in WWE fighting; it’s something much more intense and far less melodramatic — Jayme Greene’s stage combat course.

In Greene’s workshop, students are trained in the ancient art of theatrical tussling, learning how to properly — and safely — take down their costars onstage: yet another testament to the festival’s shifting focus toward action over introspection in the performing arts.

“I think with physicality and physical movement, any movement, whether you’re talking combat or … any of that stuff that’s really embodying (the character), we’re … trying to find a way to not necessarily flip (acting theory) on its head, but infuse it (with unconscious action),” said Greene, a certified teacher and theatrical firearms instructor with the Society of American Fight Directors. “I think it’s really hard for a person to learn (theory) and get it and to (take what they’re feeling) and do it. (When) we’re doing it and learning it at the same time, it’s … more robust and full.”

Combat is one of those universal languages. … we know (what’s implied) when someone hits someone. Not to say (everything boils down to violence), but we all get it as humans.” -Jayme Greene

What Greene’s class highlights is the persistent value of stage combat in the world of theater at large, despite its limited use in mainstream contemporary plays.

“Combat is one of those universal languages,” Greene said. “We know (what’s implied) when someone hits someone. Not to say (everything boils down to violence), but we all get it as humans, so we can filter (our understanding of more intellectualized acting theories) through that.”

It’s this universal language — this intuitive rhythm of human thought and human experience — that art and theater especially seek to uncover. It’s the rhythm that forges the connection between Shura’s clowns and their spectators and the audience responding to Parks’ chant. But we can only make these connections and deepen our understanding of this rhythm if we are willing to act on it when it presents itself.

This is what stand-up comedian, Community College of Denver professor and self-proclaimed ‘happy-go-lucky bear’ Chuck Roy seeks to nurture in his stand-up comedy workshops.

“What I try to do is give people the opportunity (to try stand-up),” Roy said. “So when I teach a workshop or I teach a class, I don’t lecture long, and I get people onstage fast. … (I have my comedy students present) for one minute on day one.”

Trial and error — no matter how numerous the errors may be — isn’t something to be scorned in Roy’s classroom, but celebrated. It’s something he says is the key to success not only as a stand-up comic, but a person in general. When we dive in headfirst to expressing our thoughts, feelings, fears and anxieties with others, we quickly learn just how deeply others relate to those problems and just how much potential they have to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

“(I work) especially with people who have difficulties, disabilities, emotional concerns, any of the challenges you can joyfully encounter at a community college; that’s my wheelhouse,” Roy said. “Bring me your poor, your hungry, and I’ll give them a microphone and seven minutes of stage time.”

It all boils down to trust: trusting that, no matter what we feel, if we present it truthfully and authentically and free of scorn or judgment, others will recognize and appreciate its value. 

Bring me your poor, your hungry, and I’ll give them a microphone and seven minutes of stage time.” – Chuck Roy, Community College of Denver professor

But how do we encourage this trust? How do we help to foster this willingness to share our story in a world that seems to be continually dividing and subdividing itself into narrower and narrower (and more hostile) groups? This is the question addressed in Ashley Lees workshop on diversity in theater criticism, a course that explores the evolved role of theater journalists in the modern world.

“Criticism today is not just words in a newspaper,” said Lee, a reporter and critic at the Los Angeles Times. “I’m teaching my students to be tweeting throughout the festival and sharing their thoughts in a more immediate way — to respond to any audience members that are engaging with them online and then to write digital-friendly pieces that people can read on their phones.”

Lee’s class highlights the need for individuals, particularly individuals who belong to historically underrepresented groups, to take action in making their voices heard in the conversation that is theater and theater criticism. As theater diversifies and returns to its communal roots, the style of criticism that has dominated the industry for so long — criticism based on one’s learned knowledge of the traditional structures of theater and its categorized forms — is no longer a sufficient means of communicating the value or purpose of a production.

Furthermore, this style of criticism has caused many individuals — individuals who might not have had the opportunity to study these traditional forms — to be misunderstood or altogether dismissed from the conversations theater inspires. As a result, the kinds of conversations being had in the theater world have become trite and uninteresting and in turn have robbed theater of the raw, powerful emotions it is capable of inspiring. When all we have to discuss about theater are theories and ideas that have already been written down in textbooks, what are we really adding to the conversation? What’s the point of our contributing to it?

“I think that critics are coming down from their pedestals and definitely already engaging so much more with their audiences,” Lee said. “I’m seeing rebuttals in Twitter threads and in Facebook comments, and I think that can only help because I know critics are busy, but I think to continue a conversation even after they’ve posted a piece is the best way to (ensure one’s critique is as thorough as possible).”

These days, we simply know too much to reasonably convince ourselves that we know anything at all.”

It’s this shift in attitude toward criticism as a mere translation of and expansion on the questions posed by art, rather than a definitive answer to them, that Lee’s class highlights. It frames social justice not as an ideal, imagined, utopic end toward which we are collectively striving — a conception that has led many in the modern world to look on the term with scorn and dismissal — but rather as the necessary means to the far greater, more complex end that art and life itself have been seeking since the beginning of time.

These days, we simply know too much to reasonably convince ourselves that we know anything at all. But this needn’t be a scary thing. We’ve known nothing for 4 billion years, perhaps more, yet we’re still here, and we’re still alive, and we’re still questioning and acting and creating. And it’s this deceptively simple, humbling, yet nonetheless powerful truth that the Kennedy Center Festival instills in its young attendees.

Art is not the instigator and creator of conversations, the way many have heralded it for so long, but rather it is the continuation of a grand, overarching conversation in which humanity has been engaged for the past ten thousand years — perhaps even longer. And it is only when we are willing to humble ourselves and accept our place as meager contributors to this conversation that we can learn and grow and understand how to be truly, deeply invigorated by life the way we so desperately long to be.

Scotty Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus.