In the Before Times, we took so many things for granted: attendance, for example. By “we” here, we mean the white, able- and cis-bodied coauthors of this piece: Markus Potter, Changemakers co-director and lead teacher for the connected class; Darci Jens Fulcher, co-director; and Jane Barnette, head of dramaturgy, all from the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Kansas. In retrospect, it seems obvious that we took the physical attendance of audiences for granted, especially in an educational setting where attendance to the season’s shows is habitually required for coursework.
In the After Times, we were forced to embrace precarity and contingency plans; we hoped to return to live performances with audiences attending in person, but we had to be realistic and plan for digital viewing at the same time. We also had to reconsider rehearsals and look for ways to limit the number of students together indoors, without ignoring our collective need to commune and create together. As an ensemble, student-actors and professor-directors, we were all working within the unknown. We did not know when mask mandates would end, just like we did not know how the play would end. We only knew that we had to make theatre differently, and that we wanted to create opportunities for inclusion and offer unique opportunities for students, while following public health protocols.
Our response to this dilemma was to embrace research-creation as a methodology for solo performances within an ensemble. We envisioned a production built with social distancing, featuring a world of commissioned monologues that used an ensemble to weave them together with commissioned music and choreography, resulting in a full-length original work for both digital and in-person attendees. We called this piece Changemakers, and in what follows, we share the process and product of creating it, in the hopes that this approach might appeal to fellow theatre-makers who find themselves in similar straits, seeking navigation for building monologue-based ensemble productions.
Several students were understandably reticent to commit to performing in a show that had not yet been written, much less one that they were expected to help create. Ultimately these students embraced the fear and vulnerability of the unknown and committed to a process that was new to all of us. The research phase for Changemakers began on Zoom with a series of freewriting exercises that were meant to help the ensemble members explore their artistic voices.1This initial work gained crucial dramaturgical context during the next steps, when actors collected pieces of text from social activists, community leaders, front-line workers, politicians, or any individual who had fought for change. From this found text, students began to craft documentary-style monologues. Each actor was then paired with a professional playwright and had the opportunity to discuss their research and initial writing with these writers, who then crafted a new monologue in conversation with or in response to the student’s documentary monologue.
We asked the playwrights to create a one- to two-minute “play” with a central character supported by a large ensemble. When the actors began the in-person part of the rehearsal process, we sought their creative reflections by assigning a mood board, asking them to build a playlist, and to continue free-association writing.2 Soon thereafter, the students began meeting individually with Fulcher, in anticipation of exploring the physical space. We wanted them to dream about the tangible world of their play and to deepen their personal connections to the material. In her book-length manifesto How to Make Art at the End of the World, artist and art historian Natalie Loveless argues that “to do research—of any kind—is not simply to ask questions; it is to let our curiosities drive us and allow them to ethically bind us; it is to tell stories and to pay attention not only to which stories we are telling and how we are telling them, but how they, through their very forms, are telling us” (24; emphasis in original). Behind each one of the stories told in Changemakers was a distinct attention to student-led passion—in contrast to traditional homework that matters (usually only) insofar as it is connected to a grade, Potter’s assignment attempted to unearth the individual and collective ethical framework of care that motivated these particular students to action. It required student-actors, in other words, to attend to uncomfortable realities (such as people without housing, their own mortality, and the ways that systemic misogyny and racism limit opportunities) and to consider how (or whether) they have agency to enact change. Just as vital to this group of students, however, was to acknowledge where they did not want undue attention: trauma. For this cohort living through a pandemic and massive social unrest, it was crucial to rise above the suffering of the moment; instead, they wanted to tell stories that moved through trauma, without discounting it but also without lingering upon it. They were hungry to explore the humorous, poignant, inspiring stories about isolation and human connection, alongside inspirational and uplifting stories of positive change.
With generous financial support from the department—made possible by season funding that could not be used for full production builds during the pandemic—we commissioned twenty playwrights and composers to write this series of short plays. As part of this arrangement, the professional writers agreed to release the works to live online so that students could include video footage of their performances as part of their personal portfolios, and the department could share the recording in public forums like this one, to be viewed long after the production closed.
The resulting performance took place in our large proscenium theatre, the Crafton-Preyer, which can seat up to 1,200 spectators. Because this was our first return to live, in-person theatre and plans were solidified before vaccines were widely available, we limited attendance to fifty masked audience members, and made the event accessible via livestream. After watching the performance, viewers shared their surprise at how quickly what had once been mundane—the sounds of patrons talking in the auditorium, the rustling of programs as they settled in their seats—had become so remarkable and affective that it brought tears to their eyes.
In addition to the strange novelty of seeing live theatre again, attendees also found the content of Changemakersmoving, especially because each one of the pieces was supported by the other nineteen actors onstage. As a chorus choreographed by Fulcher, the ensemble buoyed the monologues through physical dramaturgy, embodying the environment, mood, tone, or internal experience of the speaker. In concert with Scenography MFA student John Rohr’s multiple-level, bare-bones scenic design—one made with the practical limitations of enabling social distancing, necessarily created well before the scripts for Changemakers were written—the chorus created the various settings for each play, whether real or imagined. Thus the choral choreography expanded the world of the play beyond a typical monologue series where the speaker uses a downstage mic, while nonspeaking actors sit upstage. Students transformed into baristas, medical staff, relatives, airplane passengers, and more. As Fulcher reminds us, “not every story can be told through words.” Nor can every story reach its potential through a single teller. Through collaboration, they imagined how movement, gesture, and choreography could fill the unspeakable moments.
In “Chaos Theory,” by Sherri Eldin, performed by Kalen Stockton, the sound of a heart monitor is heard just before Stockton is illuminated, dressed in a hospital gown, standing on a platform that is rising from the trap below. Behind her in each of the eight platforms of the set, the chorus enacts sharp staccato movements in tempo with a ventilator and the heart monitor, together creating the machinery of a hospital at full capacity. Once Stockton begins to speak, the chorus members freeze, returning to neutral bodies as she says, “I like to imagine what’s underneath all the nurses’ PPE layers.” The masked actors of the ensemble stand facing the audience, arms by their sides as Stockton continues: “Each layer they gain is another part of themselves that they’ve lost.” She begins to list the losses: “There goes Mexico. There goes that master’s program starting in the fall.” The lights go to nearly black on the ensemble at the end of each of these loss sentences, bumping back up to their previous level as the actors collectively take deep breaths between Stockton’s sentences. The effect of this short moment, with the fading heart monitor still in the background, is chilling, especially for attendees who have recent experience with intensive care unit rooms, because all too often that beep of the monitor is the only way to know the patient is alive. As Stockton recalls a vibrant memory of gathering at a rooftop bar in the city, the chorus members move again, gracefully this time, extending arms and legs—their movements remind viewers of carefree youth, of joyful life itself. The memory does not last for long before Stockton’s line remembering when she wore her “favorite lipstick so my lips are blue” transforms the daydream into a nightmare as she continues, “now someone is saying ‘her lips are blue,’ it doesn’t sound good” and the monitor stops beeping. “Oh no,” Stockton realizes, “the patient is me.” At this point, the chorus returns to their neutral stance, and the piece ends with the lines, “I don’t have any breath left. . . . So I close my eyes.”
Breathing is the quintessential activity taken for granted by the able-bodied. With the onset of COVID-19, however, the act of breathing and especially receiving oxygen through the bloodstream could no longer be assumed; not only does the virus attack the lungs and restrict breathing, but as an airborne contagious disease, it fundamentally changed the nature and ethics of breathing in public spaces. Sharing air with others became treacherous, while the freedom to breathe deeply was itself an act of privilege. This privilege became even more pronounced just two months into the global pandemic, with the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota on May 25, 2020, nearly six years after Eric Garner uttered, “I can’t breathe.” Although Floyd also kept insisting that he could not breathe, Derek Chauvin continued to forcibly restrict Floyd’s airways by kneeling on his neck for over nine minutes, ultimately killing him. This heinous act inspired worldwide activism in protest of police brutality, as well as anti-Black racism, and reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement, since Floyd was a Black man killed by a white police officer.
The alleged offense for which Floyd was detained (and ultimately murdered) was the counterfeiting of a $20 bill, a petty crime motivated by citizens experiencing financial hardships or living in poverty, sometimes without housing altogether. This concern with poverty and the exponential growth of persons without homes inspired student Gabrielle Smith’s research into Beauty 2 the Streetz, an organization formed by Shirley Raines to empower people forced to live on the streets. As the organization’s name implies, Raines has a passion for sharing self-care methods and products with inhabitants of Skid Row: she helps people color, cut, and wash their hair; she provides and helps apply makeup; she wants women and femme individuals to feel beautiful, regardless of their social status. Inspired by the example that Raines set, Smith’s passion for examining race, culture, and identity influenced Broadway actor and US playwright Rodney Hicks to write “Angel Amongst the Ruins,” performed by Smith in Changemakers. In this piece, she plays a youth named Angel who visits Ms. Shirley to get her hair done, and who sees Shirley as a maternal figure now that her own mother has died.
Whereas in the previous monologue the text was punctuated by choral movement and stasis, in Smith’s performance the ensemble creates the setting, representing the community living in Angel’s midst. Each of the ensemble actors for this piece arrives at a lounging position embracing the levels and architecture of the set—one actor leans on a doorway, another sits on the step, yet another lies on their stomach, feet up—and they freeze in that position as the lights go nearly dark on them, with a cool blue wash of light on Smith, the central character, who sits down center facing the audience. She thanks Ms. Shirley for being tender with her hair, comparing her soft touch with that of her mother, who “forgot the beauty of why I’m here.” Smith-as-Angel insists that it is Ms. Shirley who is the angel, even though that is her name. She recalls how Shirley told “Noxema, that trans girl, [that] she was beautiful. Made me smile. Her too. She came to you asking for makeup and you fixed her all up. Made her look, fierce.” This happy memory transforms into the realization that she has not seen Noxema since then. “Hope she’s good though. Hope she got out of here,” Angel continues. “Nothing good comes from Skid Row, except of course you.”
The piece ends as Smith stands, asking, “Ms. Shirley? Can you be my new mom?” With that tender question hanging in the air, the lights change, music starts, and Smith begins to move. Her dance begins as heightened everyday gestures related to self-care: she reaches for hair conditioner, then sweeps her arms overhead to fold it into her hair, leaning back to her right side as her hands extend to the ends of her hair, before standing upright and clasping her hands together. The mimed movements morph from everyday self-care rituals to dance moves that combine pats, claps, and sweeping arms. Smith’s soft clap is followed by a deeper backbend, with arms outstretched to circle around from left to right, as her torso follows these gestures, pausing briefly on the right side with both hands together again, before hinging forward to trace her hands down her right leg, then her left. After descending each leg, her hands come to her collarbone, just under her throat, as she looks out to the audience. The movement repeats, and on the second round the ensemble joins Smith—but importantly, these white actors do not embody the first part of Smith’s sequence; instead, they join for the latter half. As Fulcher recounts it, Smith “wanted to create a series of gestures that felt soothing to the body . . . and she thought it’d be powerful if there were moments when the chorus joins in on this gestural work, but it is initiated by the speaker.” For Smith, having the first few movements represent Black women’s experience was crucial to her performance, amplifying the potential for those first gestures to symbolize the gentle care with which Ms. Shirley tends to Black bodies on Skid Row.
Of all the movements that Smith and the ensemble members make during “Angel Amongst the Ruins,” the pauses where their hands land on their collarbones worked like punctuation to underscore the emotional impact of the kind of work Raines and her volunteers do for citizens without housing. Touching oneself there, between the heart and the throat, happens instinctually as a reaction to a sudden rise in (virtually any) feeling, although usually this gesture is performed with one hand. Using both hands to gesticulate this way both amplifies the intensity of the act and changes it somewhat: within the context of Changemakers, attendees may interpret it to mean shock or surprise, but it can also signify choking or coughing. As Smith concludes her piece, her hands linger on her collarbone longer than the rest of the chorus’s hands do; while the group of primarily white actors move their hands to their shoulders, Smith’s hands remain just above her heart, and she looks out at the audience with what starts as a tentative smile and perhaps hope, but quickly becomes sadness and utter exhaustion. As she turns to her right, the ensemble mirrors her movement and the transition to the next piece begins.
One of the questions that initiated the process of making Changemakers challenged students to find leaders who gave them hope. For Asher Suski, that pillar of inspiration came from trans* rights activist Gavin Grimm, whose teenage battle over the right to use bathrooms aligned with his gender made headlines in 2018. Suski’s exploration into transgender activism and the metaphor of closeted identities in turn inspired playwright, director, and actor Paris Crayton III to write “Closets,” an exploration of how closeting harms the queer community. “I’ve had to come out of multiple closets in my lifetime,” Suski begins, “but when my school decided to put me in one, I decided enough was enough.” As he walks down center, the ensemble stands together stage-left, in a group apart from Suski with their hands by their sides. The division between Suski and the ensemble remains throughout the piece, representing the isolation that many queer youths feel, especially as they navigate the specifics of their sexual identities.
Unlike the previous two pieces we have described, Crayton’s “Closets” includes a few lines of dialogue between Suski’s character and his family, as he relives the process of coming out to his mother and father. “Honey, I love you, but we have to keep this a secret,” the mother (played by an ensemble member) says in response. Upon realizing his true gender identity on the eve of his fifteenth birthday, the character christens this as his first birthday, and the ensemble begins to sing “Happy Birthday” to Suski, moving toward him as he crosses stage-right. The front row of chorus members stretches their arms toward Suski, who interrupts the birthday song just before they say the character’s name. “The cake had the name given to me at birth,” Suski explains, turning back to face the ensemble as they freeze in motion and stop singing abruptly. This act of dead-naming influences the character to consider suicide (“My first birthday would be my last”), but as he contemplates how to do so in his bedroom, his father knocks on the door. “Your mother tells me you’re having issues,” a chorus member says, breaking from the ensemble’s frozen pose. “I don’t understand it, but I love you.” These last three words are said in unison with Suski’s character, whose name is now He/His. As he explains, while the parental love was imperfect and incomplete, it nudged him to recognize how important self-love was. His mother “got rid of the name on the cake,” but the fight continued at school, where Suski’s character (inspired by Grimm’s experience) recounts having to use an all-gender restroom that “the school board decided to build . . . out of a broom closet.”
Rather than linger in the disappointment and distress that those with gender dysphoria understandably experience when their true identities are not welcomed by family and society, Crayton and Suski’s piece retains a lightness and hope. Peppered with dry humor, although “Closets” includes a brief mention of suicidal ideation, it nevertheless manages to offer another way out of despair, suggesting that self-knowledge and acceptance are key to queer survival—as the final sentences affirm, “I am who I am. And I’m much too big to fit into anyone’s closet.” As he attests this, Suski (a student whose transgender identity aligns with Grimm’s) puts his right hand on his solar plexus, confidently facing the audience. Not only does this gesture underscore the significance of what the character is saying for the audience, but it also reminds the actor kinesthetically of his authentic self, because when Suski touches his chest, it too reminds him of his masculinity.
That these one- to two-minute microplays provided such opportunities for student actors—to locate stories for which they had deep personal stakes, to sculpt the stories alongside professional writers, and to embody them, supported by their peers-as-chorus—underscores why and how research-creation can be such a powerful tool of attendance for theatre educators. Inviting students to imagine a role made for their unique insights into what needs to change in our world allows theatre professors to attend to the specific talents and demands of each student individually, while staging them together enables the students to attend to one another and their artistic voice as a collective unit.
Each one of the definitions that the word attendance has—to show up, to care for, to wait for and serve—is palpable in the examples from Changemakers we shared. From Stockton’s story about heroic healthcare workers risking their lives during the pandemic, to Smith’s story about finding resilient beauty among the discarded, to Suski’s story of growth that cannot be closeted, all of these pieces heighten our attendance to the challenges we face. When we attend to transformation and enact characters based on student-led research, we push back against apathy and expand our capacity for empathy.
As this piece goes to press, the uncertainty of early 2020 has returned with a vengeance: the highly contagious Omicron variant has swept through the country, and many Broadway shows have closed or postponed until summer.3 However, here in Kansas, as in many other Republican-legislated states (echoed by the Biden administration’s messaging), official guidance for mitigating the spread of Omicron is tantamount to complete surrender: we are expected to continue teaching and creating theatre as if the virus were endemic. In the second week of 2022, Anthony Fauci suggested that nearly every American would contract Omicron; meanwhile, teachers in Chicago and students in New York are protesting this “business-as-usual” approach to the ongoing pandemic.
Within this context, we see Changemakers and its flexible methodology—its means of attending to what needs to change and the collective grief wrought by the last two years of painful changes that so many have endured—as all-the-more vital to share. May the approach inspire and uplift you and your community; may such acts summon the changes we so desperately need.
1. Here are the questions that Potter first asked the students, in preparation for their research, before getting matched to a professional writer: 1) What is a subject that you would like to see vigorously debated? 2) What is an issue that you wish more people knew the truth about? 3) What is something that drives you f***ing mad about our world/our society? 4) Who are the current leaders that give you hope? What events have occurred in our recent history that offered you hope? 5) When was the last time that you would say your opinion changed (or at least shifted)? 6) What do you believe is worth fighting for in this world? 7) Where have you seen communication completely break down (for example, Facebook argument, Thanksgiving dinner)? 8) Where have you witnessed communication that was productive, and what made it possible? 9) When was the last time you saw a positive societal change occur? 10) In moments of pain, fear, or anxiety, where do you turn for comfort? 11) What has the pandemic revealed to you about our world (for good or bad, or both)? 12) What does “unity” look like in our country?
2. For the mood board, Potter and Fulcher asked students to consider the following prompts: “1) A song that works in conversation with the piece. Entrance music/exit music; 2) Three images; 3) Quotation; 4) Inanimate object; 5) Three adjectives that describe the piece.”
3. For example, the “Broadway smash” To Kill a Mockingbird will take a hiatus until June, when the production will move to a smaller theatre with fewer technicians (see Michael Paulson, “Mockingbird, Once a Broadway Smash, to Pause Production Amid Omicron”).
KU Theatre. “Changemakers, a Production of KU’s University Theatre.” YouTube, 26 May 2021, https://youtu.be/m1h07emSSSo.
Loveless, Natalie. How to Make Art at the End of the World: A Manifesto for Research-Creation. Duke University Press, 2019.
Paulson, Michael. “Mockingbird, Once a Broadway Smash, to Pause Production Amid Omicron.” New York Times, 12 Jan. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/12/theater/to-kill-a-mockingbird-girl-from-north-country-broadway.html.