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The Underground Railroad Game takes to the UK Stage
Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R Sheppard tell us about their off-Broadway hit, The Underground Railroad Game, as they ready themselves for performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and for an extended run at the Soho Theatre in London from September 4 to October 13, 2018.
Thank you both for taking the time to talk to us ahead of the Underground Railroad Game's stints at the Edinburgh Fringe in August and at the Soho Theatre, London in September and October. Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself, where in the States are you from?
Jennifer Kidwell (J): Baltimore, Maryland.
Scott R Sheppard (S): I grew up in Hanover Pennsylvania, which is where the Underground Railroad Game takes place. It’s a relatively rural town in a very conservative and religious part of the United States. For college I moved to Philadelphia where I was exposed to more cosmopolitan influences, and I have been living there for the past ten years. I came to theater later than most because I was mostly interested in sports growing up. It wasn’t until after college that I really became interested in making my own work.
How did you get into acting and performing, and how did you come together to collaborate on Underground Railroad Game?
S: Jenn and I met at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training, which teaches a physical methodology that has its roots in Le Coq training. In our second year, I told Jenn a story about my years at middle school in Hanover, Pennsylvania, where my teachers created a live action role-playing game to teach students about the American Civil War. Students were split into Union and Confederate Armies, we carved pretend rifles out of plywood, marched through the hallways, and engaged in a host of academic competitions to score points for our respective armies. As part of this unit, we also played the Underground Railroad Game where "Union students" were charged with the task of ferrying dolls made to look like enslaved people around the school while the "Confederate students" were charged with the task of capturing them. We started having some meetings and rehearsals about this game, and it became the jumping off point for a piece of theater.
J: I grew up playing the violin, then started studying voice my last year in high school and continued into college. In college I started studying dance as well. I took theater classes and did school plays throughout grade school and continued in college. There was a moment when I thought I'd become an academic, but switched back to art and double-downed on training and performing. In many respects I approach art-making like writing a paper or defending a thesis. With more training after college via short-term classes and intensives in clown and acting, I found myself enrolled in Pig Iron's new school, fall of 2011. That's where Scott and I met. He'd planned to make a solo piece based on his experience in grade school playing this game. Meanwhile, we'd been unable to complete a dance assignment. While we were trying and failing to make a dance duet, we started working on what's now become URG instead.
The play tackles a really important story from American history - what inspired you to focus on this, and why did you want to cover the story in this particular way?
S: In a way this piece doesn’t exactly tackle an important story from American history, but instead the ways and modes in which we tell those stories and how those modes revise, distort, and obscure narratives from our past. Truth has always been a battleground, and this piece tries to highlight the problematic ways that we teach and tell our history to the generations below us. The pernicious propaganda about the civil war and slavery that runs throughout our museums, newspapers, textbooks, films, fiction, advertising, etc. is just as present as it has ever been. A searing revisionist look at these materials is the only way to grapple with their powerful impact on the political realities that we experience today.
J: Hm, I'm going to understand that when you say "this particular way," you mean centering teachers and pedagogy within the piece? That happened because this is an experience that came out of Scott's schooling, so it actually "happened" there, and that was our jumping off point: this piece is based on actual events. I think I should point out that our piece is not about the Underground Railroad per se, but rather addresses the narrativization of it and enslavement in the US. I suppose it's that story - the story of how a murderous nation continues to position and invent itself nobly - that you refer to as an important story from American history. And there is a pressing need to focus on and debunk this story, this myth, so that those of us who continue to be oppressed might move away from its margins and those of us who are hegemonists can be de-centralized within it.
Reviewing the play, The Washington Post describes you as 'fearless actors', whilst The New Yorker describes the production as 'fearlessly, ferociously uninhibited'. Was it important to dispense with fear when developing the production?
S: The dare of this piece was to go to the scary places that most stories avoid out of a sense of propriety, fear, guilt, trauma, etc. One of the reasons that Americans have a difficult time addressing our history is that we avoid all of the scary parts. When we do that, we have a distorted notion about the systemic suffering and horror that we have created on the way towards achieving "the American Dream". This is a political and cultural inconvenience, and so it is rarely in the interest of capitalist America to shine a light on these dark parts. This piece aims to shed a bit of light on that past.
J: I suppose there's a level of inhibition with which we needed to dispense while creating the piece, but that access to a kind of freedom also comes from lots of hours of being together. The piece also plays in, and with, taboo. In my experience, it's hardest to do the taboo thing the first time. Once the taboo is breached, it becomes easier with each subsequent go, so much so that a kind of habituation can set in. As I write this I think about the atrocity that is the current US mis-administration and think about how devastated I once was but how in danger I am of becoming habituated to the ugliest face of hegemony ... One must stay present and active on stage and in the face of atrocities.
The New York Times also describes the show as a 'lacerating comedy' - what does the comedy aspect bring to the play and the story you wanted to tell?
S: The comedy of this piece hinges on tragedy, as it so often does. The discomfort and pressure that builds around the sordid and heart-wrenching material is cut with the knife of laughter. We use comedy as a way to tenderize our audience so that they can probe into their own irrational and subconscious drives and bias.
J: If it's working at its best, the comedic aspect of the piece opens us up for the greatest enjoyment at the same time as the greatest devastation. Comedy is reliant upon agreement of understanding and point of view. Not everyone in an audience is going to be able to agree about whether something is funny because they don't all have the same experience or context around a particular turn of phrase or action. When the piece is working the context of the humor, its object or target keeps shifting in a way that moves between enjoyment and horror. Perhaps there's also the pain of confusion around why one would laugh in the first place, why people would portray such offenses comedically, why those folks over there are, or are not, laughing. Perhaps the alleged safety or comfort we understand to be expressed when someone laughs functions as a kind of barometer of our feelings about the story of our past.
The play focuses on two teachers educating their students about the Civil War - is there still a lot for the US to learn from the Civil War and slavery?
S: Short answer, yes. But again, an important part of the story is how we actively reshaped the legacy and purpose of the Civil War as exemplified by, for instance, the Lost Cause propaganda campaign. It is not just our past, but America’s ability to retell the past in ways that ignore systemic injustice and suffering in order to propel itself forward as an exceptional nation that stands always for freedom and justice. Our ignorance of the hypocrisies of the past are directly related to the hypocrisies of the present.
J: Well, if there is still a lot to learn we can look forward to learning it soon as we seem to be hell-bent on starting another Civil War. I believe the European values and systems imposed on what's become the US are fundamentally opposed to equality and justice for all people. Furthermore, European culture is invested in hierarchy. It fetishizes it, it uses it to concentrate power, it uses it to excuse vicious practices and it chokes out other possible ways of being. The US was founded through invasion and dominance made possible because European colonizers believed they had the right to murder, rape, take, subjugate, etc. We haven't seemed to learn yet that those are not rights - and never were right/s - but wrongs. One story people tell about our current mis-administration is that it reflects the tension of folks wanting desperately to hold on to their hegemony, that white supremists are afraid of losing their dominance, men are afraid of losing their dominance, white women are afraid of losing their dominance, and on down the line. The story about that dominance was utter fiction to begin with, and that's the part we/they can't seem to wrap our puny minds around. Until we reckon with the initial lie around its inception and accept that the imposition of the US never was just or right, we can't possibly stop fighting ourselves because the US isn't fair to everyone and we won't lie down (and never have we) and take these injustices.
You've both co-created this show, as well as performing it on stage. Is it easier or more difficult to write comedy about a serious topic like this knowing you're going to be the ones performing it?
S: I think it’s easier. So much of comedy is about rhythm and when you are writing the piece, you are actively writing all of those comedic rhythms as you make it. With a finished script, you have to find ways for the comedy to live in relationship to a text. For us, so much of the writing was happening in our bodies before or in between the language of the show.
J: It's easiest for me to write for me, period, comedy or otherwise. In our piece there's mostly words that come out of a particular character, but at the center of the piece the language moves much closer to that of its authors. That was the most difficult to craft: language that I, Jenn, can be behind in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 ...
Has the show changed much during the few years you've been performing it?
S: It changed dramatically over the first three years as we were developing and performing it across the East Coast and in New Orleans. After 2016, we did not make any actual changes except for performative ones. With each audience we continue to evolve as performers, but the shape and the text of the show is set at this point. Who knows if that will change, but for now we allow the show to change and grow as actors, not as writers.
J: It's so very in relation to its audience that it's impossible for it not to change, at least a bit.
The show is coming to the UK, and will be on stage in London in September at the Soho Theatre. What do you hope the UK will take away from the production, including your fellow Americans who live here?
S: I think right now so much of the rest of the world is looking at America and saying, "I’m glad we’re not like that!" Hopefully this piece gives everyone regardless of their nationality, race, religion, etc. a lot to grapple with. Just as our country has covered the worst parts of its history in order to highlight its most proud moments, so has the UK. Our histories may be starkly different, but the patterns of xenophobia, fear, violence, colonialism, are inherent to both nations. I daresay, to all nations.
J: I wonder if there's a way for this work to force the UK to contend with its participation in trans-Atlantic enslavement and how the culture of imperialism - not just the economics or politics of it - continues to play out in post-colonial societies?
What's the best thing about being able to perform Underground Railroad Game?
S: I love performing a show that I co-wrote with one of my close friends because there is nothing more exciting and gratifying as a performer, than performing work that you made. It’s physically challenging, it’s fun and all of the mistakes you feel you made as a writer, you can work to amend by performing them in sneakier or even contradictory ways.
J: The excitement of not knowing how it's going to be received. That can also be the worst, though. In any case, we're in the trenches together and at this point are quite used to and trust and love each other very much.
After its stint at the Edinburgh Fringe, Underground Railroad Game will be arriving in London at the Soho Theatre from September 4 to October 13 - click here to buy tickets.