When I first started doing theater I was in 7th grade. It was a way for me to get out of my own skin, skin I wasn’t super comfortable in yet. It was a way to escape and be someone else. It was also a chance for me to be with other people, to find community. I liked having what felt like a secret club of people who got together to create something bigger than any one of us individually.
When I first started doing theater the stories I told didn’t really matter: Annie, The Music Man (twice) and Neil Simon’s Start Spangled Girl. But it was the act of telling them that made meaning for me of my experience, the act of being together with people. In high school, I wanted very much to be Bernadette Peters, to have big hair and a big voice and a fancy costume and to be very good at what I did. Somewhere in the midst of that time my desire transformed from simply wanting to be a part of something to wanting to be a part of something amazing, to create it at a high level of skill. So I trained in music and acting and having always prized myself a very good student, I threw myself into that study with fervor and drive.
When I first started doing theater I thought that the purpose of it was to raise myself up to the level of the creators whose works I was enacting. I thought that playwrights and composers had some kind of magical skill. I thought that their works can from some nebulous place that was very different than the kind of place I pulled my own artistic feats from. And it wasn’t until I first found myself making a piece of my own that I realized that I too had that capability, that capacity. And it wasn’t until then that I was really really hooked.
When I first started doing theater, my experiences shaped my ideas of what the end product was supposed to look like: fancy, professional, expensive. When I first started making theater my experiences shaped my ideas of who the audience for that work was supposed to be: increasingly large and anonymous groups of people who come to see me and my works because of my skill and excellence. It was an impulse to impress. And when I first started doing theater I thought that my job was to try and tell the stories that matter to the most people. To try and create as universal a message as possible. To create a Great American Play. To try and reach people I didn’t know and pour into them the experience of my greater artistic truth.
I don’t really think that any more.
If your plan is to see Welcome To Campus and you haven’t yet, don’t read this next part. If you’ve already seen it, or know you won’t make it, go ahead and proceed.
There’s a moment early in Campus where the student tour guides, who have been up to this point manically presenting Drexel in a shiny brochure-style intro, crack just a little. They are listing, as one ought as a highly school spirited representative, their favorite letters in the word DREXEL. Student Cami, a go-getter, chooses D for its primary position. Garth relates his choice of the E as the “workhorse” of the word. And so on through L and X. And then just after Dean has also chosen D (without which he would “just be EAN”) there’s an awkward pause. A sort of looking around and then realizing “Oh right…” kind of moment. And then Lexi breaks the uncomfortable tension with a plaintive, “Connor’s supposed to be the R.”
Through the rest of the play – a walking tour in which the students relate their actual college experiences in the locations in which they actually occurred – Connor and his obvious absence are hinted at and remembered. His return is promised and reiterated. And while we grow closer to Lexi, Carl, Cami, Garth and Dean, our sixth tour guide Connor remains an enigmatic mystery. The audience knows only that he seems to have been rather important to our tour guides and that clearly he isn’t going to be here.
The stories the tour guides tell (once having broken their shiny personae) do not relate to him really. They are stories about their experiences from their actual college lives. They are stories of a kind that no traditional tour will give. What the actors and I aimed for was to find a way to share the intimacies and strange details that really make up their experience of higher education. And yet, in these moments in between performances of the most awkward dates of one’s life or ruminations on feeling terribly alone in a new place, they all keep hinting at this other unseen person.
An outsider to the show might wonder what exactly the decision process was behind including such a motif through the show.
I could create a fancy and artistic sounding justification. But the real reason is this: there really is a Connor and he really was going to be a sixth tour guide. He also doesn’t go to Drexel any more.
I taught a class last fall in preparation for this show. All the tour guides in the performance were part of this class. We spent 10 weeks together talking and playing and writing and reading and sometimes farting around trying to create an idea for a play. Over the course of this term we found together this idea of a college tour, an offshoot of an initial idea I’d proposed, one that included their own personal stories. And for their final I prompted them to give a theatrical tour of an actual moment from their lives in a non-theatrical space, ideally the actual location if possible.
One of the last ones we took was Connor’s tour, which happened in a large and scary building called Drexel One Plaza (Garden Level for those in the campus know). On a cold day late in the term we walked from the black box theater over to the building, tried the back door with no avail and then walked around to the front to be told by a security guard that the building wasn’t open to the public after 6.
We got in anyway; the group managed to sneak in through a side door after one of the students confidently declared he could find a way to get us in. When we did get in, filled with excitement and giddiness at having outsmarted the proverbial castle guards, we walked through the empty building’s halls. And though I pretended not to notice the security cameras lining the ceilings, I did gently encouraged Connor to get a move on with his tour.
We walked through the strange windowless floor to a simple and unremarkable classroom. Connor’s story was relatively straightforward. It talked about feeling a distance from the Drexel. It talked about being displeased with the administration and academic environment. It talked about how his long distance girlfriend and her support was really the only thing standing in the way of him throwing in the towel on this version of the college experience. And then he told us about the day that she sent him a text message.
He told about a recent day he had been sitting in this classroom and how he had been looking at the board (the one we were now looking at just then) and how he had been holding his phone (the one he was now holding) and how he’d received a text message. He told us that reading the text he knew he would break up with his girlfriend later that day and how he knew when it happened he was going to have to leave Drexel.
It’s how I found out he wouldn’t be there next term.
And we all sat there. Sat and stared at him and his phone and the room and each other. Each thinking about the fact that this was the room where that choice had been made. The same way you stare at the walls of Versailles knowing a king used to sleep in a bed there. It was a weird kind of re-enactment, one where you become aware of just being. Aware of your being in a place where someone else’s being has just been.
As I was sitting with the class thinking about all this a security guard arrived and told us we had to leave. We giggled and pretended to be sorry for breaking rules we clearly weren’t sorry to have broken at all.
This is one of my favorite moments of teaching, ever. I still have trouble putting into words quite why.
I really like the play I’ve made with these Drexel students. I think that Welcome To Campus is a really lovely play. But it’s funny sometimes when I watch the audience. I think about the fact that to them Connor is just some name. That even though the actors and I went to the trouble of re-creating the whole thing – mentioning Connor’s absence, staging a security guard denying us entry to a building, building in a covert break in, telling the story of the text message, the sitting in silence and getting kicked out at the end, all of it – there’s some part of me that is sad that they don’t know that what they’re seeing is just a re-creation of the real moment that has stuck so hard with me in this process.
A few days ago Connor came to see the show and I got to watch him watch his scene.
This is one of my favorite moments from teaching, too.
I didn’t direct this play solely for this moment. There’s more in this piece than just this particular layer. But it felt like the right kind of full circle. That finally we had an audience member who really knew what the journey of this play had been. Because even though he wasn’t there when we built so much of the later parts of it, he was an insider in one of the moments that sits at its center. And now I could watch this insider see the thing as an outsider. See a creative voice get to be an observer of the artistic result.
Connor is the opposite of the kind of person I used to want in my audience. He knows more about the moment of his personal scene than I can, than I ever could, understand. But that scene feels like the kind of gift I feel my work needing to be – a way to see our own lives reflected back to us, to parse them out for meaning and beauty – through the help of the artistic process. And while I don’t want to deny the anonymous who see the work their place, for the few I’ve met have been lovely and effusive, I wonder in a piece like this if the point is not for this insular community to create a message to send to the outside world, but for us to use the work as a way to understand our place within it.
How do we open our process to an audience that will not only be our external viewers but our internal community? How do we bind them to the building of the thing? How do we share in the depth and power of expanding and filling our stories with shape and craft?
I don’t yet know. But it feels like the calling.