ISU Theatre concluded its 2018–2019 season with “Iowa Odyssey (or How We Got to Here),” a unique, locally sourced collaboration about identity, community and hope.
The impetus for the original show came from conversations with Iowa State's diversity and inclusion staff about the challenges undocumented students face in sharing their personal stories, said Amanda Petefish-Schrag, assistant professor of theatre.
"[The office] was hearing these compelling stories, but the act of sharing puts students at risk,” Petefish-Schrag said. “We began exploring how to use theatre’s technique and privilege to tell stories that would allow conversations to take place in the light of day instead of behind closed doors.”
“Iowa Odyssey” shared real-life stories drawn from months of local research. Last fall, the production’s student advance team began interviewing community members from Ames and Iowa State about their experiences of culture, identity and immigration. The team also conducted archival research on the history of immigration in Iowa.
“This show isn’t about London or New York or other places, but here,” Petefish-Schrag said. “It is a story of us. All the stories relate to ‘How did we get to here?’ both geographically and philosophically. How did we arrive at this moment, and who are we when we say we are Iowans? We’re exploring how the questions of identity and where we come from shape how we can build a community together.”
The stories in “Iowa Odyssey” expanded beyond those of undocumented students. One story focused on the Babel Proclamation of 1918, issued by Iowa Gov. William Harding during the anti-German sentiment of World War I, which stated that only English could be spoken in schools, public places, telephone conversations, meetings and religious services.
“We're exploring how the questions of identity and where we come from shape how we can build a community together.”
Push and pull
A set of stories titled "Pulling” highlighted immigration through circumstances that “push” people to Iowa — such as a humanitarian crisis — and opportunities that “pull” people to Iowa for work or education. In “Stories that Root Us,” performers shared family stories gathered from interviews and explored stories passed down through generations.
Bethmari Marquez Barreto (’21 animal ecology, performing arts) said she felt a responsibility as an artist and multicultural student to bring attention to an important social issue.
“I have always wanted to share my experience, compare it to others and see the differences and similarities within our journey,” she said. “What better way to express all of our stories than through theatre, which is a great and creative platform to address things that we might not want to talk about?”
Rob Delgado (’19 performing arts) said the opportunity to develop a show based on unique stories appealed to him.
“In ‘Iowa Odyssey,’ we had a chance to tell stories of individuals that nobody else may ever get to hear,” he said. “What does it take to shape a person? What is identity? What is diversity? How do people perceive these traits and qualities of the people? By telling the stories of others, we learn about individuals, but more than that, we create community.”
After the research, the advance team recruited students to join story-building teams. Each team developed a story for stage. The highly collaborative experiment created both excitement and risk.
“We had a chance to tell stories of individuals that nobody else may ever get to hear By telling the stories of others, we create community.”
“We didn’t know what the show would look and sound like until about one week before it opened,” Petefish-Schrag said.
“Iowa Odyssey” is a significant example of ISU Theatre’s new CoLab Initiative, which fosters collaboration and engagement with groups across campus and the community. The goal is to create citizen artistry, connect with meaningful public discourse and expand opportunities at ISU.
“We want to be a cornerstone of a liberal arts education at ISU, as well as a crucible for community engagement, outreach and collaboration,” said Brad Dell, director of ISU Theatre. “Our doors are open and we are ready to listen and partner.”
ISU Theatre is planning an “Iowa Odyssey” performance in Perry and envisions helping other communities create their own versions of locally sourced theatre.