Blending Theatre & Dance Disciplines
Inside the world of theater and dance exists a complicated and at times confusing role of the dramaturg. In simple terms, they are responsible for exploring the backstory of a performance: narrative structures, cultural signs or references, and the history or meaning behind a topic. For Talvin Wilks, it's an invisible area, but one that deeply delves into the history and culture of a society and showcasing that in innovative ways.
Wilks is a visiting faculty member in the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance. Graduating from Princeton University with an English degree and focus on theater and dance, Wilks spent most of his undergraduate career writing and directing with little knowledge of the working side of theater and dance. That would all change while working at Crossroads Theater Company, an African American theater in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Here Wilks first gained exposure to dramaturgy playing a role in new play development as a director and playwright. He described the experience to be about, "understanding the thematic and structural aspects of a script and transforming that to the stage while keeping true to the text."
The next big step in his career came in 1994 when Wilks began a 25 year long working relationship with Ping Chong, a renowned contemporary theater director, choreographer, video and installation artist. "He is an incredible model of how to make work and definitely had an influence on me," Wilks said. "That relationship also built a foundation for me to begin working with choreographers and dance companies." Wilks has worked with a number of major choreographers and companies including Bebe Miller, Camille A. Brown, Marlies Yearby and Jawole Zollar/Urban Bush Women. Wilks' experiences with Chong provided him an opportunity to expand into dance dramaturgy without leaving his theater work behind. It can be hard to conceptualize the role of a dramaturg in dance, but it consists of recording the language and movement in the space as choreographers often communicate through short hand, gestures and descriptive phrases. Typically, a dance production takes at least a year from start to finish, so the dramaturg tracks the ongoing process from residency to residency.
One of Wilks’ first theater experiences working on a large-scale production with Chong was through Undesirable Elements, a series of productions that shared the stories and histories which make up America's many diverse communities and backgrounds. Wilks and Chong interviewed several individuals, gathering information back to the furthest date they could track their ancestry. "The production was about the resonance of 'otherness': bilingual, immigrants, bicultural," says Wilks. Then the interviewed individuals, not actors, shared their stories in a half circle on stage. Over the years, the piece evolved into many elaborate productions on topics like child sexual assault survivors and Muslim teens living in the US.
Chong and Wilks worked together again on a project called Collidescope: Adventures in Pre- and Post-Racial America in 2014. The University of Maryland commissioned a project focused originally on the Trayvon Martin shooting. The two decided to zoom out more broadly from that specific story to the culture that created the story and the many similar stories. Collidescope began in the present and traced back to stand-your-ground laws, stop and frisk laws in New York City, Jim Crow laws, and the history of the Black Codes. "Citizenship gets you rights and yet is a place where violence is enacted. That became the story. It's a rolling memorial of the historicized events of racialized violence dating back to the founding of our country," says Wilks.
However, the concept did not stop there. Chong reimagined the story through the lens of an alien. "It provided a way to look at the material while removing the ownership of gender, race or any preconceived background of a character or situation," Wilks says. A second twist was personalization to each location. Every campus and city has its own forgotten history to tell with racial violence, and that story is unearthed and brought to life on stage, making a sometimes foreign concept to audience members feel very real.
Since the original performance at the University of Maryland, Collidescope has been adapted and performed at two more universities: University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Wake Forest University. It opened the door to collaboration and exploration unlike many university theater productions; undergraduate actors undergo a rich character analysis, exposing them to events that often go untold and unwritten in history textbooks. In addition, they have the opportunity to work with award-winning theater professionals—and to produce work like the professionals themselves, working through the entire process from background research to closing night.
As we progress through the second half of the decade, undoubtedly the topics of race, citizenship and immigration will leave a mark in the history books. The works of Wilks and Chong open our eyes to other experiences and perspectives, expanding our knowledge of the events which impact the very culture defining us. "If you believe in only one historical narrative, you miss out on the true democracy of this country," Wilks says.