It’s safe to say stage acting wasn’t on Jessica (Wingert) Hudson’s (US'11, C'15) 2023 Bingo card. But in returning to her alma mater as a visiting creative writing professor, she found herself swept up in a pervasive, persuasive ethos at Principia College. An ethos best summarized as, “yes, and.”
When Hudson’s creative curiosity drove the essayist/poet/professor toward a new dramatic undertaking by theatre professor John O’Hagan, she expected to be in the wings and behind the keyboard. But O’Hagan’s vision flew in the face of traditional roles.
“There were a couple things I wanted to try with my first show back,” says O’Hagan, who recently returned from sabbatical, acting and directing in the St. Louis area. “One was to find a project that would open itself up to the community at large. I also wanted to find a way to welcome the international community into the process.”
For O’Hagan, the answer was obvious: “The best way to do that was to create a piece of devised theater, where whoever was in the room would be the ones creating the piece. That is both an interesting and innovative way of working, and it can also be very challenging, intimidating, or confusing.”
In short, devised theater takes the traditional process of writing and producing a dramatic work and flips it on its head. “We work backwards towards the end of the rehearsal process to identify, ‘what is the script? What is the story we’re telling?’”
O’Hagan’s call for participants brought a wide range of backgrounds, talents, and interests, including students, faculty, staff, and community members. To accomplish his goal of integrating the campus’s sizable international community, he settled on the concept of oral histories and traditions.
Co-director Rebecca Bailey (C'20), an admissions counselor by day, loved the collaborative nature of the production: “We'd come together, have a metaphysical, people would have an option to bring a childhood story that they really love. … it gave everyone a real sense of ownership in the process.”
This was a first for Hudson’s creative process. “The collaboration aspect was incredible. As a writer, I mostly just sit in a room by myself and try to think of ideas. This was great, because everything that I was doing came from the ensemble. It was so helpful for me to see a different way of creating together with 20 different people. It was very cool.”
Creative collaboration can require yielding to the creative vision of others—even for the writer. When asked what spurred Hudson to step into a role, O’Hagan recalls, “There was an overwhelming democratic process to it—including putting Jessica on stage. We were exploring who would serve as the narrator and we put it to a vote. It was a unanimous decision by the company.”
Bailey agrees: “Everyone felt like she had been guiding us so clearly with the words, it just made sense!”
Where does Stories from Home go from here? O’Hagan says they are pursuing publication of the devised piece, and that the process will become a department staple: “I think this is some of the most important work we can do with students; it teaches them that they don't have to wait for somebody to tell them they can be creative and artistic. It gives them the tools to go out and start doing the work on their own. And so it's my intention, as long as I'm at Principia, to have this as part of a regular rotation within the production seasons—so that every cohort of students has an opportunity to engage in a process like this.”
The whole production can be streamed online here.