When Visiting Instructor of Theater Kelly Hogan received an e-mail about a theater conference in New York City focusing on racial issues and social change, she made sure to alert her students to the opportunity. The NoPassport Conference this year was themed “Dreaming the Americas: Legacy and Revolution in Performance.” The conference was especially relevant to Knox theater students because Lynn Nottage, the playwright of Intimate Apparel — Knox’s upcoming main-stage production — presented there.
Junior Joey Firman took the initiative to organize the trip. He had been nervous about going at first, because the only other theater conference he had attended had been a bit intimidating. He worried that the NoPassport Conference would be intimidating too, or, even worse, boring.
However, a conversation he had with Hogan inspired him to attend. When he asked her why he should not just stay home and read the plays and articles of the people who were to present at the conference, Hogan said, “You could do that, or you could go there and see the embodiment of those ideas.”
Firman had 12 days to plan the trip. Enlisting six other Knox students to come along seemed to be the easiest point on his agenda. However, he would also need $1,800 to cover the costs of tickets to two plays and traveling expenses. Firman says that if there is one thing he learned from planning this trip, it was that funds for scholastic and extracurricular activities are not as hard to procure as one might think. Dean of Students Xavier Romano allowed the group $700 for the trip, and Dean Stephen Bailey signed off on an additional $1,300.
After the budget for the trip was secured, Firman needed to finalize the agenda. He wanted the group to attend two plays: Ruined, by Lynn Nottage (the playwright of Intimate Apparel), and La Casa de los Espíritus, by Caridad Svitch. He got a discount for Ruined tickets and an opportunity to meet Lynn Nottage through contacting her on Facebook. He was also told by the box office for La Casa de los Espíritus that seven seats were “cleared” for them.
After a 1,000-mile road trip involving driving shifts, snacks, snowstorms, mixed CDs and tai chi exercises at gas stations, the group arrived safely in New York. Everyone went to both plays and attended many of the panels.
They met Nottage and learned much at the conference, which aimed to show different ways theater can effect social change. It also raised questions about the portrayal of minority ethnic groups, such as Latinos, in theater. Sophomore Diana Razo, a Lo Nuestro member who attended the trip to New York, said she learned much about these issues. “Latinos have different accents and speak Spanish differently just as a New Yorker sounds different from a person from Chicago,” Razo said. “Not only do Latinos cast in plays have to look a certain way – light-skinned Latinos are often preferred over darker-skinned ones, for example – but they also have to speak a certain way. I found that so interesting because that kind of thing hadn’t really crossed my mind before.”
Firman was moved by the passion and ability of the NoPassport presenters to effect social change through theater.
“Sometimes, I feel like theater is limited in its capacity to effect real change,” he said. “The plays we saw had real social punch, and those as well as the conference gave me hope that theater can really change things in important ways. Meeting Lynn Nottage and hearing playwrights talk about their work – through topics ranging from the audio aspect of theater, to racial issues, to genocide drama – was magical for me. There were so many phrases throughout the conference that made me go, ‘Yes. That.’ It made me think, ‘This is why I drove 1,000 miles.’ It was really a life-changing experience.”