Debra Vidali, associate professor of Anthropology at Emory, took time out of her busy schedule to elaborate upon some of the issues raised by her upcoming play, “Re-Generation,” in a Q&A with the A&E Co-editor Stephanie Minor. Vidali based her performance on years of research concerning the lack of perceived political engagement in younger generations.
I see this is not the first production of “Re-generation.” Will the upcoming show simply feature a new cast of students, or have you tweaked the play?
This is a new production. Re-Generation 2008 / 2012: Portraits of (Dis)Engagement is a collaboratively created performance piece, developed under the direction of Ken Hornbeck, through the original experiences of the acting ensemble of 10 students and professional actors, and in dialogue with my first play and anthropological research on young adults. Re-Generation 2008 / 2012 takes elements from my first play, Re-Generation: A Play about Political Stances, Media Insanity, and Adult Responsibilitieswhich was performed several times in 2010, with Ken Hornbeck as Artistic Director. Approximately 80% of the lines in the first play derive directly from anthropological research interviews and fieldwork, representing the real voices, real words, and real lives of over 90 young adults from all walks of life. The new production uses approximately 50% of the first play. There are numerous new characters and new issues. And there are also some continuing characters and issues. What’s new are the themes of gay marriage, the Occupy movement, women’s reproductive health, gun control, and disillusionment about Obama. What’s continued are issues of media overload, cynicism about the political process, and wanting to make a difference.
How do you translate a body of research into dynamic, relatable characters?
It is phenomenal challenge and a real thrill. And it has been a collaborative process at every step. Based on the research, I developed 15 characters who represent a spectrum of stances of engagement and disengagement. Some of the characters are identical with people that I interviewed and other characters are composites. To develop the character lines, Ukani and I culled through approximately 1,000 pages of research transcripts, which were typed up from over 60 hours of recorded interviews and conversations with over 90 young adults from all walks of life. But for a theatrical production, characters don’t really come into a dynamic relatable form until actors breathe life into a script, and until an artistic director guides the actors to develop movement, emotion, and backstories. The piece comes alive in the workshop and rehearsal processes, when actors begin to inhabit the roles and question the script; and when they decide how to make their characters believable.
Why the title?
Re-Generation has a double meaning. It’s “about” generational voices and about new growth or renewal. The Re-Generation projects are devoted to both of these things. The basic idea is that theater and spoken word have the power to transform. Young people especially feel empowered to hear voices and struggles similar to their own. They appreciate seeing their own generation being portrayed in complex and contradictory ways, instead of as a stereotype. Ken Hornbeck is a master at working with young people to help them develop spoken word pieces that do this. Moreover, people of all generations feel frustrated and even cynical about our democratic process, young people are under tremendous pressures to make complex decisions about their political stances in a climate of intensely polarizing rhetoric and toxic media, and young people may not be getting the mentoring that they need to help them navigate all of this. So I do theatrical work as an anthropologist not only to share the research findings, but as an ethically engaged public scholar seeking to improve the human condition through a theatrical piece aimed to catalyze discussions about how we might strive for a better form of democracy and living together.
Be sure to check out the remaining performances of “Re-Generation” on Oct. 2 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 3 at 6:30 p.m. in the Theater Lab of the Donna and Marvin Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.