The Show Must Go On

Oakland, CA—August 20, 2020A graphic created by Mills student Trevor Polcyn '21 features a caricature of Uncle Sam speaking before a lineup of diverse constituents whose hands are raised in the air, as if to ask a question.

Every other year, Professor Victor Talmadge, who runs the theater program at Mills, teaches a popular year-long documentary theater course that is as much a favorite course among students as it is for the professor.

“Of all the kind of work that I’ve done, this is probably the most heartwarming and the most enriching,” says Talmadge, who values the course for its ability to develop impactful conversations on campus and in the broader community.

In this course, Talmdage’s students conceptualize a theme for a documentary subject and interview people around that topic. These interviews are then compiled into a script to be produced and performed by students in a live theater play at the end of the year.

The subjects of these documentary performances have always centered around social issues that matter to Mills students. In the past, Talmadge’s students have developed pieces around the transgender communities on campus and off, the 2016 Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, and homelessness in the Bay Area.

This year’s topic? The 2020 general election.

To compose their script, students spent the fall term interviewing dozens of people drawn from a variety of political and community groups and asked three main questions: What does patriotism mean to you? What does it mean to feel comfortable in America? Do you plan on voting, and how do you feel about voting?

This year, students had just finished scripting the play and were moving on to staging and rehearsal when the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order took effect, leading the College to shift its curriculum to remote, online delivery for much of the spring semester, dispersing students to homes or distanced on-campus learning.

Suddenly, Talmadge and his students were confronted with a steep challenge: How to move forward with the documentary theater performance with students scattered, the theater venue closed, and all public gatherings—from classes to concerts—indefinitely disbanded by public health advisories.

But as the old adage goes, the show must go onand it did.

“As we were transitioning to online classes, the Provost’s Office suggested that we start thinking about what the outcomes are for your course and not so much about the process, and let the process adapt to the outcomes,” says Professor Talmadge, “and that was a kind of liberating message to hear.”

With this guidance in mind, Talmadge and his students began swiftly adapting their live production to a radio play format—a widely popular performance genre that flourished from the 1920s through the 1940s—and a format that students could perform distantly and produce digitally.

“I felt that the adaptation to a radio play was appropriate given the format of our piece,” says Julia Barker ‘21, a theater and computer science double major who plays three different roles in the radio play. “Personally, I'm very interested in voice-over and accustomed to working with audio, so the shift didn't feel overly jarring to me. And quite honestly, I was simply excited that we would still get to perform.”

Over the remainder of the spring term, students with acting parts developed distinct vocal characters, while others created a sound score, designed promotional graphics, and edited the final performances for an online audio format.

The final production, 2020: A Few Questions, debuted on the Mills Performing Arts website in July, and offers a kaleidoscopic exploration of American sentiments around national pride and values, social and material comfort, and the efficacy of voting.

“We are living in a time where our feelings, facts, and values are under attack,” opens the radio play, “This documentary play, 2020: A Few Questions, attempts to explore how we as a community are coping as the most important election in a generation approaches.”

Over the course of the play’s 46-minute run-time, the urgency of climate change, debates over second amendment rights, Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the national anthem, the dearth of unions, heightening partisan tensions, the meaning of the phrase “pursuit of happiness”, and the politics of voting—or not—all come to the fore. Often these themes are thrown into direct contention from one character to the next.

“I really appreciated the recurring idea of ‘messiness’ related to the history and present state of the country,” says Barker, one of the script writers and actors. “To me, it allows for the acknowledgment of the significant and systemic flaws tied to this country, but also provides space to imagine a more equitable and just future. It acknowledges that trying to improve or remake societal structures may be ‘messy,’ but the messiness doesn't mean that those attempts are failing.”

The majority of the interviews and play scripting took place before the outbreak of COVID-19, yet themes raised in the course of the interviews remain timely, even predictive of the current national moment. A brief epilogue with interviewees toward the end of the play provides a post-COVID-19 update with reflections on the role of government in times of crisis.

“More than anything else,” concludes Barker, “I’d want someone to come away from listening to 2020: A Few Questions feeling that, for the sake of the collective good, they cannot be complacent in the political process.”

You can stream 2020: A Few Questions on SoundCloud.

About Mills College

Located in Oakland, California, Mills is a nationally renowned independent liberal arts college for women and gender non-binary students, with graduate programs for all genders. Ranked one of the top-tier regional universities in the West by U.S. News & World Report, Mills is also recognized as one of the Best 386 Colleges in the nation by The Princeton Review. As one of the most diverse liberal arts colleges in the country, Mills has a strong record of academic success with first-generation students, students of color, Latinx students, LGBTQ+ students, and other underrepresented students. The Mills experience is distinguished by small, interactive classes, one-on-one attention from exceptional faculty, a culture of creative experimentation, and cutting-edge interdisciplinary learning opportunities which empower students to make a statement in their careers and communities.