ISU Theatre explores questions of identity, community through 'Iowa Odyssey'

Student actors rehearse for the "Iowa Odyssey" production.

From left, Lena Menefee-Cook (junior in performing arts), Rob Delgado (senior in performing arts) and Jillian Kurovski (senior in animal ecology) rehearse for ISU Theatre's production of "Iowa Odyssey." Photo by Zoey Lazere.

ISU Theatre's "Iowa Odyssey (or How We Got to Here)," a unique, locally sourced collaboration about identity, community and hope, opens Friday, April 26, at Fisher Theater.

The impetus for the original show came from conversations with ISU's diversity and inclusion staff about the challenges undocumented students face in sharing their personal stories, said Amanda Petefish-Schrag, assistant professor of theatre.

"[The office] is hearing these compelling stories, but the act of sharing puts students at risk," Petefish-Schrag said. "We began exploring how to use theater's technique and privilege to tell stories that would allow conversations to take place in the light of day instead of behind closed doors."

Using a pastiche of narratives and new and old storytelling techniques, "Iowa Odyssey" shares real-life stories that resulted from months of local research. Last fall, the production's student advance team began interviewing Ames community members and ISU students, faculty and staff about their experiences of culture, identity and immigration. The team also conducted archival research on the history of immigration in Iowa.

"This show isn't about London or New York or other places, but here," Petefish-Schrag said. "It is a story of us. All the stories relate to 'how did we get to here,' both geographically and philosophically. How did we arrive at this moment, and who are we when we say we are Iowans? We're exploring how the questions of identity and where we come from shape how we can build a community together."

The stories in "Iowa Odyssey" expand beyond those of undocumented students. One story focuses on the Babel Proclamation of 1918, issued by Iowa Gov. William Harding during the anti-German sentiment of World War I. The proclamation stated that only English could be spoken in schools, public places, telephone conversations, meetings and religious services.

Push and pull

A set of stories titled "Pushing and Pulling" highlights immigration through circumstances that "push" people to Iowa -- such as a humanitarian crisis -- and opportunities that "pull" people to Iowa for work or education. In "Stories that Root Us," performers will share family stories gathered from interviews and explore how stories passed down through generations create belonging and identity.

Advance team member Bethmari Marquez Barreto, a junior animal ecology and performing arts major from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, said she felt a responsibility to use her identities as an artist and multicultural student to bring attention to an important social issue.

"I have always wanted to share my experience, compare it to others and see the differences and similarities within our journey," she said. "What better way to express all of our stories than through theater, which is a great and creative platform to address things that we might not want to talk about?"

Rob Delgado, a senior in performing arts and advance team member, said the opportunity to develop a show based on unique stories attracted him to the project.

"In 'Iowa Odyssey,' we have a chance to tell stories of individuals that nobody else may ever get to hear," he said. "What does it take to shape a person? What is identity? What is diversity? How do people perceive these traits and qualities of the people? By telling the stories of others, we learn about individuals, but more than that, we create community."

After completing their initial research, the advance team recruited students to join story-building teams. Each team was assigned a story to develop for stage, then write, design and perform for the final show. The highly collaborative experiment created both excitement and risk.

"We are anticipating that we won't know what the show looks and sounds like until about one week before it opens," Petefish-Schrag said. "We also are leaving the door open so that if there is a change in the national conversation about immigration that we can act as artistic first-responders and incorporate that conversation into the show."

Petefish-Schrag said "Iowa Odyssey" does not pose public policy suggestions but creates spaces for stories.

"We want to invite people into a conversation," she said. "Our role is not to say what they have to make of that conversation."

Taking the show on the road

"Iowa Odyssey" is intended to have a life beyond Ames. ISU Theatre is planning a performance in Perry and envisions helping other communities create their own versions of locally sourced theater. This means the set and costumes for the show are equally unique.

"Everything has to fit in the back of a Ford Taurus," Petefish-Schrag joked. "This show is not locked into a specific performance place."

"Iowa Odyssey (or How We Got to Here)" evening performances are April 26 and 27 and May 3 and 4 at 7:30 p.m. Matinee performances are April 28 at 1 p.m. and May 5 at 2 p.m. All performances are in Fisher Theater.

Tickets ($18 for adults, $16 for seniors and $11 for students) are available through the Stephens Auditorium ticket office, Ticketmaster or the Fisher Theater box office prior to performances.