Go Deeper

Scott Sheppard’s Living History

Posted April 26th, 2013

“I’m mostly trying to get out of my head and into a really, really stupid place.”

History comes alive!

History comes alive!

On May 13 and 14, FringeArts presents our second annual Jumpstart, a showcase designed to identify new and emerging talent. 2013 will feature six artists and companies performing short works, and we here at FringeArts Blog thought we’d catch up with them. So we turn now to Scott Sheppard, the artistic director of The Groundswell Players and a (soon graduating) student at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training. He will be performing his new collaborative work The Living History Project. Not new to Jumpstart, he performed in the 2012 showcase with The Brothers Beffa in Lessons for the Lobotomized.

The Living History Project is an autobiographical theater work about Scott’s experiences growing up in a hermetic, rural Pennsylvania town. The piece explores the absurdity of a backwards pedagogy that re-imagines a reenactment of the Civil War as a means to revitalize student body indifference. It co-stars co-creator Jenn Kidwell, and was developed in part with colleagues at the Pig Iron school.

FringeArts: Why is your show title The Living History Project? What inspired the initial creation of this work?

Scott Sheppard: Now that I re-read it, I think the title has the burden of sounding a little didactic at first, but ultimately, I think that’s a great starting place for this piece. The title is at once tongue-and-cheek and also really earnest. That’s the tightrope we are trying to walk throughout the performance—the moment the audience begins to laugh and feel secure with a thesis, a tone, and a set of themes, is the moment before we shove them into a new place with a new set of rules. On one level, the piece is a story about a failed pedagogy that glorifies reenactment as a way of understanding historical events more intimately. On another level the piece is about two performers trying to process their relationship to history, to race, to acting, and to each other. One question I’ve been asking myself is, “aren’t we engaged in the very same project of re-living history that our piece seeks to critique?” I think so, and that puts us in the driver’s seat to say something powerful.

The Living History Project has been bubbling inside of me for a while because it relates to an experience I had as a fifth grade Middle School student. As with most autobiographical sources of inspiration, this story has evolved with the storyteller. I’ve written about this experience before, but when I thought about turning it into a performance, it made perfect sense, because the story is about performance.

FringeArts: Where did you grow up?

Scott Sheppard: I grew up in Hanover, Pennsylvania, snack food capital of the world! Utz, Snyders, Wege, Revonah and even the company that makes a lot of the shitty pretzels in various trail mixes. It was the kind of small Pennsylvania town that John Updike wrote about a lot, and like him, my romanticism and criticism for the place are densely intertwined.  I had to put in a lot of work to see my first real concert (Goo Goo Dolls at Hershey Park), I had to wade through a lot of close-minded religions, and the homogeneity of the culture was suffocating, but I became a master of making my own meaning and making my own fun. I found great joy in simple pleasures. My friends and I drove through cornfields in an old gutted van, I jumped off road bridges into lakes, we played basketball in driveways late into the nights. Alternately, I watched strip malls desecrate the landscape and sap patronage from the few restaurants, bars, and cafes that still had idiosyncrasy and character. I watched gay kids get mocked in locker rooms and heard church leaders clarify the evils of abortion on Sunday morning. Ultimately, I learned to love a community that I rarely saw eye to eye with. It’s not a place I like to be, but it is still a place I like going back to.

The 2013 borough council of Scott's hometown.

The 2013 borough council of Scott’s hometown.

FringeArts: How did you go about creating this piece?

Scott Sheppard: Jenn Kidwell and I put a lot of ideas on their feet, and tossed out ninety percent of them. We did a good deal of research on the various themes we engage: reenactment culture, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, creative pedagogical strategies, and the taboos that exist between white people and black people. Largely, the piece was born from the circumstances of my story and then the exploration took Jenn and I to some other related and exciting territory. We improvised and tinkered with our performances until we found something that felt hot. Then we did our best to recreate those moments and lock them in.

FringeArts: How did collaborative/devised work become the theatrical form that you create with?

Scott Sheppard: I think devised work fits me because it allows the actor, the writer, and the director to merge. I tend to believe that for all the great theatrical texts out there, theater isn’t a text-based medium. It is composed of rhythms, images, sounds, words, breath, aura, etc. So, when creating theater I like having the freedom to mess with all of the ingredients of that concoction.

FringeArts: Can you tell us about the experience of being in the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training?

Scott Sheppard: Being in Pig Iron School is a little like having a cheat code to an impossible video game that you love. Pig Iron has just helped to reshape my understanding of what theater can be, and it has given me a host of tools to create work that feels fresh, alive, and innovative. The community of students continues to push me to create compelling work and help me through strenuous passages. Everyone at that school deserves some credit for the success of this piece. Any shortcomings you can blame on Jenn and me.

FringeArts: How do you like to spend your last fifteen minutes before showtime?

Scott Sheppard: Red Bull, stretching, peeing, and pacing. And stupid faces. I’m mostly trying to get out of my head and into a really, really stupid place.

Thanks Scott can’t wait to see the show!

Monday May 13 + Tuesday May 14 at 7pm
Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
$18 / $12 Students + 25 and under
–Josh McIlvain