Theatre is often designated as the most collaborative of all the arts. The MFA in Acting at the University of Missouri-Kansas City acknowledges this and asks students to dive head first into Auto-Cours work. Based on the pedagogy of Jaques Lecoq, Auto-Cours forces artists to work together to create devised theatre. Devised theatre asks the collaborators to bring their own experiences together in order to create a script and, in turn, a show. The 2019 graduating class of MFA actors were able to create a devised piece called The Storytelling Project.
The Storytelling Project was a collaboration between the entire MFA acting class of 2019, director Karen Lisondra, and composer Amado Espinoza. The Storytelling Project explored intimate and imaginative relationships through the Andean Cosmovision’s concept of Pachakutec, or time/space reversal. The devised part of this collaboration began with “soul-texts,” out of which characterization and a script were born. Each of the characters was created from these “soul-texts”. The entire acting ensemble was involved: Marianne McKenzie, Chelsea Kinser, Khalif Gillett, Jason Francescon, Freddy Acevedo, Yetunde Felix-Ukwu, and Emilie Karas, each bringing their own “soul-texts” to the piece.
The group worked together for nine months before the project got on its feet for audiences the first time in Kansas City in 2018. They collaborated with artists across all departments of UMKC’s theatre program. UMKC designers were able to bring lighting, set, and sound to the overall piece in 2018. Marianne McKenzie says, “Without UMKC, we never would have been connected with Karen and Amado, nor had the cool design elements from the students there.”
The journey did not stop there for this successful devised piece. Marianne, Chelsea, Freddy, Yetunde, and Emilie took the show on the road. This fall the group took a revised version of The Storytelling Project, now entirely in Spanish, to Bolivia. The group performed in a number of Bolivian cities, including Cochabamba, La Paz, Tarabuco, and Sucre. McKenzie says that Bolivia served as original inspiration for the piece as both Amado Espinoza and Karen Lisondra have ties to the South American country. “Performing the Pachakutec in Bolivia was like a homecoming,” says Yetunde Felix-Ukwe. “There was an overwhelming amount of resonance when we did the story in front of people honoring their culture, their history, their mythology and their language.”
The entire project is a testament to the lasting impact that courses such as these can have. Undoubtedly this project has truly changed the performers involved as they grew together in their journey making theatre from nothing. They came into the process bringing only their independent experiences and left having created a cohesive piece of theatre. This piece of theatre they created was entirely new and unique to The Storytelling Project. Karen Lisondra believes “That’s devised theatre. Find boundaries, limitations to work with, and at the same time believe that everything is possible.“ Lisondra is right; Lecoq’s Auto-Cours is designed to force individuals into creative collisions and for them to figure out amongst themselves how to create theatre. These collisions allow actors to question the ways in which actors perceive themselves inside the confines of an ensemble. For McKenzie, “This project completely changed my perception of myself as an actor. I was very cerebral before, but now I consider myself very physical because of what was demanded of me and because of what I proved to myself during the runs. Also, I unleashed my inner dark clown during the process. I learned I can achieve whatever I want if I just put my mind to it. (…) This project truly changed my life.”