LIFE JACKET THEATRE COMPANY--WHICH IN ITS FOUR YEARS HAS ALREADY snagged nominations for a Drama Desk Award, seven 2016 New York Innovative Theatre Awards, and two 2017 Henry Hewes Design Awards --recently celebrated the world premiere of "America Is Hard to See." The play portrays the lives of registered sex offenders living in Pahokee, Florida's Miracle Village. As Life Jacket founder, artistic director, and playwright-director Travis Russ tells Backstage, the company explores "areas of emotional confusion that cause an audience to reconsider what they already thought [and] to think about issues in a new light."
What is Life Jacket Theatre Company's mission? Life Jacket is interested in creating theatrical works based on real events, so that means anything that actually happened. We do a great deal of investigative work and transform it into a play. I'm really interested in marrying academic research with diverse theatrical languages--how do we bring interview-based transcripts or archival research mixed with found text and put it onstage and breathe new life into it?
That's what you've done with "America Is Hard to See." What was going down to Miracle Village like? I took a group of individuals down and we made several trips. We went into this community and we built connections and relationships from the ground up. A lot of the time, I was very surprised by how open and forthcoming the interviewees were in sharing their very complicated and complex stories.
Does this mark a particularly sympathetic take on these men? The last thing I wanted to do was create a play about this particular topic, and yet, when I first heard about this village and that it existed, something kept drawing me back to it. There's something about it that is emotionally confusing. I was really fascinated by how complicated my feelings were. We're not interested in pushing any particular agenda. My intent, and it aligns with the mission of the theater company, is to give the audience a similar experience that I had when I met these men, and to have [them] go on a similar emotional journey.
What do you look for in the actors you work with? I look for actors who are comfortable with the research process. We actually have them engage in the investigative process from a very early stage. I don't sit down and write the script from beginning to end; it is always evolving. I have to put different documents and components together to see what makes a compelling narrative arc. [I look for] actors who love getting their hands dirty in the research process, who love reading different texts that inform the production, who find it thrilling to talk about the construction of a play based on found research and interview-based materials.
How can actors get involved with Life Jacket Theatre Company? Connect with us! We're easy to reach through social media and our website, and we're looking for anybody who has a strong interest in this type of theater to join our growing company.
BY BENJAMIN LINDSAY
Caption: Travis Russ
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.