University of Minnesota
Q&A with Kym Longhi
Why did you create Oil! And The Jungle?
I was drawn to this piece as an educator, as an artist and as a citizen. As an educator I wanted to give my students the opportunity to examine and address our national problems from a literary, historical and deeply embodied creative perspective. As an artist I was intrigued by the connection of the slaughterhouse and the oil well to the American Dream and by the challenge of evoking these worlds in a theater. As a citizen I wanted to speak to the abuses in our democracy and spark a creative and critical dialogue about what we consider truly "American."
I was struck by the relevance of [Upton Sinclair's novels Oil! and The Jungle] to our present situation in America, even though they were written 100 years ago. It's all in there: workers' rights, labor unions, strikes, food safety, affordable housing, oil wars, government corruption, corporate campaign contributions, bailouts, even revolution.
Why is this piece important?
Because we are poised in a moment of crisis nationally and globally, and each one of us needs to make strong choices in our lives individually if we are going to address the problems we are faced with as a society. Theater is all about choice and action. The artist's power is in making choices, committing them fully to action and, ultimately, bringing the audience into that process as a shared dialogue.
This is your second production of the piece. What has changed?
The most significant change for me is not in the production itself but in the ongoing changes in our world that this piece reflects. For example, there is a protest in the production, which becomes a riot. This moment in the play now resonates with fresh vitality as we continue to witness revolutionary movements all over the world.
The actual production is bigger, but I also hope it has grown deeper. We have a larger cast, a larger performance space. There is more live music. We commissioned Natalie Nowytski, director of Mila Vocal ensemble, to compose a vocal score for the immigrant workers of the jungle. We are also expanding our use of video projection for this version.
What has surprised you in your work on this?
Perhaps most surprising was an unintended correspondence that emerged in the first version. The audience members who sat in the mezzanine or balcony most strongly identified with the performers and the world being presented on the top level, "Oil," and the audience on the floor had more empathy for the world below, "The Jungle." It was an entirely different play depending on where you sat. While this evidence is merely anecdotal, it does suggest that perhaps a lot of our perception in sociopolitical matters is influenced by "where we sit." I encourage the audience to consider the powerful influence of their situation (or choice of seat) on their own perspective as they watch the production. Or better yet, see it twice!
Anything else you would like to tell us?
I was inspired by Jerzy Grotowski's notion of theater as "not merely a confrontation with thoughts, but one involving the whole being ... the important thing is not the words but what we do with these words, what gives life to the inanimate words of the text, what transforms them ..."
I began this with my collaborator and choreographer Karla Grotting and 17 students in a class entitled "Creative Collaboration." We had nothing but two 500-page novels, a handful of props and some improvisation structures. We worked primarily on our feet, thinking with our bodies first, later processing the information in discussion and writing. Gradually we carved the massive texts down to the guts of the performance text while developing a physical score of images and action.
We created the two separate worlds first and then brought them together to see what their collision might reveal. The result is what we will offer our audience. Two novels, two separate worlds, two classes of people in a political and economic system that only seems to divide them more. This is the essential encounter between Upton Sinclair's Oil! and The Jungle. And yet as theater, it is more than that. It is the encounter of a moment from America's past with our tumultuous present. We are excited to be poised on the verge of the final essential encounter, with our audience members. They will be our final collaborator.