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Source: Lewis Center for the Arts

Juggling, belly dancing, stepping, saxophone playing, and puppetry all came together at the Berlind Theatre this past weekend in a lively production of “The Odyssey” — a musical adaptation of Homer’s famous epic poem. The production, Victoria Davidjohn ’19 and Annabel Barry’s ’19 theater thesis, completed a four-show run with sold-out performances and over 40 Princeton students sharing the stage.

“The Odyssey” stands out from the rest of this year’s senior-thesis productions not only for its stellar cast, beautiful lighting, costuming, and compelling narrative of love and homecoming, but for Director Victoria Davidjohn’s creative and ambitious use of participatory theater.

Davidjohn first decided to incorporate the idea of participatory theater into her thesis after she participated in a Princeton-specific internship with the program Public Works. Public Works, a community-arts initiative started at The Public Theater in New York City by Lear deBessonet, is centered around the idea of making theater that blurs the line between theater professionals and community members.

Through the initiative, Public Works partners with community groups and smaller organizations from all five New York City boroughs to provide theater workshops and classes for community members. Then, each summer, the organization invites many of those community members to be a part of a large-scale production, often a musical adaptation of a classic work. What results is a lively show that focuses on storytelling in a way that connects with all audiences. Unsurprisingly, this approach has been adopted in theaters across the United States. After spending two summers involved with the program, Davidjohn said, “I knew right then — this was the theater I wanted to spend the rest of my time at Princeton making.”

True to her word, Davidjohn proposed the musical adaptation of the literary classic, “The Odyssey,” created by Public Works, and immediately involved local Princeton and Trenton community groups in the process.

The Trenton Circus Squad, a circus troupe made up of Trenton area kids, wove through the audience as the characters made their way to the colorful city of Phaeacia. Justin Ramos ’19 rocked out on the saxophone, while the squad completed a series of flawless juggling routines, each more impressive than the last. The troupe’s presence in the production certainly livened up the storytelling and made the entire audience smile.

Members of the Trenton Children’s Chorus, a nonprofit that provides music education to the youth of the greater Trenton area, supported the Princeton students with mesmerizing harmonies and featured vocalists.

Davidjohn also took the opportunity to include several Princeton student groups in the show, such as The Princeton Highsteppers, who portrayed the battle against the suitors vying for rule of Ithaca, and Princeton belly dance company Raqs, who depicted the sirens — magical mermaid creatures that lure men with their song. It was as if multiple worlds were colliding on stage. Members of the Princeton and Trenton communities were alongside seasoned Princeton theater performers, resulting in a show that was magical and refreshing.

Set designer Annabel Barry ’19 also took the participatory theater aspect to heart. Tiles, made of sustainable materials supplied by the Office of Sustainability, were featured extensively by Barry in the form of mosaics. The mosaics were created over the course of months with the help of children from Princeton Arts’ after-school program, adults from HomeFront NJ’s art therapy program, as well as Princeton students and faculty. 

They colorfully framed the onstage action with textured depictions of animals, plants, and patterns, providing a childish edge to the many scenes of humor and joy. Conversely, the tiles’ absence revealed a dark and empty stage, effectively introducing the gloomy underworld and Odysseus’s harrowing battles against violent monsters and giants.

The classic story of “The Odyssey is known for its adventure and bravery. But it is no more a story of heroism than a story of love, family, and what it means to have a home. The final line that the company sings in the show is “welcome home,” a fitting end to a production that welcomed Princeton students, Trenton youth, and adults beyond the Princeton gates alike.

Students often joke about the “Orange Bubble” that encompasses and isolates the Princeton campus, but rarely attempt to burst it. Along with the rest of the University, the arts community can easily fall into the trap of detaching itself from the real world. But Princeton students should not be making art or theater solely for the enjoyment of their fellow Princetonians, or, in the case of the thesis productions, for the sole purpose of concluding their four years of training and learning. 

Students should be using their opportunities here to make art that has a place in the broader world. This is not to say that there isn’t value in theater being focused on a community like Princeton, but, at its core theater was made to be something that all people — not just 18- to 21-year-old Ivy Leaguers — can connect with and be a part of.

Theater can reach beyond the Princeton bubble and make an impact on the surrounding communities in ways that other areas of our university may not be able to. As Victoria Davidjohn so beautifully put it, “there is a bright opportunity for the theater to be a space where a better world is imagined and created. Accessibility and inclusivity are central tenets of radical hospitality, and through this, we are empowered to inspire and create joy.”

The goal of Public Works is to create “Theater, of, by and for the people,” and this past weekend’s production of “The Odyssey brought exactly that to Princeton’s campus.

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