By Jill Wilson
For Inland 360
Rob Caisley was bit by the theater bug when he was 16 and has never recovered. An affliction of the heart, his pathosis has taken several forms.
As a professional playwright his plays have been performed across the United States, Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom and translated into Italian, French and Spanish. As professor of theater and head of dramatic writing at the University of Idaho, he has pioneered a one-of-a-kind distance learning program that allows individuals from around the country to earn a master’s degree in fine arts.
Now, as the new chairman of the Department of Theater Arts, his dreams of bringing people together through theater continue to bear fruit as the UI heads into its 119th theater season. We sat down with Caisley last week and talked education, democracy, and passion.
360: What role does theater play in a community?
Caisley: Shakespeare said it best. He said, we “are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.” We do hold a mirror up to nature. I feel that we are an especially sensitive register of what’s in the zeitgeist.
Throughout history, when autocratic government set themselves up, one of the first things they do is it shut down the theaters. They know how potent messages can be when they are told in the proximity of another human being. It’s no surprise that the Greeks gave us democracy and they gave us theater. They felt it was an integral part of democracy and I believe that to be true today.
I’ve been looking back over the plays that I’ve written and one of the things I’ve come to realize is that every time I sit down to write I‘m confronting my silent anxieties in my life. I think that that’s what the theater can do. It can confront people’s anxieties about modern life. I feel that, more and more, the theater will become an important place to debate those kinds of anxieties.
360: What did you do before you were chairman?
Caisley: I’ve been a professor here in the department for 18 years. Principally, I was the head of dramatic writing. Since 2009 I created a distance learning initiative for the department. We now have graduate students enrolled in our classes who are scattered all around the country. It began with playwrights but then, as I went around the country recruiting playwrights, I’d bump into people who’d, for example, say, “I’ve got 15 years of experience running a theater company but I don’t have the terminal degree.” So I say to them, we will create a suite of courses that you can do independently or one-on-one with a professor, and why don’t you tell me what you are committed to direct on your stage and I’ll come down and see the show there. So, we just decided, instead of coming to Moscow to get your MFA, we’ll bring the MFA to you.
360: I didn’t know that was possible.
Caisley: I didn’t either. We just made it up and started doing it and it turns out we’re kind of unique around the country. There are not any other places doing exactly what we are doing. Great news about it is that if students only take those distance courses they don’t get hit with out-of-state tuition, so it makes the graduate degree much more affordable.
It’s really changed the nature of learning. Learning in the typical classroom is sort of vertical: The professor is somehow the authority of knowledge and they come in and disseminate the knowledge down to the students. But now when I walk in the classroom I feel that the learning is horizontal. I’m walking into a room with people with 10, 15, 20 years of experience. They just don’t have the terminal degree. Their sharing is very valuable to the students so it’s a win-win.
Deb Herzberg is a classic example. She is an expert puppeteer and just finished working on the new Tom Hanks movie, the Mr. Rodgers film (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”). She did the puppets for that movie so she is going to Zoom in (through video conferencing) this semester and share that experience with our students.
360: What shows can we expect to see this year?
Caisley: For the fall season we open with “Drowning Ophelia” on the 27th. It’s the inaugural production for our Pocket Playhouse, an old classroom we’ve converted into a very intimate playing space. There are only 38 tickets being sold for every performance. So people should get their tickets quick because they will go pretty quickly. Ours is the Northwest premier of the play. It’s a play that touches on the issues of abuse but it does it in a beautifully, very deft and poetic way, by using this image of Ophelia, namesake from Hamlet.
We are going to be doing talk backs for two of the performances, one of which the playwright (Rachel Luann Strayer) is flying in from Pennsylvania to be part of (7:30 p.m. Sept. 27). I’ve been reaching out to people from Alternatives to Violence on the Palouse and our Women’s Center to have a victim’s advocate attend each of the performances so if someone has a reaction to a subject in the play there will be somebody there for them to talk to.
It’s important to balance a season so we’ve got “Little Women” later in the season. We also have a play called “This Random World” by Steven Dietz, which is a terrific play about randomness — that you could be on and entirely different path had you left your house and gone left in the morning as opposed to going right.
Also included in the season is “Deep Calls”, a play by Kendra Philips who is a second year MFA student. She wrote this play last year. It’s a really interesting, elegant and lyrical play, in spite of its tough subject matter, so I was really impressed by it and I can’t wait to see it on its feet.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Drowning Ophelia,” by Rachel Luann Strayer.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Oct. 3, 4, 5 and 2 p.m. Sunday and Oct. 5, 6.
WHERE: Pocket Playhouse, Shoup Hall, 1028 W. Sixth St., Moscow.
COST: Free for UI students, $6 for high school students, students from other schools and youth; $12 UI employees, military and seniors (55 and up); $17 adults. All matinees are “pay what you can.
OF NOTE: This play deals with abuse and includes mature content dealing with rape and sexual violence. It includes a simulated sexual assault. An advocate from the University of Idaho Women’s Center, the Counseling Center or Alternatives to Violence on the Palouse will be present at each performance to serve as a support resource if needed.