BWW Interview: In Conversation with Ashley Teague of Notch Theatre Company and Jessica Kahkoska about Wild Home: An American Odyssey
Wild Home: An American Odyssey is a new theatre project by Jessica Kahkoska and Notch Theatre Company that brings to the stage the hopes, struggles, and experiences of local communities in areas under serious threat from extractive industries.
As our country faces the greatest threat to public lands in its history, Wild Home takes an odyssey across rural America by traveling to fifteen wilderness areas significantly pressured by oil and gas development. In each town, Notch Theatre Company and playwright Jessica Kahkoska partner with community at every level of the process, beginning with public story-sharing events. Kahkoska then crafts plays based on shared testimony and community feedback, which are performed by community and professional actors in outdoor spaces, interspersed with facilitated dialogue about wildland preservation efforts.
The program is designed so the plays can travel from rural areas to urban city centers, deepening the conversation on both a grassroots level and a national, policymaker scale.
After Wild Home's recent performance in The North Fork Valley of Colorado, Ashley Teague, Artistic Director of Notch Theatre Company and playwright Jessica Kahkoska discuss the program and look to its next steps:
How would you describe Wild Home: An American Odyssey?
Jessica: I would describe Wild Home as one part community partnership, one part storytelling, one part live theatre, and one part advocacy for American public lands and the communities who depend on them.
Ashley: Wild Home uses theatre as a platform for individuals in rural towns to tell their stories of living in public land 'gateway communities.'
Rural communities have historically been a big part of social justice movements, recall those areas of Mississippi and Alabama that motivated the civil rights movement. These communities are usually geographically marginalized and disregarded by folks living in urban centers, while often being disproportionately affected by financial poverty. However, these areas are ABUNDANT. They are full of wealth, a wealth of stories and people and land. These rich spaces certainly don't need us to come in and 'save them.' They don't need us to bring 'placemaking.' They are already made. We don't need to 'give them a voice.' They have a voice. They deserve our support, our championing, our partnership, and ultimately we are better for bearing witness and listening deeply to all they have to say and teach us.
As the current presidential administration seeks to industrialize our nation's wild spaces, Wild Home acts as an indelible record of the personal side of these policies and threats. These plays document a community's unique history and culture at a particularly urgent moment. Because they are based on true stories, the plays are marked by an authenticity of character and voice, and a sometimes-disarming honesty. They are very real and very accessible, and have the rare power to touch people on a deeply personal level.
Why Wild Home now?
Ashley: Yesterday, I was on a farm in Colorado and a farmer who had just overseen the birthing of three lambs asked me, "Do people know that once these lands are leased, they are gone? Do they know they'll be gone forever?"
Jessica: Yeah, that's a great question. Unbeknownst to a large portion of Americans, the protections on massive swaths of our public lands are currently under review, specifically so that the government can lease these areas to oil, gas and mineral extraction companies. Our country is facing what threatens to be the largest loss to public lands America has ever seen.
Ashley: Theodore Roosevelt, who, contrary to our current president, believed in protecting and cherishing the land said, "The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak, so we must and we will." Wild Home is looking to offer a platform for rural communities across the U.S. to tell their story. A story that is completely enmeshed in the story of the lands that these folks depend on and steward.
What has been your favorite part or an interesting part?
Jess: As someone who grew up in Colorado, I have always felt connected to public lands and the need to protect them from oil and gas development. Before working on this project, I think I assumed that all protections were equal-- any piece of public land is like another, right? Nope. I had no idea how complex these designations are, a fact that is unfortunately manipulated against the public by those people looking to dismantle protections and further industrial development in these areas. Thanks to the help of our incredible community partners and participants in Wild Home, I have learned so much about the mandates, laws, and intricate policies that protect our public lands, which has been vital in crafting these plays and understanding for myself how to better advocate for these areas.
Ashley: Working on this program, we have encountered government employees so fearful of their own government that they are scared to talk to us. Us? I think, Community-responsive theatre makers? "We can't be seen affiliating with you, it's just too contentious right now," one individual told us.
And sometimes I forget, theatre can be dangerous, threatening-wild.
It brings to mind something Howard Shalwitz, co-founder of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, once wrote: "in repressive societies, theatre has often been aligned with the movement toward openness and freedom. In South Africa, theatre played a role in the struggle against apartheid. In Czechoslovakia, a playwright became the leader of a new democracy."
Theatre is playful and enchanting, transformative and inherently joyful, and when armed with a deep social consciousness, theatre is power. This program and the individuals I have met along the road have reminded me of that. And my work as a cultural worker and an artist is eternally grateful for the reminder.
What's next, or what do you hope this project can/will do moving forward?
Jess: In April, we presented the first full performance of Wild Home at Delicious Orchards, in Hotchkiss, Colorado. The event was the culmination of 12 months of engagement and a week-long rehearsal process, and featured an amazing local cast of actors, original music, and of course, some amazing cider. Following the performance, there was a panel with advocacy leaders in the area, who shared more about their organizations, specifically how audience members can engage with them and get involved in these issues.
Looking ahead, there's a lot to do. We're beginning to plan the next leg of Wild Home in a new community, visioning how we will grow this project to a national level and bridge gaps between rural communities. We're also laying the groundwork to bring plays from Colorado's North Fork Valley to Denver and other urban centers, where they can be be heard by policy makers and politicians who directly impact the outcome of the fight to protect these areas.
One thing is clear, the energy and urgency emanating from Wild Home is palpable, celebratory, and dire. These are stories that need to be told, need to be shared, and need to be acted on-- before it's too late.
Wild Home is made possible, in part, through a grant from the Network of Ensemble Theaters' Travel & Exchange Network (NET/TEN), supported by lead funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Click here to support, get involved, or learn more about the project.
About Notch Theatre Company: Notch Theatre Company creates community-responsive theatre to drive change around the pressing social and health related issues of our time, offering countless communities a platform to tell their stories on stage and be their own change makers. Theater is able to connect with an audience in a deeply personal way, and we strive to push the boundaries of what that connection can achieve. By collaborating with communities across the nation to tell their real stories on stage, this work engages folks that brick and mortar theaters are not reaching, personalizes important social issues for people on all sides of a conversation, raises awareness in a compelling way, drives change on a national scale, and prompts meaningful, lasting engagement at a grass-roots level.
About Jessica Kahkoska (Playwright): Jessica Kahkoska is a writer, dramaturg/researcher, and performer. Other projects include AGENT 355 (with Preston Max Allen, upcoming Space Jam Residency with Roundabout Theatre/Bucks County Playhouse and New Play Workshop at Chautauqua Theater Company), UNTITLED CRYPTO-JUDAISM PROJECT (Denver Center for the Performing Arts, "Powered By Off-Center" Residency), NIA (with Sarah Wansley and Tommy Crawford, Drama League "First Stage" Residency), THE DEATH OF DESERT ROSE (with Elliah Heifetz), and LETTERS TO THE PRESIDENT (with Michael Bello). Her writing has been developed and presented at Village Theatre, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Chautauqua Theater Company, the Drama League, Joe's Pub at The Public Theatre, Ars Nova ANT FEST, (le) Poisson Rouge, Musical Theatre Factory, and the North Fork Valley Creative Coalition. She is the recipient of the 2017 Marion International Fellowship for the Visual and Performing Arts, the 2019 American Antiquarian Society Fellowship for Creative and Performing Artists and Writers, a NET/TEN Exchange Grant, and creative residencies at the American Music Theatre Project (AMTP) at Northwestern University, Barn Arts Collective, Chautauqua Institution, UCROSS Foundation, and Taft-Nicholson Center for the Arts and Humanities. Dramaturgical work includes new play/musical development Off-Broadway and regionally, with the Cooper Union, Life Jacket Theatre Company, the Athena Project, Creede Repertory Theatre, as well as research for Bungalow Media and Entertainment and AMC/Sundance. She is currently Regional Vice President of the Rocky Mountain/Butte Region for Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of America (LMDA), and a proud member of Actors Equity Association (AEA) and the Dramatists Guild of America. Graduate of Northwestern University.
About Ashley Teague (Director): Teague is the founding Artistic Director of Notch Theatre Company and a recipient of the Embark Fellowship Award for Social Innovation in Entrepreneurship. In addition to our Wild Home program, Notch is also a participating partner on Remember2019: an effort to make space for the congregation of the Black communities in the Arkansas Detla, supporting and facilitating local practices of self-determination, memory, and reflection as directly related to the mass lynching of 1919, the lasting effects of racial terror, and the current and future health of these communities. Notch co-developed FIT, a play by Gwen Kingston about the American eugenics movement of the 20th century that partners with the Intellectual Disabled Community. While with Cornerstone Theater Company, Teague co-developed and produced Talk It Out, which traveled throughout California creating community-engaged theater to change public policy around the school-to-prison pipeline crisis. As a creative content producer, Teague worked on such films as Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls, Gus Van Sant's Promised Land, Paul Haggis' Next Three Days, and Tina Chism's Peeples. Recent directing credits include Wild Home (Delicious Orchards, CO), FIT (La Mama Studios, NYC; Spectrum Theatre/Trinity Rep, RI; White Heron Theater, MA), Sense and Sensibility (Redlands University, CA), Anna Karenina (White Heron Theater, MA), The Language Archive (UNC/Playmakers Rep), Capsized (Cherry Lane, NYC), Twelfth Night (Gallery Players, NY), The Rehearsal (Asolo Rep/FSU, FL), CHQ Project (Chautauqua Theatre Co, NY), Scapegoat (Delta Cultural Center, AR), Willful (California State Capitol), Ajax (Casa0101/Theater of War Productions, CA).