Travis Russ is artistic director of New York-based Life Jacket Theatre Company, which is taking its work internationally for the first time with a show at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Russ tells Giverny Masso about America Is Hard to See, which uses verbatim interviews to explore the lives of people living in Miracle Village – a rural American community for sex offenders…
Tell me about your company…
We use the term ‘investigative theatre’ to describe our work. My background is in performance studies, so I’m fascinated in blurring the worlds between research and theatre. I’m interested in making research entertaining and accessible to a wider audience. Life Jacket works with people who live on the fringes of society – people who are outcasts or outliers. I’m fascinated by community theatre work – where theatremakers conduct an extreme amount of research to get to know the community. Some of our previous shows are built on archival research, but this is the first time we have interviewed living people.
What was the inspiration behind America Is Hard to See?
Initially, we were fascinated by outsiders in small towns. I started searching and Miracle Village came across my radar. At first, I had a strong, visceral reaction against the idea, and I said: ‘There’s no way I’m doing a show about that.’ The moment that feeling passed, I felt I had to do the show. We spent roughly three years conducting more than 75 interviews with people who live in Miracle Village and nearby towns.
What was the process like?
Surprisingly, people were extremely open. Of course we’re hearing these stories from people who have committed terrible crimes, so there are questions around the truth. I’m not a journalist, I’m a theatremaker, so I’m not interested in finding one truth, I’m interested in finding multiple truths. The play is a variety of verbatim interviews juxtaposed with court documents and transcripts.
What questions are raised?
To what degree is an audience comfortable with emotional confusion? In parts of the play, my heart breaks, but a second later I’m revolted by these crimes, then, I feel deep empathy, and that constant tug of war is theatrically thrilling. A question I’m fascinated by is: what are the limits of forgiveness? Who is allowed to be forgiven? Another question is how just is the US justice system? When people have done their time, are they still criminalised when they’re released? Then there’s a question around religion. Who is allowed to be touched by God’s grace?
How significant is music in the play?
Some of the main characters play instruments and join a choir. There’s a pivotal moment when the pastor – who’s new to the area – invites them into her church, which causes conflict. We weave a number of traditional methodist hymns throughout the play because her church is methodist. Pricilla Holbrook, the composer, has done hours of research in uncovering hymns and has written original songs.
Training: BA in theatre from Bradley University, Illinois (1994-98); MA in rhetoric from Illinois State University (1998-2000); PhD in communication studies at Rutgers University, New Jersey (2003-07)
First professional role: Summer stock near Chicago (1995)
America Is Hard to See is at Underbelly, Cowgate from August 2 to 25