James Walsh found that the old methods of teaching were not working, so he threw out his textbooks, shredded his exams and turned his 200-person lecture hall into a space for radical, theatrical collaboration exploring people's histories: stories of labor, immigration and gay rights. Soon he was interested in bringing this style of educational theater to working-class people in Denver. Along with several students, he started the Romero Troupe, which has grown from seven to seventy. In advance of this weekend's showing of Michael Kilman's documentary Unbound: The Story of the Romero Theater Troupe, Westword spoke with Walsh about his project.
Westword: Talk about the Romero Theater Troupe.
James Walsh: I've been teaching at CU Denver. This is my sixteenth year. I started in the history department and now I'm in the political science department. When I started, I was going crazy. They put me in the largest class with 200 students. They threw me to the wolves. I wasn't feeling fulfilled or inspired by the traditional way of teaching, which was lecture and discussion and lecture and taking exams and using textbooks and all that. I decided to be a little bit bold, and I threw textbooks away. I stopped using textbooks and started using poetry and fiction and music. I stopped using exams. I stopped having lecture-based classes. I felt like it wasn't enhancing the students or really challenging them to grow as people or look at the world critically. I decided to use theater. I came up with the idea that instead of taking a final exam, my students would create a short play and then perform it. We spent the last three weeks of the semester changing the classroom into a theater. It was just an incredible experience to watch very quiet students take flight and become engaged and active and interested. I started doing that about fifteen years ago. Then it spread to all my classes.
I decided that my real hope is to figure out a way to bring nontraditional history to working-class communities and audiences. I decided to create a theater troupe whose mission was to bring what Howard Zinn calls a people's history -- a history of struggle, a history of activism, a history of labor rights and immigrant rights that I believe the general public doesn't get to access. It's not something that's taught generally in high schools or colleges. My idea was to figure out how to bring that not only to the community, but to working-class communities where people don't have access to that and can't afford to spend $50 to see a play.
That's how it started. I started calling former students who had acted in my classes. It just took off. We started with seven and now we're probably seventy. It's an all-volunteer group. It's a budgetless operation, which is what makes it so unique. It's people volunteering their time to do this, and we had no idea we'd get such a response from the community over the years, but we have.
Talk about some of the productions you've done.
We did a play called Speak American years ago, during all the big marches for immigrant rights. That was a play about immigrant rights. It was a story of two brothers. One becomes an anti-migrant vigilante. He goes to the border with weapons. The other brother takes a different path. It was the first feature-length play that we did, and it was a great success. From there we went into some of our biggest and longest-running shows. One was called Which Side Are You On. That was a history of the American labor movement in two hours. We pulled several stories of different strikes and actions and struggles that workers have faced in U.S. history. Anything from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the Flint Sit-down Strike, the Memphis garbage workers strike where Martin Luther King was killed, the farm-workers' struggle -- those are all stories that we told in that play. That play ended up running two years. We would do it every six weeks. The community would keep saying, "Do it again. Do it again," so we would do it again. We literally did the play for two years. Almost 3,000 people saw that play. It was quite a successful play.
The other big ones have been The People's History of Colorado, which we did for a year and a half. We performed it about nine times, all over the Front Range. We pulled stories like the Japanese interment camps in Amache, the story of how the Ku Klux Klan once ran Colorado, the story of a really violent miners' strike in Leadville lead by Irish miners in 1896 that was crushed by the Colorado National Guard and the story of the West High School walkouts in 1969. We told the story of the desegregation of Washington Park Lake in the '30s. Those are examples of stories we told in that play. The community asked us to keep doing it, so we kept doing it.
There is the play that we have been doing for a year called Semillas de Colorado -- Seeds of Colorado. In that play, we tell more stories about Colorado's past and present, such as the first gay-rights coalition in Denver history in the '70s, which was actually an organization that was way ahead of most other parts of the country and the coast. It was victorious in getting the lewd ordinance laws overturned. Police used those to brutalize gay men in Denver. They used these laws to define lewd as gay, and they would target gay men in the Capitol Hill area. They picked them up on a bus that was called the Johnny Cash Special. They offered them free tickets to a Johnny Cash concert. They enticed men onto the bus and then quickly turned the conversation sexual. They entrapped the men and then arrested them and frequently beat them up.
Those are examples of the stories we told in that play. We just finished that and are going to be moving in the direction of something about education for our next project. We're not quite sure which direction that's going to head, but we want to do something in support of teachers and the struggle they have with standardized testing.
We want to combat some of the ways that local school boards like Jefferson County and Douglas County have really gone to the right. We want to talk about some of the bashings of teachers' unions that have been happening. We want to tell a different side of things. That brings us to where we are now.
Read on for more from James Walsh.
What it was like to be featured in a documentary? It's been remarkable. The biggest reason is that we are constantly focused on our work and have never had a lot of time to reflect on our work. Him interviewing us and asking us these larger questions has been really healthy for us. It's been an opportunity to look at what we're doing from a distance. At first, we were like, "Who is this guy with a camera and what's he doing?" We really developed a great respect for Michael and all he did for us. It was a really great match. The whole process was wonderful, because he was able to capture what we do. We feel like the mainstream media was just ignoring it because it wasn't traditional theater, because the audience was not the traditional theater audience. It was very much working-class people. So him capturing our work, it was very important to show that our work needs to be documented and the story needs to be told. We're all very grateful that Michael did that.
I should say that teaching in the way that I do was the catalyst for the troupe. Making the decision to be a radical educator and to use theater in the classroom instead of exams -- it almost cost me my job because I was in a traditional department. About five years ago, I was notified that my contract would not be renewed. My students organized and rallied and wrote letters. My students in the Romero Troupe really led the charge, I'd say. They formed a committee and had meetings and rallies and I was reinstated. I was able to get my job back, and that's kind of unheard-of in higher education for that to happen. The dean overruled the decision. I even owe my job to the Romero Troupe. I don't just owe my work, but even my job itself. I've come full circle.
Was your radical pedagogy and your theater work the reason you were about to be let go?
No. The reason that was given was budget issues. At that time, there was a budget crunch. It was during the recession. The other reason was that I hadn't finished my dissertation, but neither of those really held water. There were other people that hadn't even started a Ph.D. in the department. I knew it was something else, and in coded ways, comments were made that I was choosing to do other things and working on other projects. I knew that meant the Romero Troupe and my work in theater. I have so much faith in it that I could never give it up.
Philosophically, it's really rooted in the ideas of Paulo Freire, who's a Brazilian philosopher who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a book about educators surrendering their power to empower their students and to tap into the rich life experiences and wisdom that exists in every person, to invite them to be part of a classroom. This is really part of the practice of Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Paulo Freire's philosophy. He's someone that I've really used as a guide in my work.
In the troupe, everyone in the community is welcome to be part of what we do and everyone in the community is treated as an expert of their own experiences. It's a culture that is very much rooted in consensus. Everything is collaborative. We don't have a director. I'm the organizer, but I'm definitely not the director. We all direct together.
What are the benefits and challenges of collective production?
People I know in professional theater listen to that and immediately assume it's impossible to have a theater piece that's not the vision of one person, but the vision of many. It requires tremendous trust between people. It requires a lot of patience. It requires trust in the idea that when many hands are on the steering wheel, it steers the ship in a better direction than if it's just one hand. The way we operate is that we'll start on a story with a vision that someone verbalizes or sometimes a very loose, basic script. Those are two ways to begin a scene. We'll just stage it and then talk about it. Slowly but surely the scene shifts and changes and morphs into a collective vision. What we end up putting on stage is never anything close to what we start with. In the end, everyone owns it. Everyone understands it. That's why people can jump in and play different roles in the same scene on different nights. Everyone shares a vision that we've worked on together. It requires a culture formed from day one around mutual respect and humility. That culture is fortunately something that we've been able to create over the years that we've been together. There are not large egos that swallow up all the oxygen in the room. Instead, its' a group of humble people that share and discuss their hopes. In the end, we have art that's collective.
Join Michael Kilman and James Walsh in celebrating the completion of Unbound at its premiere at Su Teatro, 712 Santa Fe Drive, at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 26. The suggested donation for entry is $5 to $15. For more information, call 720-648-9243 or visit the event's Facebook page.
Find me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.