James Walsh on the Romero Troupe and Unbound, the doc premiering tomorrow
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.
Courtesy of Romero Troupe The Romero Troupe started with seven members and now has upwards of seventy.
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.