Sophie Hilker ’20

On Tuesday, April 16, members from On Stage: Creating a Community Audience Around Live Theater visited Assistant Professor Matthew Burgess’ Identities and Differences in U.S. Literature course. On Stage is a program that operates through Springboard for the Arts, a nationally recognized non-profit arts service organization based in St. Paul. According to Project Manager Lucas Erickson, the program works to bring local actors and educators into college classrooms to “read scenes from a play in current local production followed by a lively discussion of the themes tying in current events, personal values and narratives, and stimulating critical thinking.”

Official Production Photo from Theater Latté Da

One of the productions the program is exploring this semester is Hedwig and the Angry Inch, currently onstage at Theater Latté Da in Minneapolis. Hedwig and the Angry Inch follows the titular German emigrant rock singer living in a trailer in Kansas who is the victim of sexual abuse by his father growing up, and later a botched sex-change operation, in her search for stardom and love. As advertised on the theater’s website, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch is an inspiration to anyone who has felt life gave them an inch when they deserved a mile.” The Words sat down with Professor Matt Burgess, and students Jackson Ullmann ’20 and Ash Ma ’21 to talk about the experience and community engagement.

Professor Burgess appreciated for the opportunity to work with On Stage.

“They’re working on a show, and it’s interesting to hear the students, sixteen smart young people, talking about the themes of the show,” he said. “I structured this course around genres, and so I wanted us to read and talk about a bunch of different types of things—short stories, novels, poetry, but also comic books and video games, and plays—and I liked the idea of a musical like Hedwig and the Angry Inch that is dealing with issues of the body. I liked that it was in the genre that I wanted to explore with the class and that it was about body and identity politics, which I wanted to make space for in the course.”

Going into the experience, the class didn’t know what to expect.

“I thought we would talk more about musical itself and more about the differences between staging a musical and what a musical can do as genre that others can’t, and we didn’t, but that’s fine,” Burgess said. Instead, Burgess noticed that the class talked about “things that as human beings we probably think a lot about, but don’t make a lot of space in classrooms for.” Representatives of On Stage read through the lyrics of songs from the production and led students through an analysis of the show’s major themes. According to Jackson Ullmann ’20, much of the discussion engaged with themes of “love, soulmates, and identity as a crossroad,” which students found deeply interesting.

The ultimate goal of the program, as stated by Erickson, is to “enhance in-class learning, make local theater relevant to younger and non-traditional audiences, and to lay the groundwork for building future theater attendances.” On Stage provides discounted student tickets to help achieve this goal. And after class, it seemed that their goal had been achieved.

“I really want to go see the play now,” said Ash Ma ’21.

When asked why community engagement is important in higher education, Burgess responded, “Why do you think it’s important?”

I considered the question before responding, “I plan on staying in the Twin Cities [after graduation], and having opportunities to connect with that community is important if I want to be a part of it. Community engagement, a pillar of Macalester, is something I believe in, too. I don’t want to live somewhere where I’m not engaged with the people who live there and engaged with the place itself because I’m not sure that’s responsible citizenship.”

“Can you just take what you said and say that I said it?” Burgess joked. “And can you also put that in the article, too?” On a more serious note, he added, “I think we live in a cool place with lots of cool stuff, so let’s take advantage of it.”

The Words extends a big thank you to Assistant Professor Burgess, Jackson Ullmann ’20, and Ash Ma ’21 for their collaboration with this article. Hedwig and the Angry Inch will run at Theater Latté Da from March 27 through May 5.