Underground Railway Theater, Engine of Delight & Social Change: 2021 Edition

Rated 5.00/5 based on 7 reviews
JULIE TAYMOR: "I am delighted to see this ebook on the great output of the Underground Railway Theater...a testament to the unbridled experimentation & success they have achieved." Written by the founding co-directors, with VIDEOS of PERFORMANCES combining ACTORS, PUPPETS & MUSIC in the DEVISING OF ENGAGED PLAYS.

2022 NANCY STAUB AWARD for scholarship in puppetry, International Puppet Guild. More
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About Wes Sanders

Wes Sanders performed a variety of roles in Chicago, Boston and New York theaters––joining Equity in 1966––while completing his doctoral work in Drama at Northwestern University (Ph.D., 1969). He served as a tenured Associate Professor of Theater & English at Oberlin College, 1967-78, directing 17 productions from Euripides to Beckett.
Wes resigned from Oberlin, to start Underground Railway Theater (URT) with partner Debra Wise (1978). He served as Founding Artistic Director of the troupe for 20 years––acting, directing, singing, making and performing puppets, playwriting and teaching art-residencies. The company built its own theater in 2008 (Cambridge, Mass.) and celebrated 44 years of continuous production in 2022.
Wes resigned from the staff of URT in 1998 to work on climate-change full-time. He lives in Denver.

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Reviews of Underground Railway Theater, Engine of Delight & Social Change: 2021 Edition by Wes Sanders & Debra Wise

alice trexler reviewed on May 27, 2021

The depth and scope of this fascinating history is awe-inspiring. Wes Sanders and Debra Wise detail the evolution of The Underground Railway Theater (URT) which became one of the great non-commercial, social justice companies of the times. Impressively, they risked it all to found URT and held tightly to their vision in challenging circumstances. The book is not just a stroll down memory lane and documentation of performances, it’s more like a hike led by naturalists who point out every fascinating detail of flora, fauna, and geology along the way. Nuclear weapons, climate change, and women’s issues were among the many show themes during the URT years covered by the book -- 1978 to 2001. Such themes were the core of devised performances that educated and activated audiences. Although I saw a number of the shows at the time, the book further educated me about URT’s puppetry innovations, collaborative processes, and ethical struggles when incorporating cultural materials (for example, Native American).

Having taught dance, physical theater, and interdisciplinary arts/social science courses, I am truly sorry that this book wasn’t available to my students then. Now, a new audience can gain appreciation for earlier URT shows through multi-dimensional descriptions and video excerpts. This iBook also provides a total context for the devising of social justice themed performances. Underground Railway Theater, Engine of Delight and Social Change: 2021 Edition should appeal to a wide readership with interests in performing arts, arts in education, American history, and many of the social sciences.
(reviewed 4 months after purchase)
Magtaitai reviewed on April 2, 2019

Reading this book was a fascinating experience for me since I grew up with Wes and the Underground Railway Theater, beginning with "Junk" in Ohio in 1979 (when I was eight years old) and catching nearly every one of their shows through the mid 1990s. Having seen their collaborative process of show creation up close over the years, I never thought of it as a conscious choice. I was shocked to learn, as an adult, that this is not how most plays and musicals were created or rehearsed. I was also unaware of the URT's roots in avant-garde theater, which I also grew up watching a lot of. Fish don't know they're in water, as the joke goes ("how's the water?" "what's water?"). "Underground Railway Theater, Engine of Delight & Social Change" explained the water to me -- and what sparkling clear, refreshing water it was (and is)!

This book can be read many different ways. It is at once a personal memoir of a life in theater, an instructive tale for community arts groups trying to stay afloat artistically as well as financially, and an intriguing glimpse at what it's like working as a stage performer with professional orchestras. It's also the story of a group's deep commitment to political, environmental, and social change over the decades. Wes is a natural-born storyteller and a lively writer; his account never lags. [Full disclosure: I am the author of a short sidebar within the book, recounting the time my mother and I accompanied Wes to a Hopi village to try to see a coming-of-age ritual, the Bean Dance.]

Because of the wealth of video clips included in the e-book, I strongly encourage you to read this book on a laptop rather than a Kindle (unless you have a Kindle Fire, which does color video). My Kindle Paperwhite was slow to bring up the links and then only played them in black and white. If you read the book on a laptop, either via Smashwords or via the Kindle Cloud Reader (just Google those words if you don't know how to bring it up), then it's just a quick click to get the videos to start playing, and without losing your place in the book text. It's well worth the effort of figuring out the right way to read/watch this excellent account.
(reviewed the day of purchase)
Davyoung reviewed on Oct. 3, 2017

What a wonderful story this book tells, of creativity, courage, persistence, and innovation. I am recommending it to friends!
(reviewed 56 days after purchase)
Chris Thomas reviewed on Sep. 4, 2017

Wonderful book . It is a deeply engaging story, both personal and professional, that follows the evolution of the American theater from the 1960s through the early 2000s told by an actor, director, puppeteer and visionary who helped to shape it. The book is filled practical information about the founding, funding and day to day workings of an aspirational theater. It is also the story of a personal journey told by a narrator who is both erudite and engaging with photos and video clips of the company's work spanning four decades. I was enthralled by the ballet of three puppeteers performing the Firebird behind the shadow puppet screen. The ingenuity that the company brought to developing each piece both as collaborators and performers is well illustrated in video clips of the performances themselves.
(reviewed 60 days after purchase)
isdreader reviewed on Sep. 3, 2017

As an aspiring theater professional, Underground Railway Theater, Engine of Delight & Social Change is an invaluable resource for learning about the challenges of starting a nonprofit theater company committed to its values. This text is accessible for theater artists and non-practitioners alike in its explanation of the various resources the author and his colleagues used as tools for success. Furthermore, the use of video excerpts enhances the textual description. In the Mothers & Whores video, I was blown away by the performer’s ability to take on multiple personas within the same song; it felt like a one-woman show. What impresses me the most is how the founders of the Underground Railway Theater consistently evaluated their work through a lens of self-improvement. These artists strove to identify areas where they lagged behind, artistically, socially, or politically, and targeted their work toward these places. Often, there are references to personal growth, such as not knowing one’s own potential at first, but upon reflection noting the progress achieved. As a young theater artist, this information is reassuring because forging into the unknown is scary. In addition, this book reveals the artists’ deep concern for addressing contemporary social inequalities; specifically their awareness of their white privilege in attempting to tell the stories of minority groups. These artists sought communication between different races to work through tensions, and produce authentic storytelling. I step away from this book equipped with a profound understanding of the work ethic required to have a career in new work development, and a respect for the moral commitment of the artists who created the Underground Railway Theater.
(reviewed the day of purchase)
sunergy reviewed on Sep. 2, 2017

Thoroughly enjoyable is this book. I was fascinated more and more by the story of the social action orientation of Underground Railway Theater. The technical aspects of the puppetry, running a mobile business, the sources of inspiration, working with crowds to please and teach simultaneously - these are some of the reasons I liked the work.
The true show stoppers are the video clips as well as the excerpts from other members of the group in the sidebars. These 2 factors make this e-book Much more interesting than a standard book, and fully utilize the features of an electronic integrated media.
I also loved hearing about the on-the-spot trouble shooting and rebuilding of puppets before and even during the show. How little we mortals know about the travails behind the screen. Wes Sanders offers us a grand view of these efforts, while telling the
full 40 year saga of a theater troupe.
(reviewed 58 days after purchase)
yvodic reviewed on Aug. 13, 2017

Great book!
I just finished reading and enjoyed it. The book provides insights into all sorts of aspects relevant to a touring theatre: ways of creating plays, how to conduct research for a play, training, financing, cooperations with other institutions, different actors, other artists, the community, and the many many problems a young theatre company can run into. For me as a young puppeteer just starting out into a career in puppetry this was a very helpful text. Learning from a concrete example really helps me to put my own experiences into context, gives me valuable ideas of things to look into and to watch out for.
I appreciate the video material in this ebook a lot. This is finally a text I am reading as ebook where content and format match. and reading an ebook is not just saving shelf-meters in the living room.
(reviewed 8 days after purchase)
Kalabo reviewed on Aug. 6, 2017
(no rating)
I am one of those"for whom theater is an ongoing love-interest" rather than a 'field of dreams," so I expected to sample the videos and delight in the puppet illustrations; instead I found my self hooked on the text from the first word. I know Wes and had seen the wonderful performances of The Firebird and The Tempest, but I had no idea of the origins of the Underground Railway Theater nor its history of touring many countries and engaging in so many public and activist ventures. It is amazing that URT has not only survived but triumphed over these forty years. A remarkable history of a remarkable enterprise.
(reviewed 33 days after purchase)
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