Underground Railway Theater, Engine of Delight & Social Change
on April 02, 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.