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Richard Hess in Kenya.

CCM Professor and Fulbright Scholar Richard Hess Explores Theatre-Making in Kenya

CCM Drama Professor Richard Hess

In January 2014, Richard Hess, A.B., Dolly, Ralph and Julia Cohen Chair of Drama at CCM, traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, to research and teach at Kenyatta University as a Fulbright Scholar. Hess is one of approximately 1,100 U.S. faculty members and professionals traveling abroad through the 2013-­14 Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program.

Hess first traveled to Nairobi in June of 2011 after being invited by CCM Drama alumni Michael Littig (2005) and Julianna Bloodgood (2005) to be part of the Dadaab Theater Project, a cultural exchange in which refugees from the Dadaab Refugee camp and CCM drama students create original theatre pieces.

The Dadaab Theater Project set out to allow a few individual voices among the masses to be heard. The exchange included nine Americans, all with ties to CCM, and eight refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan, who met while doing theater in a weeklong culture collision yielding a powerful performance on World Refugee Day at the University of Nairobi.

Dadaab Theater Project

This year, Hess is spending the semester teaching two directing courses (one undergraduate and one graduate), a physical movement-based acting course focused on the American “Viewpoints” training technique and an American drama scene study performance course.

Before departing, Hess shared the details of his upcoming challenges. Kenyatta University’s theater department is fairly new, with the first class of students accepted in the 2008-09 academic year. There is also no traditional stage space. He does not have hot water for showers or a washer and dryer and, most challenging, has limited access to the Internet. But he doesn’t seem bothered by any of this. He says a friend told him, “You think you’re going there to teach but you’re really going to learn.” 

Dadaab Theater Project

With regular blog postings, Hess is giving his students and colleagues at home a unique look into his journey. In a post on February 24th, Hess recounted a Sunday gathering where he invited a dozen Kenyan undergraduate students to his home to share stories and share a meal. He writes:

“When you take the time to ask someone to share their story you are showered with unexpected gifts and responsibilities. Each story is something very specific that you then own and can save, treasure and carry with you, changing your DNA forever. Sometimes the stories are small fragile treasures, easily slipped into a back pocket, and others are enormous trunk-loads that must be lifted onto your shoulders, their weight changing your weight, changing your story… The stories flowed and the shared experiences were at once familiar and revelatory. They were completely the same as American students and they were completely different.”

Through his coursework, Hess is teaching Kenyan students how to create, research, write, rehearse and act in original theatre compositions about identity. The pieces created will contain original writing, music and dances, as well as borrowed poetry, music and text. These compositions will culminate in a festival performance of original 30-minute theatre compositions created by teams of students and will travel to various cultural and educational centers in and around Nairobi, sharing the issues of the day affecting the identities of young Kenyan theatre artists.

Throughout his posts, Hess demonstrates the depth of his belief in the futures of these students. He shares:

“Each day as I teach in Kenya, I want my students to dare to hope, to inspire confidence in students as they encounter and embrace new thoughts, new ideas and new ways of working. The path for hope to funnel into confidence is through engagement. If I am confident in my engagement with students I can give them more than hope. I will expect with confidence. I will give power to create.”

Follow along with Hess’ journey at richardinkenya.wordpress.com.

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