Syracuse University Magazine

History Lessons on Stage

Kathleen Wrinn '09 performs in Woman in the Blue Dress, a Backstory piece written by Lauren Unbekant.

Two actors stand, backs to the audience, arms extended to each side. The first, a man in Elizabethan dress, jumps around to face the audience, reciting a soliloquy. "O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention," he says, moving around the stage. He freezes. The second actor, a woman in jeans, sneakers, and flat-brimmed hat, continues the rhyme with a hip-hop flare. She freezes. He begins again. They throw the verse back and forth, each line shorter than the last, until they recite the same line, at the same time. "Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our PLAY," they say, and their hands meet. They fall to the floor, roll in slow motion, and suddenly stop. Looking bewildered, they move around the stage, disoriented, and bump into each other, back to back. They scream. This Shakespearian actor and this modern hip-hop artist have traveled through time. Now, they must learn to understand each other and figure out how to return home. They comically discuss the English language, poetry, and their different styles. By the end, despite their differences, they realize they are both performers and the spoken word is their medium.  

This is Hip-Shake, a production of Syracuse Stage's Backstory, an educational program started in 2005 by Lauren Unbekant, director of educational outreach. "The best word to describe the style is quirky," says drama major Matt Smith '11, who played Globe Theatre actor Richard Burbage in Hip-Shake, opposite Farasha Baylock '12, the fictional hip-hop artist Nefertiti. "The show is extremely movement-based, and the process is about the physical creation of the character first and scene development second."    

Backstory produces one- or two-person shows geared toward teaching students in Central New York about history through performance. While Hip-Shake introduces students to two artists living almost four centuries apart, other performances have featured such fictional and historical characters as Rosie the Riveter, Anne Frank, and Harriet Tubman. The program runs in conjunction with a drama department class taught by Unbekant, allowing acting students to develop short pieces depicting historical characters or typical people from a given era. Each semester, two or three pieces are expanded into full shows. "I wanted to give the students watching a more exciting way to learn history," she says. "And I wanted to give SU students an opportunity to engage their skill set in new ways and to have ownership over their artistic expression." 

Backstory's unique style and creative process set it apart from similar programs. "It's a very physical style," says Kathleen Wrinn '09, a former student of Unbekant's. After graduating, Wrinn returned to SU to perform at the Everson Museum of Art in Woman in the Blue Dress, a Backstory piece written by Unbekant about Henriette Henriot, a French actress and the subject of the famous Renoir painting, La Parisienne. "I had always been interested in playwriting, but I never knew how to start," Wrinn says. "In Backstory, the approach was to find a historical figure, idea, or group of people you were interested in personally, and begin researching through art, music, and primary sources. We were encouraged to find pieces that we enjoyed, bring those elements together, and see how the character and story started to form themselves." 

Wrinn's experience exemplifies what Unbekant wanted the program to offer drama students. "For me, Backstory was like a happy accident," Wrinn says. "I enrolled in the class on a whim, and it ended up being my favorite at SU. It gave me confidence in myself as a writer and actor. These pieces ask a lot of you. You have to dig deep, and you start to realize what you can really do." —Kate Morin

Photo by Michael Davis, courtesy of Syracuse Stage