The Nomads Are In Town: An Interview with Emily Caffery ’10

” I’ve gotten so much better at embracing that uncertainty, and it’s a really fun and freeing attitude to take.”

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After you graduate from Wesleyan, you can go the usual route and become a lawyer or a doctor or a barista or whatever. Alternatively, you can join a nomadic street theater troupe and live out of a bus for four months. For now, Emily Caffery ’10 is choosing the latter. She and four other actors, collectively known as The Vagari Project, have been making their way down the East Coast since September, performing on street corners, in parks, and at farmers’ markets along the way. The troupe will be passing through Wesleyan tomorrow, so if you see a group of strangely-dressed individuals making wild gestures outside Usdan, don’t be alarmed. Or be as alarmed as you want; as Caffery notes, the group never knows what kind of audience it’s going to get.

The Vagari Project is the brainchild of Hampshire theater student Forrest Hejkal, who writes in his mission statement that he hopes to experiment with breaking the conventional performer-audience model of theater. The performances are “short comedies mainly in the style of commedia dell’arte, the tradition of street performers of the Italian and French Renaissance (think masks, outlandish characters, and slapstick humor).”

I didn’t get a chance to talk with Caffery in person, but she happily answered my questions by email about what it’s been like on the road (specifically in this awesome bus), her theater experience at Wesleyan, and how she got involved with the project. Read more after the jump.

How has the nomadic traveling experience been so far?

On the whole, it’s been a great adventure!  I really enjoy how varied the lifestyle is.  Every day we’re performing in a new place, from small towns in New Hampshire to big cities like Boston.  Except for meeting up with the occasional friend or relative, we arrive in a place without any advertising. We do what research we can, but we have to do a lot of figuring things out as we go: arriving at a new place, scoping out where we can perform that will attract attention but not be a nuisance, and performing to see what kind of response we get.  Then we pass the hat afterwards to cover our food and gas expenses.  Miraculously, this works!  And it’s such a delight when we get an engaged, responsive audience, because we never know if people will stop and watch.

We’ve learned that farmers markets are particularly great places to perform.  We’ve been to several large, bustling ones—most notably in Burlington, VT, and Providence, RI—with lots of people out enjoying the market and interested in stopping to watch our plays.  Weekend farmers markets are great because we see lots of families; children in particular have a lot of fun with the physical humor and audience engagement in our plays.  But smaller farmers markets have also been kind to us.  We went to a handful that were just a few tents in a parking lot with very few people, and after the show the farmers donated bags of apples and potatoes, even artisan cheese and cider donuts, things we could never splurge on with our budget.  We are constantly being surprised this way.  A lot of performances that I thought were going to be unsuccessful have ended up being really rewarding.

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We’ve been living and traveling in a short school bus that our director Forrest converted to house all five of us.  It’s quite eye-catching, but I never anticipated the amount of attention we would get on the road.  All sorts of people come up to us every day to ask about the bus.  In particular, it seems to attract the wandering types, so we’ve heard some great stories from people reminiscing about their travels.  On the whole, people have been very welcoming and supportive of what we are doing.

How did you get involved with this project?

I got involved because I’ve worked with Forrest’s theater company in Ann Arbor in various capacities, as actor, director, and company member.

What have you learned from street theater? Anything that’s particularly challenging for you?

The biggest hurdle for me has been getting used to feeling like I don’t quite know what I’m doing.  This style of performing was entirely new to me, and that has been such a fantastic challenge.  I’m working on finding a balance of focus so that I can tune out the many distractions inevitable with street performing, but stay open enough to respond to what is happening around us.  This is a kind of awareness that I expect improv performers are well versed in, but that I am now learning through this experience.

Additionally, we start performing new plays after only a few hours of rehearsal. This is due in part to how limited time we have to get new plays on their feet (most of the plays we perform now we learned on the road), and because these plays rely so heavily on having an audience to engage with (true of live performance in general, and especially true when much of play is spoken directly to the audience). And every performance is different, affected by audience response and the space we’re in, and we always customize the script for each new place we perform.  Over the past month I’ve gotten so much better at embracing that uncertainty, and it’s a really fun and freeing attitude to take.

Were you involved with theater at Wesleyan? If so, how did your experiences with Wes theater feed into what you’re doing now?

I’m not sure if there’s a specific theater experience at Wesleyan that led to this, for me.  I wasn’t a theater major but took a bunch of classes in the department (mostly acting), acted in a handful of plays, and was a member Second Stage for a couple years.  If anything, my time on Second Stage and as a part of other non-theater student groups was probably the most influential, because I got a lot of practical experience in how to organize with a group of people to make something happen, whether it’s a play or a protest or a party.  And I have faith that a small group of dedicated young people can accomplish big things, because you see it all the time at Wesleyan.

Have you been back to Wesleyan since graduating?

After graduating I moved to Michigan and only came back east to visit family, so I haven’t been back on campus.  It feels strange to finally come back just after the last class of students I went to school with has graduated.  Still, I’m looking forward to seeing some familiar faces among the faculty and staff and being in all the old places again.  I love Wesleyan’s energy, and I’m interested how it will be to return as a bit of an outsider.  As with every new place, I’m eager to see what the response is to our performances.  I think the silliness and spontaneity will appeal to a lot of people.  We’ve performed on a handful of college campuses—Oberlin, Dartmouth, and Hampshire—and had a lot of fun with the students there.

The troupe will be outside Usdan around lunchtime and at 4:15 PM tomorrow, but they’ll also be at various other spots on campus and in downtown Middletown throughout the afternoon. Keep up with their travels on Facebook and on their blog.