If cotton candy and fireworks became sentient, how would they move, think, and explore the world around them? While on its face this may seem an absurd question, it was at the core of a critical exploration of Americana in VCAM over fall break.
Working with a handful of Haverford students and regional theater artists across a four-day intensive workshop, the award-winning Philadelphia-based theater company Lightning Rod Special used its time at Haverford to lay the foundation for an original work intended to debut when the nation celebrates the semiquincentennial anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026. While considering how the new work might reflect the concept of American mythmaking, Haverford alum and co-artistic director Scott Sheppard ’06 says Lightning Rod Special found inspiration in one peculiar slice of the nation’s landscape where pageantry, sugar, and capitalism collide: the amusement park.
“There are all sorts of things happening all at once in an amusement park. It’s in this unintentional confluence that we represent ourselves back to ourselves,” Sheppard says. “Often, [amusement parks] include a Main Street, or there’s a miniaturization of things that are in America and, sometimes, the larger world. There’s a process of deciding how we tell a story about this place and how it ends up serving as a simulacrum or a kind of fake space of America.”
Throughout the workshop, Sheppard and his colleagues co-artistic director Alice Yorke and associate artistic director Mason Rosenthal, introduced students to the company’s methodology of performance as research. Known more broadly as devised theater, it’s a collaborative process of creating a performance with no existing script, using theater games and opportunities for improvisation to reveal stories and uncover characters.
In one instance, the participants spent much of the day envisioning their bodies and personalities as varying percentages of cotton candy and other common amusement park objects. Their explorations were also supported by the in-person research they conducted among the soaring rollercoasters of central New Jersey’s thrilling park, Six Flags Great Adventure.
“The work of experimenting that Lightning Rod Special is interested in is rediscovering what performance means,” Sheppard explains. “We’re questioning assumptions that a regional theater might start on day one already making. We’re interested in poking at and pulling at the seams of those assumptions so as to create something that is a little bit more contemporary, electric, unexpected, and surprising.”
With a premiere still more than three years away, it’s hard for Lightning Rod Special to quantify just how much of the participants’ contributions might inform the final piece. Rosenthal likens the process to composting, where ideas that emerge from the workshop will continue to feed new ideas as the piece continues to develop. Regardless, the creative experience has been invaluable for participating senior Aby Isakov ’24, a visual studies major who is primarily focused on filmmaking.
While Isakov has participated in previous Lightning Rod Special workshops hosted at Haverford in the past and performance is central to filmmaking, this was the first time she participated in improvisation and theater-focused performance. The ability to collaborate without a set plan will be an important tool for her to employ as an artist, she says.
“I wasn’t 100% confident in what I was doing, and it’s a very vulnerable experience for everyone being a little silly when you’re performing as cotton candy, but it was very cool to try out different movements and oscillate between yourself and embodying something else,” Isakov says. “But the power of improv, constant creativity, and pushing your own boundaries as an artist is something that will be very valuable to me and my work.”