Hanover native gamifies Underground Railroad in off-Broadway hit
As a fifth grader at Hanover Middle School, Scott Sheppard participated in an activity designed to educate students on the Civil War.
The unit included singing, marching drills, historical quizzes and something called the Underground Railroad game.
In the game, the mostly white classroom was divided into Union and Confederate soldiers, Sheppard said. The goal for half the class was to ferry dolls, representing slaves, to "safe houses," boxes found in classrooms around the school.
The game would serve as inspiration for Sheppard's off-Broadway sensation, 'Underground Railroad Game.'
"The play is kind of like a very arch, darkly comic look at this game and kind of extends the thought process," Sheppard said.
At the time, Sheppard thought nothing of the game, but through advanced education, he reflected on the game to better understand its problematic nature.
“What we’re gamifying here is actually making it a little bit fun to find and capture slaves," he said. "The actual horrors of slavery and the Underground Railroad are completely eclipsed by that kind of game."
Sheppard acknowledged that, for fifth-grade students, those realities are difficult to communicate. However, he compared the education of American slavery to the Holocaust, a historical event in which the United States had a more distant relationship.
“Because of the way in which we romanticize things like the Civil War and that time period and the good ol’ south, we end up never quite dealing with the legacy of slavery as effectively as we ought."
While the game served as inspiration for the play, co-created with Jennifer Kidwell, Sheppard called it more of a "jumping off point."
“It was one of those things that happens, and it provoked this larger, creative exploration," Sheppard said.
The result is a critically lauded piece of art that recently garnered an extension from the off-Broadway theater company Ars Nova after an acclaimed debut run. The New York Times featured a review of the play as a "critics' pick," and actor James Franco tweeted his support on Wednesday.
Growing up in Hanover, Sheppard said he had "great experiences" in the school district, particularly with his high school art and English teachers who piqued his interest in creative writing and the arts.
After attending Haverford College, Sheppard became an English teacher at Friends Central School in Wynnewood, a profession that translates to his academic manner of speaking.
Later, Sheppard attended the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training in Philadelphia, where he met Kidwell.
“It was there I kind of really found my niche," Sheppard said.
After recounting the story of his fifth grade class' game to Kidwell, they started working on different ways to translate the experience into a piece of theater.
“We kind of became obsessed with this idea of re-enactment and the ways in which re-enactment opens things up about history and also kind of cloaks it in a specific way or lights it in a specific way so that our understanding of it is slightly altered," Sheppard said.
The generation of ideas for 'Underground Railroad Game' involved improvisation and frequent alterations until the script was finalized.
"Nobody sat down at a computer and typed the whole play out," Sheppard said. "Instead, we had these live, psychical research sessions where we would research, through theatricality, different ideas."
The play, which traveled from a small festival in Philadelphia to New Orleans, Rhode Island and currently off-Broadway in New York, showcases the comedic and outlandish lengths the creators go to for a theater experience that also acts as audience "self-interrogation."
“Every turn is kind of like a fun house or a labyrinth, where you don’t quite know where you’re at or where you’re going," Sheppard said.
He and Kidwell star as imaginary teachers, Teacher Stuart and Teacher Caroline, before venturing down a rabbit hole of escalating racial tropes and stereotypes to uncover raw truths.
The objective is for the audience to understand that settling on an opinion or belief about a contemporary or historic event prevents comprehension from all perspectives.
“What this piece really does is it forces you to laugh at things you wouldn’t normally laugh at and maybe get angry at things you wouldn’t normally get angry about," Sheppard said.
The 75-minute play features strong language, mature themes and sexually explicit material. It is intended for audiences ages 18 and up.
Sheppard wants theatergoers to leave the play "disoriented in a good way" and more skeptical of the entertainment industry's romantic treatment of history in books, movies and television shows.
For Kidwell and Sheppard, the next step is seeing what other theaters around the country would be open to hosting 'Underground Railroad Game' and possibly publishing the script.
“We’re really thrilled at the reception because you don’t really get into this business to get the good review," Sheppard said. "I really feel like we’re doing something great with this."
If you go
What: Underground Railroad Game
Where: Ars Nova, 511 West 54th Street in New York City
When: First extension: Monday through Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 3 p.m. from Oct. 17 to 29
Second extension: Monday through Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 3 p.m. from Oct. 31 to Nov. 5
Monday through Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. from Nov. 7 to 11
The play will also be coming to the Single Carrot Theater in Baltimore from March 8 to 26 in 2017.