On (and Off) the Rails

circus train crash inspires experimental play at UWEC

James Johonnott, photos by Andrea Paulseth

THE SHOW MUST GO ON. Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck!, an experimental play about a deadly 1918 crash that decimated a circus, will be staged this month by UW-Eau Claire’s theater department. The production blends fiction and fact as players take multiple roles.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON. Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck!, an experimental play about a deadly 1918 crash that decimated a circus, will be staged this month by UW-Eau Claire’s theater department. The production blends fiction and fact as players take multiple roles.

The theater department at UW-Eau claire is breaking out of its comfort zone to bring some creative, experimental theater to Eau Claire audiences.

Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck! tells the story of the Hagenbeck-Wallace train wreck, the 1918 disaster caused when a military train engineer fell asleep at the controls, drove into the back of a circus train, and killed 86 performers and circus laboroers, or roustabouts.

If that seems like unusual subject matter for a play, you’re on the right track (pun intended). And that’s part of the point.

“(Theater) can play with our sense and perception of realism. It can connect with the audience, deepen the connection, in a more intimate way than television or film.” – director Arthur Grothe, the post-modern production of Roustabout at UWEC

Director Arthur Grothe describes the play as having three different “tracks.” The historical fiction track tells the story of the roustabouts and circus performers themselves. The historical fact track explains how the military came to be studying the train, and what led to the collision. In the final track, the lines between theater and reality blur as actors play exaggerated caricatures of themselves and try to “regain their cool” so that they can put on a show. All three tracks weave in and out of the play and blend together the stories and characters at the end in an effort to find truth and make sense out of a senseless tragedy.

The playwright, Jay Torrence, wrote the play after finding the cemetery where many victims of the train wreck had been buried. The majority of the deceased could not be identified, and were given epitaphs like “Unknown Male Performer #33.” Torrence made the trip upriver to Eau Claire during the early stages of production to work personally with the cast, an experience Grothe described as invaluable. 

Many elements of Torrence’s work with Chicago-based theater troupe The Neo Futurists can be found in Roustabout. The Futurists are famous for their performance show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, a madcap 60-minute series of 30 short plays, which are selected by the audience from handouts. One theme unites all of the plays in the fast-paced, theatrical binge: They all come from a perspective of absolute honesty from the actors. Grothe explains that Too Much Light’s use of direct address, interaction, and even confrontation with the audience will play a role in Roustabout. Most importantly, Roustabout is built out that same strong sense of truth and honesty as the actors try to create something real, tangible, and yet fleeting for the audience. If a character declares to the world that they feel like they’re standing on a ledge, they will climb up on a box and stand on the edge of it. There will be no long, droning soliloquies here.

Roustabout is a significant step outside of the box for UWEC’s theater department, which traditionally performs more classical or modernist theater. This has not been lost on Grothe, who describes the process as a different way of working that relied on creating a strong foundational base of theater so that the cast could experiment from there.

An estimated 86 people died in the 1918 Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train wreck near Hammond, Ind.
An estimated 86 people died in the 1918 Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train wreck near Hammond, Ind.

The transition has also not been lost on the three theater department seniors in the cast – Laura Schlichting, Seth K. Hale, and Jake Pritchard – each of whom play multiple characters spanning the three tracks of the show and have had little experience with postmodern theater.

Schlichting plays The Roustabout who ran away to join the circus, and Dietrix the strong man, both male parts. She had the opportunity to see Roustabout performed two years ago and says that postmodern and abstract theater are starting to grow on her.

Hale plays the Ringleader who jumps between parts of the story; Topsy the apathetic elephant; and the motherly and affectionate Bearded Lady. Hale has described the experience as one that forced him to focus on creating something real and in the moment for the audience during each fragment of the show.

Pritchard plays Max Freehand, the sensitive strongman, as well as a handful of other parts. Pritchard describes the fact that Roustabout is so unknown to audiences as positive, because it allows the cast to have more ownership over how they perform it.

“The most exciting thing is to take foundational skills and apply them to a whole new performance style,” Grothe said. “This is the type of show that I really love, because I think it pushes the envelope of what theater means and what it can do. It can play with our sense and perception of realism. It can connect with the audience, deepen the connection, in a more intimate way than television or film.”

Grothe hopes to continue to bring more contemporary theater to UWEC to challenge our expectations and break out of our realism.

Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck! runs at the Riverside Theatre inside Haas Fine Arts Center April 14-16 and 20-23 at 7:30pm with a 1:30pm matinee April 24. Tickets are available at uwec.edu/servicecenter or by calling (715) 836-3727.

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