Kevin Spencer Recounts his Hancher Residency

March 2014


The following is exerpted from Kevin Spencer's March newsletter:


Pearson Lake Arts Center - Okoboji, IA: This was our first time appearing at the Pearson Lake Arts Center. This performance was a collaborative effort between The Arts Center and Friends of Hancher Auditorium. This was the perfect place for us to start this leg of our tour (in spite of the below zero temperatures) and the standing ovation from the audience was awesome. I'm already looking forward to coming back! Rachelle Fratzke is the Performing Arts Director:


"We very seldom start our winter season with a sellout performance, but this show was just that - and more. The audience loved The Spencers Theatre of Illusion. They were very entertaining and involved the audience in a fun way!"

The local newspaper - Dickinson County News - reviewed the performance and wrote:

"The show was a delightful evening of entertainment for young and old alike. It was different from the usual musical PLAC offerings, mentally stimulating and thoroughly entertaining."



Hancher Auditorium - Iowa City, IA: Almost two years ago, I started a conversation with Jacob, Erin, and Chuck Swanson (the Executive Director of Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City) about an extended residency with the University of Iowa. In my wildest expectations, I would have never dreamed we would have accomplished so much in just a few days. What a great team at Hancher!

Chuck attended the show at the Pearson Lakes Arts Center in Okoboji. The following day, we started a mini-tour of Iowa participating in a series of outreach activities that were as emotional as they were profoundly impactful.



We started in Spencer, IA at an organization that serves individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities. It was a phenomenal afternoon filled with laughter and successes. Ann Vandehaar is the Executive Director of Sunshine Services. She sent me an email that summed it all up so well:

"I wish we could back up and have last Sunday and Monday over. It was incredibly powerful. In one of the pictures that I took, the expression on the individual's face said it all. The sense of accomplishment and pride was shining through. I particularly love this picture because of the individual in the picture. He has a brain injury and is always down on himself. He has low self-esteem and expects to fail at everything that he tries to do. The fact that he was able to learn the tricks Kevin taught him and experienced success in executing them is priceless. In the picture, he is smiling at Ryan (one of our staff) and Ryan is sharing his success. It was a joyful moment. Mark has been showing everyone the rope trick ever since. It is so cool to watch. Thanks again to both of you for coming to Spencer to share your time and talents. The arts are a very important part of people's lives, and are necessary for shaping 'the whole person.' We will never forget the days you spent in Spencer. Having you both here meant the world to us."



The next morning, Chuck and I arrived early at the radio station for an interview and then made our way to the Spencer Hospital where 45 rehab therapists participated in a workshop on arts-integration in physical and psychosocial rehabilitation. This is one of the most powerful learning experiences I offer. It's an important way to demonstrate the power of the arts to help people heal.



From Spencer, we drove on to some smaller towns (Algona, Bert, and Bancroft) to visit hospitals, Rotary Clubs, and service organizations for individuals with disabilities. Hancher has a wonderful relationship with people across the state of Iowa but Algona was one of those special places. We spent a full day working with the staff and consumers at Exceptional Opportunities - including those with severe and profound disabilities. The arts are a powerful way to change people's lives, even those we don't often think about.



After several activities in Western Iowa, we made our way to Iowa City to collaborate with some departments at the University of Iowa. The three days on campus were filled with meaningful meetings and presentations. One of those was a presentation for Joe Brennan and the staff of the Office of Strategic Communication. We focused on "creative messaging" and how to convey the University's mission, vision, and values to the campus and beyond. These are some wonderfully creative individuals and it was a pleasure to spend time with them.



The major highlight for me was the opportunity to collaborate with the Carver College of Medicine at the University of Iowa. This is a Research One University and one of the leading medical universities in the nation including the #2 ranked physical therapy program in the country.

Erin had arranged for me to meet individually with the research faculty in the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences. The conversations were so multi-faceted as we discussed the impact that magic trick integration can have in physical therapy, neuroscience, sports medicine, and chronic pain. After a full morning, the afternoon plan was to conduct a 2-hour workshop for Doctoral Physical Therapy students on critical inquiry and the therapeutic benefits of simple magic tricks as a treatment technique. Students immediately related to the physical components of "performance" and could see the connections to the foundations of physical therapy.

I received numerous emails from students who participated but this one was especially meaningful:

"Last week, your presentation to the physical therapy students was eye opening and touching. Thank you for sharing with us what it means to be compassionate and empathetic towards a patient's needs. Your work and magic have inspired me... and I attended your show on Sunday. WOW!"

The 9 days I spent working with Chuck and the Hancher team included workshops, education sessions, research exploration, academic presentations, and some memorable experiences with some special individuals throughout the state of Iowa. And we wrapped up it all up with a final performance at the Englert Theatre for a packed house!

I wanted to share these words from Chuck Swanson with you:

"Hancher and the University of Iowa just finished an amazing week with Kevin Spencer. When we book artists, we select artists who are not only great on stage, but we also search for artists who are experienced at partnering with academic areas of the university beyond the arts, or artists who work well with community partners. Kevin is one of those artists who can do both. We spent time touring the state of Iowa, visiting hospitals, schools, a retirement center, and facilities that serve people with severe disabilities. Kevin totally transformed lives of Iowans who have never been touched by the arts before, using his magic in a very thoughtful and personal way. They will never forget his visit. Then he ended our residency week together with impressive work with faculty and doctoral students in the University of Iowa Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science in the Carver College of Medicine. The culmination was of course the power of live performance, with Kevin and Cindy presenting Spencers Theatre of Illusion. It was a week in which we built relationships and partnerships that will continue to grow because of Kevin's incredible work and commitment to making a difference in people's lives."

I appreciate the passion and commitment of Chuck, Erin, and Jacob from Hancher Auditorium in putting together such a life-changing residency.




Jennifer Fawcett Steps "Out of Bounds"

November 2013



Hancher and Iowa City’s Working Group Theatre continue to develop their relationship with a new play, “Out of Bounds,” focusing on cyber-bullying by young teens. The play will be presented Nov. 18-20 in Iowa City’s three junior high schools.


Jacob Yarrow, Hancher programming director, was impressed with the quality of Working Group’s productions, so he approached the group about a commission that turned into the play “Mayberry,” which tackled issues of racism and class. The success of that effort encouraged the Hancher team to continue nurturing the relationship, which led to a second commission that became “The Broken Chord,” a play examining the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease on families and caregivers.


“The product is great,” Yarrow says of Working Group’s plays. But he’s equally impressed with the process, which involves extensive interviews with community members.  “One of Hancher’s goals is to engage in process as much as around product,” Yarrow notes. “Working with a group that does that is a great way to share the artistic process with the community.”
It was another major Hancher relationship, with Iowa City schools and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., that led to “Out of Bounds.” Through the Kennedy Center, Hancher and the schools are participating in a program called “Any Given Child,” which makes it possible for K-8 students to have art opportunities.

“As part of Any Given Child, we identified places that could be better served, including middle schools, so we talked with Working Group Theatre and said ‘What could you do?’” Yarrow recalls.


What Working Group Theatre associate artistic director and playwright Jennifer Fawcett did in response is to fashion a play that seeks to engage teens by using their own words to address the issue of cyber-bullying.


To learn more about that process, we talked with playwright Fawcett. Here are some excerpts from that interview.

Jennifer Fawcett


Working Group Theatre is developing a well-justified reputation for its process of developing plays based on interviews with real people. Yet this time, you’re talking with teenagers, not adults. How did you go about that?


There’s something a little bit intimidating about talking to young teens. I’m just not cool enough. I really wondered whether they would actually be willing to talk to me, but I’ve had some really good conversations with young people.


Jacob Yarrow has a daughter, Grace, who is the exact right age. So the first group I interviewed was a group of Grace’s friends in Jacob’s basement. There were eight of them, and it was a matter of trying to write fast enough. They were all talking on top of each other. Even just sitting back and listening to their language was really useful. Hearing their words … note to self: “Look up what that means!”


Families reached out to me, too. Parents who said, “My son or daughter has been really badly bullied.” They were all so willing to share with me the media — some of the texts and Instagram stuff, photos with comments. I have to say, reading what was written to these kids, I don’t think I could take it. I’m twice their age. If somebody wrote that to me, I would be a mess. It’s so cruel.


Sometimes the interviews happen spontaneously. I was talking with someone recently and she said, ‘What are you working on?’ And when I told her, she said she’s dealing with the same thing with her child.


What do you do after you’ve finished your interviews? How does that develop into an actual play?


I don’t usually take a lot of notes, but then I go away and write down everything I remember and craft it into a scene or monologue. What also happens in development is that we’ll hand that monologue to an actor to read it back, and they might improvise off that. So it’s several steps away from the actual person themselves. But I think what happens is that you get a dramatic truth that rises.


How will you get and keep the attention of students this age?


I want to have an honest conversation with them about a subject that they have heard so much about. Here we are, a bunch of adults talking to kids who are 13, 14-years-old and saying, “Hey, you should listen to us! You don’t know who we are but you should listen to us!”  That was making me really uncomfortable. These kids are going to see right through it. I don’t want to talk down to them. They’re smart.


So we’ve been trying to cast younger people. We have twin girls who are undergrads at the University. They are petite, so they can read as younger. But then we’re casting an actress who’s six feet tall. She reads as if she’s young, and she’s someone we like working with because she understands how we work. And we’ve cast an actor who was in “Mayberry,” Barrington Vaxter. He’s cool! He raps and is good with slam poetry, and that’s something we want to incorporate.

I personally believe that theater needs to ask questions more than give answers, so the goal of the play is to actually ask some big questions and put them on the student. What would you do? What do you think about this?


Theater does give an audience a very unique opportunity to empathize with someone who they may be very different from. And part of that’s because you’re actually in the same room, and they’re actually standing in front of you and speaking. You’re breathing the same air. Things are happening in the moment. So I do think this could be different from your typical anti-bullying program.


Where does “Out of Bounds” go after the performances in Iowa City?


We would like to take the play to schools all over the state. So what we’re thinking of doing is using this show as a model. We go into the school, perform the show and then give that model to the students and say, “Okay, for this scene, how about if you do your own scene?” So they take ownership, and they have to articulate some of their own experiences. That gives them a totally different experience. They have to participate.


You’ve also developed a relationship with the UI College of Public Health as a result of “Out of Bounds.” What’s the goal of there?


Yes, the College of Public Health is hoping to use our play to test whether an appeal to teens’ emotions, as opposed to the usual classroom stuff, can change bullying behaviors. They have been a really great resource. There are some people there who are incredibly knowledgeable about youth violence.


Finally, you’re also working on a version of this play for a more general audience, correct? How might that be different?


This other version of “Out of Bounds” will focus more on the adult perspective.  This grew out of the interviews I did for the youth version — I found that what the parents and teachers were saying so compelling, I knew it should also be on stage. Some of the adults are dealing with this on multiple levels. They were affected by bullying when they were kids and now are parents trying to help their own kids navigate through this age with the added complications of social media. In many cases the teachers are also parents. There is naturally a lot of frustration from parents feeling that the schools aren’t doing enough, and from the schools, which have to deal with so many students at one time. When something goes wrong, it is natural to try to assign blame, but as one social worker I spoke to said, we’re all responsible for stopping bullying. 


What happens to us as kids doesn’t go away when we’re adults. Bullying leaves an imprint. It may fade, especially as we learn new ways to deal with feelings of low self esteem and anxiety, but I don’t know that the imprint ever truly disappears even when the threat disappears. Speaking from personal experience, I know that my response to difficult social situations is sometimes coming out of remembered anxiety instead of the present reality. I don’t think I’m alone in this.  So we wanted to explore that on stage. 


Theatre companies often talk about how the arts can lead to change.  We certainly believe this to be the case but it is sometimes hard to identify this change.  Starting with “Mayberry,” Working Group started trying to articulate a tangible goal for our shows.  Our goal for “Out of Bounds” is to create a youth-driven support network the puts kids who are currently experiencing bullying in touch with others who have come out the other side. Despite the prevalence of bullying, one of the most damaging results of it is the feeling of isolation. I think parents can also feel this. This support network would be one way to address this issue. 




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