Romero Theater Troupe Turns Ten and Receives a National Human and Civil Rights Award
Born in a CU Denver Classroom, James Walsh's Passion Project Fulfils a Calling
It's been more than a decade since Political Science Instructor Jim Walsh transformed his lecture hall into a theater, bringing history to life for thousands of CU Denver students. From the classroom to the community, Walsh's vision of an all-volunteer, "organic" community theater collective is celebrating its 10th year with a humbling achievement.
The Romero Troupe's rotating corps of 70–200 members, ranging in ages from tweens to folks in their nineties, have been awarded the National Education Association's César Chávez Human and Civil Rights Award. This award is no small honor: last year's winner, Dr. Rodolfo Acuña, is considered the father of Chicano Studies. The Troupe was nominated for the award by the Colorado Education Association, for the work they did to support last year's teacher and student protests in Jefferson County and for maintaining a mission to bring to light the dignity and resilience of marginalized people through theater.
The Romeros have been performing for ten years now and interest in the work they do and their model of social activism through the arts seems to be growing exponentially.
"Romero is at the epicenter of something very important that's going on in American culture," says Sue Doe, Associate Professor of English at Colorado State University. Doe is working on a book that addresses current applications of socially engaged art, particularly in regard to workplaces and labor. "The arts, and particularly theater, are talking back to power and, in the process, reclaiming some of the credibility that was theirs prior to the deregulation economics of the 1980s and associated economic and political trends. Moreover, the Romero Troupe may be the single best example of arts activism, continuously running, in the entire nation today."
Walsh reflected recently on celebrating ten years with the Romero Troupe:
What is your reaction to the Troupe receiving the César Chávez award and being in the company of these other highly regarded stewards of human rights and social justice?
We're thrilled! It feels great to have our work recognized nationally, particularly by the NEA, by teachers. What we do is always about freedom to educate and truly teach and for teachers to be liberated, so to be recognized by teachers is even more rewarding. It feels perfect for our first award; it feels just right.
What makes the Romero Troupe different from other theater groups or arts collectives?
I think that our performances are radical because they come from the soil, they aren't watered down by any influences. We are not coopted by anyone, no one owns us, nothing's censored, and so it's really raw, free stuff. People love that. We are outside the domain of the non-profit industrial complex and the constraints of that model too. I would challenge anyone to find an all-volunteer group as large as us, as united as we are, and it's convinced me that the all-volunteer model is the true model of change—not the 501c3 model, and not professional activism. It's hard because you never know who's going to be around, but people do what they can do. We have this beautiful culture: no one is expected to do anything except be part of the community. You know whoever is there—whether it's a rehearsal or a play—they are there because they want to be there. They've cleared out a place in their lives to be there for that two hours and if they can't be there the next two hours no one asks a question. We even have people who show up every two years and they consider themselves a part of this. This model has been working for us over a decade. That's a long time for any arts group and so it's become an established model that's not going away, we are not going to change it now.
The Romeros have established their commitment to the community and to a grass roots ethic by donating all proceeds from their performances to organizations and community projects dedicated to worker's struggles, social justice, human rights, arts and culture. The most recent 10-year celebration performance was held at and benefitted the Four Winds American Indian Center. The Romeros have also been sharing the power of healing through storytelling with organic theater workshops in homeless shelters, veteran's centers and other community organizations for the last ten years. Recently, you have had requests to teach organic theater workshops on other campuses and in other cities. Do you have any plans for building an outreach program for other campuses or communities who want to develop an "organic" theater group based on the Romero Troupe's model?
That's come up so many times, especially in the past year. It seems like every time we do something in another city, there's talk of forming a sister organization. We are all for that, we very much support that. I've come to the place though where I believe it's not necessarily replicable. I think about how hard it was to start this, to reach a critical mass where the Troupe was kind of running by itself. That was a good five solid years of extremely hard work with no feedback, without much support or anyone noticing. That engine was inside of me churning and churning, and it wasn't going to stop until that critical mass was reached. To get that mass of people volunteering their time, believing in a model, believing in an organization, giving of themselves, wow is that hard. What is replicable, I believe, is an artist cooperative that's all about social change and volunteerism. I believe that is extremely replicable whether it's painters or singers. An artist cooperative is extremely powerful and to have one that's an all-volunteer model where no one is profiting, where there is the spirit of the cause of human rights and—not to sound too cliché—but a better world, I think that's certainly replicable.
Another way that our model is replicable is for an educator using it in the classroom. What made it possible for me is that as a newer instructor, I was teaching 300 students a semester. I was constantly meeting people and recognizing a spirit that the Romero Troupe is all about and inviting people into the Romero Community based upon that. Without that, if it was just my own community, my network of friends and activists, that critical mass could never have been reached, it would have been five of us sitting around complaining. So that's really what did it, being low on the totem pole as a teacher became an advantage to me as a community organizer. Every educator is an organizer whether they know it or not. If you are an educator you are an organizer because you are organizing people to reach farther than they have imagined before.
Looking at your career as an academic and an instructor and as the founder of the Romero Troupe, one thing seems to be the engine that drives you: storytelling. Are there any stories that you have been wanting to tell for a long time but haven't been able to work into a Romero performance yet?
I want to share a great quote: "I will tell you something about stories. They aren't just entertainment. They are all we have to fight off illness and death. You don't have anything if you don't have stories." (Leslie Marmon Silko)
Wow does that summarize what we do, we fend off illness and death, we heal and we grow every rehearsal and every performance we're nourished by the stories we tell. When that nourishment ends and that growth ends, we know it's time to let go of the story and to look for more. There are a lot of stories out there that we haven't told. We used to have to go get them, dig them up; now the community brings them to us. We are putting the word out through all of our networks inviting people to share a story that they've lived or that they know of to be considered for our next play. I'm sure whatever comes our way will be a great gift. We feel like anyone who trusts us with their story—that's the greatest burden of all, to tell a story with authenticity and integrity.
Acts of dignity are really the stories we want to tell. We don't want to tell stories that are only about abuse or mistreatment or discrimination, we want to tell the story of resistance and agency and mix them together so that it is not just one or the other. Like Alex Landau's difficult story of being severely beaten by Denver policemen ends with his beautiful story of dedicating his life to speaking out against police brutality, you can't have one without the other. One day we will tell our own story, of how we grew.
After 10 years of working with the Troupe, what have been some of the highlights for you personally?
I think seeing the healing and the growth in the members of the troupe as we go through the process has been my greatest joy.
Though there have been times when your unorthodox teaching methods have been challenged, you have persisted in your vision and seem to have found your niche both on campus and in the community. How has your work with the troupe affected your work as an academic and a teacher?
In many ways it's become my academic work, particularly because I've found a home. I've found a department where I'm incredibly accepted and valued and acknowledged. My work with the Romeros is celebrated and so that's allowed me to fully give myself to that work. I was asked to join the Political Science department largely because the department greatly values the Romero Troupe and the mission of our work and the values behind it. So a large percentage of the time and effort I give is Romero Troupe-related. I don't talk about me and my own work in my classes, but I teach courses about empowerment, community organizing, social movements, labor, immigration, and it's exactly related to what I do with the Troupe. It's my identity now, it's always going to be my identity—the Romero Troupe and having students perform in class are both part of my identity. I've had so many students over 18 years that I can't always remember names but, when I see students around campus, they always remind me of who they played. That's how people think of me and remember me. I'll never be that academic that publishes numerous articles in academic journals, but I'll be talking about the Romero Troupe, I'll be talking about pedagogy through theater, I'll be talking about community organizing, and social change through theater, I'll be talking about all-volunteerism models. It always relates and that's natural, that's the way it should be. I had to let go of that traditional ideal of what an academic is and embrace the academic that I am. I'm so fortunate to be in a department that's celebrating it.
Why is it important for students of all ages to learn about concepts like social justice, civil disobedience, labor and immigrant history?
I think most students—I was an example—see education as a training through which you acquire skills that are going to be used in a utilitarian sense. These courses nudge students toward a different place where they are challenged to consider the purpose of education as engaging directly in the community in meaningful ways, speaking out on human rights issues, finding one's voice and purpose. It's tough because these courses have to have a deep humility woven within them where you are not coming down on students and saying this is the right way to social change, this is the definition of human rights and keeping in mind that we are all flawed and that hubris is the greatest road block to social change. Modeling humility is important for me. For example, when I have students who have different viewpoints than I do in the classroom, I try to step back and remind myself that I have something to learn from them and welcome their worldviews into the class as a source of nourishment for the class. I've been reminded again and again of the importance of that—every educator needs humility.
If you had one sentence to sum up your last ten years with the Romero Troupe, what would it be?
When you're called, listen.
If you have a story that you would like to propose for a Romero Troupe performance, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
To keep abreast of Romero events and performance schedules, click here.
Rianna Riegelman is a CU Denver and CLAS alumna (1999) with a BA in English Writing. She works as a freelance writer, editor and graphic designer in Denver and Boulder.