Ten people stand in a group holding a large Clemson Tiger paw flag, with a Middle Eastern-style building and palm trees behind them

Ten Clemson theater students and Brooks Center technical director Matthew Leckenbush (upper left) hold a Clemson flag at the American University of Sharjah in Dubai.
Image Credit: Shannon Robert

CLEMSON – Ten Clemson University theater students took their show on the road in a big way this month, traveling to Dubai to perform their original play, “Hello, My Name Is,” at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) as part of the second International Theatre Festival.

The production and trip came together thanks to Shannon Robert, an associate professor of performing arts who wanted her students to experience performing for a wholly different audience than they’re accustomed to.

“I want the students to have this international cultural experience,” Robert said before the trip. “Some of them have never been out of the country. They’ll get to take classes from people who are not [Clemson theater professors], and they’ll get to learn about playwriting, criticism, design and performance through a different cultural lens.”

The festival, held from Feb. 3-11, featured workshops, lectures and master classes by premier artists and educators in performing arts. Guest universities at the festival included Clemson, Michigan State, Texas Tech and American University of Kuwait.

The students used their creative energy to make the dream trip a reality, said scene shop foreman and performing arts lecturer Matt Leckenbusch, who accompanied the students to Dubai with Robert.

An actor crawls backward toward the camera across a dimly lit stage as nine other actors hover over him, arms outstretched menacingly.

Ten Clemson University theater students rehearse their play in the “Black Box” space in the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts.

The students funded the trip with a semester-long crowdfunding campaign and a student government grant.

“Hello, My Name Is” is a compilation of personal life experiences woven into a loose narrative about a group therapy session. The students immersed themselves in the creation of the story, pulling from deep emotional places to put it onto the page. “It’s one show with 10 individual scenes that tie together. Some were written individually and some were collaboratively written,” Leckenbusch said. “The process became very intense.”

This method of creating a theatrical piece is called “devising” or “collective creation.” Robert noted that the improvisational nature of the process can seem loose and disjointed at first, but ultimately is rewarding.

“One of my favorite things about this collaboration is that they all approached their work from different angles,” Robert said. “Another colleague of ours, Kerrie Seymour, came in to work with the students after they had done some initial improvisational and table work. Her approach helped them to see it through another set of eyes, which sometimes would turn things upside down and push them back to the table, but helped tremendously. As faculty we want our students to see how we navigate our way through artistic differences to produce the best story for our stage. It isn’t always about being right or wrong, it is about the story and what we are creating and when we put that first, it shows.”

A woman stands in the dark, lit by a spotlight, with a photo of her younger self projected on a screen behind her.

Sophomore Claire Sanford rehearses her part in “Hello My Name Is.”

The resulting scenes are often deeply personal. In one, an actor describes his mother’s descent into depression and suicide. In another scene, an actor uses sign language to tell the audience what her life was like as a deaf child.

Not all the participants are theater majors. Will Avery is a junior from Brevard who is studying mechanical engineering and has become a fixture around the Brooks Center scene shop. Big and gentle with a bushy red beard, he can be found most nights and weekends fabricating scenery in the backstage workshop. Like many people involved in theater, he stumbled into it.

“I grew up working on motorcycles and one of my buddies I used to race with did a bunch of community theater. One day he said, ‘You should come try out for something.’ So I tried out for ‘Macbeth’ and got the lead role! I was 13!” Avery laughed. “It might have been because I was already starting to grow the chin hairs and I was the only one who looked the part.”

Avery’s segment in “Hello, My Name Is” is one of the most topical.

“My scene is about toxic masculinity,” he said. “I found that a lot of the masculine influences in my life were actually quite positive, so it’s a perspective of how masculinity doesn’t always have to be toxic.”

An actor stands on a chair as several other actors move around behind him.

“Hello My Name Is” rehearsal in the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts.

The question of how a play with contemporary American topics would be received in Dubai was on everyone’s minds before the trip. And yet the response was overwhelmingly positive, said Jason Culbreth, a junior from Summerville majoring in biology.

“It was received amazingly well by the students of AUS and Kuwait. I think they were struck by the honesty in the show,” said Culbreth. “It’s a type of theater a lot of them hadn’t seen before – in fact a couple of the came up after and said it was the first play they’d ever seen, and a couple said it was the favorite play they’d ever seen. It was another take on personal discovery – which was our whole theme throughout the week – that was very honest. It was the last of the event, so it was good timing.”

The students spent eight days in Dubai interacting and learning from students from all over the world. Sophomore Austin Wilson said it was the best week of his life.

Wilson, an exuberant theater major from Clover, has appeared in numerous productions in his short time at Clemson.

Seven students pose on the backs of camels, which are lined in a row in the desert sand.

Clemson theater students ride camels in the desert of Dubai between performances and workshops.
Image Credit: Marissa Paolella

“Nothing can top this feeling,” Wilson posted to Facebook as he was waiting to board the flight home. “Sitting in the airport waiting for my first flight on the journey back to Clemson, I can’t help but tear up thinking of how much I’m going to miss this place, these people, and the incredible art that I experienced here. Sharjah now holds a VERY special place in my heart.

“Before this week, I had never left the USA. I had never performed a show (that I helped create) in an international theatre. I didn’t have the incredible life-long connections and friendships I’ve gained. I learned so so so many amazing skills from phenomenal guest artists. I experienced theatre from different universities around the world. Along the way, we all became a family. Opening up to each other and growing a bond that I never thought would have happened.”

That’s exactly what Robert had hoped.

“The whole point of doing an exchange like this is for them to experience what is universal in all of us,” she said. “There’s so much fear in the world right now and suspicions about the ‘other.’ They got see the fact that we struggle with and enjoy the same things no matter where we’re from or what we believe. Seeing our students experience that is a joy. It gives me hope.”