University Park, IL,
15:23 PM

The World According to Patrick Santoro

Set against the backdrop of the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park, Governors State University theater and performance studies students explore social and cultural issues on a stage that is cast as a modern-day public square.

In this community forum, literary works are examined to study explosive topics of class, race, gender, and sexuality in a societal scene dominated by white, male patriarchy.

Last semester, GSU’s innovative Theatre and Performance Studies (TAPS) program thrilled sold-out audiences with a rendition of playwright Ntozake Shange’s "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf."

This semester, it is the timeless tale of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” that Director Patrick Santoro reimagines with dark themes. The director engages experimental theatre techniques to tell an unusual story based on Carroll's alleged erotic fascination with young girls, particularly the real 11-year-old Alice Liddell, who became the object of Carroll’s affections and imagination.

In light of recent cultural movements to call out abuses of power and privilege, such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, Santoro portrays Alice as a survivor trying to find—or fight—her way through the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse and to overcome the odds that accompany trauma and survivorship.

He concedes these are difficult subject matters, and he makes no apologies.

“Our mission in this public square is social justice,’’ says Santoro. “Alice is coming at a time when we are naming silences left unspoken. We are looking at how performance can be transformative. How does performance change us—individually as well as socially, politically, and culturally?”

Santoro, a passionate educator, accomplished actor, writer, and director takes to heart every piece performed in the award-winning Center for Performing Arts (CPA).

He’s right at home in the 1,171-seat auditorium in the weeks leading up to the “Alice” opening Nov. 1. The cast hasn’t been selected, but Santoro knows something about his performers—they will have the skill and courage to balance complex emotions as they tiptoe into the world of sexual and power abuse that often times exploits children in this mature adaptation of “Alice.”

Today’s political and cultural conditions set a perfect stage for Carroll’s 1868 novel about a young girl navigating a strange land of wonder which she discovers when she tumbles down a rabbit hole. Adventures follow as White Rabbit leads Alice through a fantasy filled with bizarre characters such as Cheshire Cat, Caterpillar, Queen of Hearts, and the Mad Hatter.

Each character offers the young Alice lessons on growing up in a dangerous world. Though Carroll’s tale is seemingly well intentioned, Santoro sees a darker message and points to an early part of the story in which Alice tries to enter a garden but she has grown too large to fit through a door separating her from the colorful trees and flowers.

She squeezes in her head, a move Santoro sees as a metaphor for a victim of sexual abuse. “Here, she is trapped. She's cut off from the rest of the world. She sees this beautiful garden, and she can’t can get her head in—she’s thinking, but she can't get her body in the door. Her body has betrayed her,’’ Santoro says with a whisper.

He knows some will dismiss his interpretation as reading too deeply into the story. Still, the premise of “Alice” puzzled Santoro even as a child.

Looking back, he now realizes his own experience as victim of childhood sexual abuse was the dark rabbit hole of his disdain. Reluctantly, Santoro reveals he was assaulted as a child and has spent the better part of the last decade actively pursuing healing.

Alice, the curious girl trapped in an unknown land, serves as the healing heroine in this work of activist theatre—toward continued healing for himself and, possibly, others. “Part of my journey is making my sexual abuse public, and owning it, so I can move beyond where I was, that space of shame, and inspire others to do the same.”

For more than 20 years, Santoro has inspired audiences across the country with performances that explore gender, sexuality, race, class, and ethnicity.

He joined GSU as assistant professor in 2012, and has been entertaining and stretching CPA audiences for seven years with poignant works such as “For Colored Girls,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” and the futuristic yet timely “Fahrenheit 451.”

In 2012, he led the creation of TAPS with the intention to cultivate creative, critical, collaborative, and compassionate student voices.

TAPS is a standout as the only program housed in an Illinois public university that marries theater and performance studies, the latter which falls under the discipline of human communication and takes a broadened approach to looking at performance.

Forward-looking GSU allows Santoro and his students to explore and push others to follow. The university’s small class sizes offer students invaluable hands-on experience early in their academic careers. Where other programs don’t usually engage students until junior or senior year, GSU showcases and nurtures the talents of freshmen and sophomores.

Santoro enjoys the atypical dynamic of inexperienced and experienced students working with seasoned actors who might be faculty, staff, or members of the broader community. “For Colored Girls” boasted a cast of students, alumni, and faculty—a moving intergenerational experience for women of color.

Across classes, genders and generations, Santoro sees transformation in the minds and souls of his students, actors and CPA guests. It’s the applause any actor seeks.

“I’m proud of the work we've done here,’’ Santoro says. “We do shows that entertain but also instruct. We want the audience to leave thinking about a topic differently—or even thinking about it for the first time. We want to be that critical voice—not just at GSU—but in the theater world, creating a space for dialogue.”