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Transcending Theatre: My Time with Robbie McCauley

Robbie McCauley asked her students, “What shape do you cut in the world?” Regardless of whether she was teaching a graduate-level acting or theatre and community course, or an undergraduate African American drama course, Robbie encouraged her students to think about the impact their bodies had on the world. “Where are your curves? Sharp edges?” She knew people could not answer that knowingly without moving in the space, so she had students do just that. She stretched her own shape around the space, too, learning as she taught. “What parts do you hide? What if you didn’t hide them?”

Robbie was a teacher, community activist, director, award-winning playwright and performer, poet, and mother. Her body of work has provided audiences with a glimpse of one Black woman’s lifelong journey spent vulnerably exploring oppression in America. She found theatre to be her mode for expressing what she could not express in reality. “I wish I could rage in life like I can on stage,” she once shared with me. “Maybe that’s why I can’t live without it.”

I met Robbie in 2010 when I was a graduate student at Emerson College. In a contemporary women playwrights course, we read her Obie-winning play, Sally’s Rape, a layered script about the effect of generational trauma of slave rape on Black women, but also about race relations between Black and white women, and about the limits of the educational system. I immediately signed up for Robbie’s community engagement and acting courses. We formed a mentorship and friendship during 2011 when I assisted directed Robbie’s one-woman show Sugar alongside director Maureen Shea at ArtsEmerson. After I wrote my master’s thesis about her, I had the privilege to direct her in a revision of Sugar in 2016. Through these experiences with Robbie, I learned to “own my shape.” When she died on 20 May 2021, I wondered, How can the world continue with a Robbie McCauley–shaped hole in it? Now I ask, How can her work continue?

Robbie challenged the status quo of theatre systems, from the classroom to the rehearsal room to productions. Her consistent confrontations with race and other charged topics through theatre practices offered alternative ways of approaching the work, promoting a marginalized aesthetic of “the body knows and the body speaks” as a mode for engaging in theatre and community.

“I write what comes up in my body,” she shared with me in a conversation. With this statement, Robbie offered a revolutionary way of knowing. To move and let the body bring up what should be studied. “I do scholarship on stage. I discover knowledge as I perform.” She wrote on her feet. Letting her Linklater-trained body stretch, dance, drop, punch, kick, Robbie felt the words rise in her. She wrote them down and used the stage to explore them. Sitting in the audience for one of Robbie’s performances meant moving with her, noticing one’s own physical empathy with her body vulnerability. “I’m not expecting to change the world through theatre,” she said, “but I can shift it a little.”

In the rehearsal room, Robbie-as-performer modeled how to assert agency by listening to the body. Regardless of what had been blocked, she would often halt mid-line, think, listen to something inside her, move again, move differently, try the words in a different register, repeat the phrase with sounds only—an arm reaching this time, a knee lifting next time. As suddenly as her exploratory listening had started it would stop, and she’d return to obedient actor. “Okay, I’m ready to move on. Where do you want to start from?”

Watching her bold comfort of impulsively exploring possibilities changed me as a director. I realized how our theatrical systems often place authorities rather than experimentation and discovery at the center of storytelling. Productions, auditions, and classes train artists to remain beholden to concept, schedule, or commercial expectations. What might theatremakers learn if the status quo was centered on impulse and exploration?

Robbie worked like a jazz musician. She understood the power of jazz, the discovery it could lead to when one adopted the aesthetic approach of letting a new note drop in, a phrase repeat, a reprise arise later. She understood the impact this had on audiences, too. Her shows often included jazz musicians on stage. “I become part of their riffs and improvisations,” she said. “And sometimes the audience does too.” She embraced audiences’ effect on performance, wrote moments into her scripts for audience conversation. “They’re in the room. We’re in this together.”

Robbie worked like a jazz musician. She understood the power of jazz, the discovery it could lead to when one adopted the aesthetic approach of letting a new note drop in, a phrase repeat, a reprise arise later.

In a performance of Sugar, about her battle with diabetes and America’s healthcare disparities, she asked audiences, “What do you think of the war in Afghanistan?” (The audience’s answers gave her language to describe diabetes.) One night, a woman called out “Twisted!” “Twisted,” Robbie echoed admiringly, hearing this word viscerally. She continued her script, “All my life has been war with sugar.” But “twisted” penetrated her. Changed her thoughts and movement, rerouted the rehearsed show. She spoke the word and contorted her body. Her musician joined in, not knowing where she was going, but trusting jazz. Robbie twisted with music, letting guttural sounds emerge, shaking her shoulders, bending over, mumbling painfully. What was her body bringing up that she would write down if she had pen and paper? Eventually she returned. “Twisted, mmm.” She gestured to the speaker, “Thank you.” The rehearsed version resumed.

Robbie embedded so much realness into teaching, directing, performing; she transcended theatre. Students, colleagues, and audiences often responded to her with awe and fear, as if her next action could cause a spiritual transformation. Sleeping Weazel artistic director, Charlotte Meehan, has described her as a “theatre shaman.” Robbie shared that when she broke character onstage during performances of Sally’s Rape to hand out cookies to audiences, they looked at her like she was God handing down manna. “It’s just a cookie,” she’d say. She’d altered the status quo of theatre-watching. The effect was that something simple became something sacred. She had to give them permission to interact with this everyday object as they would normally. Leaning into the role they’d cast her in, she’d say, “Take and eat,” easing them out of mere receptivity into participation, trust, and journeying.

Robbie believed in what she called the “personal bigger.” She asked, “What can we learn about the bigger world by exploring our personal experiences?” This drove her teaching as well as performing because she embraced the personal experience of the student. “What’s coming up in your body when you say that line?” she would ask a student performer. They might answer, “Heat.” She’d soak in the word, modeling the experience of feeling alongside the performer.

Performer: Heat... Like shame, maybe?

Robbie: Mmm. (She is interested.) Heat, like shame.

Performer: (Growing confident in vulnerability because the instructor has felt it, too.) Like a lead ball in my gut.

Robbie: (Soaking in.)

Performer: (Silence.)

Class: (Soaking in.)

Robbie: (Looking at class like they are teachers. Waiting for instruction.)

Classmate: (Taking the risk to share.) I get that.

Another classmate: (Taking the risk to become the teacher.) How does your shame move?

Robbie: (Looking at performer, ready to learn from the answer.)

Performer: I don’t know. I’m scared to let it move.

Another classmate: What would happen if you let it?

Robbie: (Silence.) Let’s all feel the lead. Let’s get on our feet and move with the weight.

As students get on their feet, they discover shame and weight in their own bodies. They discover a connection to one another. Personal bigger.

Robbie-as-teacher was also a jazz musician, willing to follow the impulse and upend the status quo of the classroom. When any of us students threw up a wall because we were focused on a systemic goal (like a grade, or a perfectly rehearsed monologue), she’d say, “Engage in your resistance.” Thicker walls. Did she really not value the importance of a transcript?, we might think. “Do others feel resistance?” she’d ask. A couple of hands. “Good,” she’d respond. Soaking us in. Stretching. “When was another time you felt resistant?” With a gesture of her hands, we’d move into a story circle. When we emerged from the circle, we had forgotten that grades ever mattered.

Two women smiling and embracing each other from the side.

Photo of Tara Brooke Watkins and Robbie McCauley.

For me, Robbie’s story circles were it. They were the key to changing the world—or at least shifting it a little. She used them to facilitate dialogue about “charged topics” and ended up navigating the freedom of bodies from unexplored bondages. “You can see in people’s bodies their...” she pursed her lips, gestured a tightening of a necktie, “resistance at the beginning of a story circle. By the end, their bodies have released something.” She asked questions in story circles that seemed harmless, but which led to intense introspection. Questions like “How did you get your name?,” “Who are your people?,” “Who are you now?”

Robbie-as-activist cared and listened. She cared about everyone in the circle, even if their words could be claimed as offensive, because Robbie did not operate from a place of personal offense. She operated from a place of giving space.

Robbie-as-activist cared and listened. She cared about everyone in the circle, even if their words could be claimed as offensive, because Robbie did not operate from a place of personal offense. She operated from a place of giving space. Space for words to release, land, be heard so the person sharing could be unburdened, so they could return to the world lighter, shifted. “Racism shackles white people, too. Most just don’t know it ’til they speak about it and space has to be provided for that.” I asked: “How do you manage the resistant voices?” Her response was always: “Trust the work.”

Robbie understood the body to hold onto the impact of stories and memories, so when people spoke in story circles, there were things they did not say, which the body spoke for them. Knowing this, she asked actors she directed, “What is your character not saying?” and created space in performance for the answer to emerge alongside the text. In a production of The Glass Menagerie at Roxbury Repertory, the actress playing Laura moved sometimes as a dancer, sometimes stomped in anger, or beautifully stretched into the space without her iconic limp. Scenes played with moments of these movements. Under Robbie’s direction, the story became layered with the exposed human reality of a hidden internal experience crying from the body. Status quo shaken.

Robbie-as-director engaged with race through color-conscious casting, exploring discoveries through the decision. What happens to the story—and, then, to the audience—when a director chooses to engage with an actor’s race? Her production of The Glass Menagerie was cast with Black actors in the roles of Tom and Laura. With a white actress playing Amanda, the audience understood the absent father was Black. It changed the coded conversations about the father, Tom’s heaviness, Amanda’s neurosis, Laura’s insecurity. It called into question audience members’ own assumptions of absent fathers and made us accountable to our own societal role in this family’s situation. Status quo upended.

At Emerson, Robbie created a show about Malcolm X, casting several white students as the titular character. White bodies delivered his unique gestures, like taking off and putting on glasses. She showed it is possible to step into the body of another and look beyond race and engage with it at the same time. “Those white actors lived in the body of a Black man and white audiences had to question their assumptions. Imagine,” she said, “if every white person had that experience.”

This ties her work together: the facilitation of letting the body speak, know, heal. “When I get close to hating people,” she confessed once, “I get on my feet and engage my resistance. I move my body so I can get through the moment. I’m not saying I suddenly like them. I do it to get through it. It’s selfish. I’m doing it so I don’t get swallowed by anger.” (She had limits, though, believing that some people are necessary to resist and anger keeps resistance alive.)

Ultimately, theatre was her way of not getting swallowed. In her original one-woman play, My Father and the Wars, she released her rage through contrapuntal choreography, her body railing against the peaceful jazz to show the daily Black experience of maintaining a calm exterior for survival. In Sally’s Rape, she screamed as her great-great-grandmother Sally being raped. In Sugar, she furiously wiped at diabetic scars. Theatre created space for her body to discover the personal bigger: father’s abuse and the illegal federal surveillance of COINTELPRO she had nightmares about as a Black woman in the 1960s; rape and the bus stops she was lewdly catcalled at; diabetes and the triangular slave trade that produced sugar at the expense of Black bodies.

Robbie showed that theatre helps people survive the moment, shift perspective, not hate, engage with resistance, challenge their systems by changing the status quo. Her methods were simple and, yet, there is a tendency to admire them into a state of sacredness. I can see Robbie looking at theatremakers now, waiting for us to do the obvious: “Take and eat.”

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Jeff- I love your observation that Robbie’s presence in the audience for a show transformed the watching/performance itself. I am interested in giving that more thought. How is a performance transformed by the attendance of specific audience members?

Wonderful to read about some of the techniques Robbie worked with in class. When she and Jeannie first did SALLY'S RAPE, I was in awe and still am. I last spoke to Robbie at James Scrugg's brilliant and disturbing SUPREMACYLAND, which was transformed simply by her being in the audience. Robbie remains a transformative presence.

Thanks so much for this beautiful article about Robbie McCauley! I was hoping to read such an honoring... I am of Robbie's generation, and remember so clearly first reading about Sally's Rape, and then hearing about Robbie's trilogy of pieces exploring race and geography (if memory serves, the Boston chapter, performed at
Charlestown Working Theatre, was called Turf.... yes?), and then the excitement about her coming to be part of our community by joining the Emerson faculty, and then seeing Sugar.... which had an additionally strong impact for me, being a fellow diabetic. I will keep and re-read your vivid documentation of her physically-driven explorations --- part of the legacy of theater practice from those earlier decades, so useful to remember and re-engage --- and a practice she, of course, made all her own. Thank you, Robbie, for your gifts, and Tara, for reminding us. Debra Wise, AD, Underground Railway@Central Square Theater