Faculty Spotlight: Doug Kaback
Last spring, CSUN theater professor, Doug Kaback collaborated creatively with theater professor Shad Willingham to create a proposal for a touring production of the play, “Persephone and Me.” Kaback wrote the play several years ago, and describes it as a “spin on a classic.”
The play utilizes a comical method of telling the Persephone myth from ancient Greek mythology in which Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, is abducted by Hades to the underworld to be his bride. This makes her mother Demeter furious, and in turn, she makes a secret deal with Hades in which he can have her daughter for part of the year. In her raw emotion, Demeter turns the mortal world into a cold, harsh winter. In fact, it was the “first” ever winter for the mortal world, and it serves an explanation for the seasons.
“The play speaks deeper about rebirth, and that a young woman is born in the Springtime. Persephone, who is born in the Spring, begins to make some kind of peace with the world that she is living in, the world of the dead with Hades, but she really wants to return to the mortal world,” said Kaback.
The play interestingly jumps back and forth to showcase the parallels of the modern world and the Greek world.
Although the play has been produced numerous times, this was the first opportunity to produce it at CSUN as a part of the theater department, and then to tour it to various local schools. Kaback said it was all made possible with the Building Connections for Success Program, supported through U.S. Department of Education, Title V Program.
Kaback says he chose the play because it became increasingly clear to him that the topics of gender violence and sexual assault on college campuses are incredibly present and meaningful right now.
“There are important advancements taking place about what we understand to be consent and all those gray areas are beginning to be examined in a very healthy way. There is a range to this conversation, but there is an unspoken reality that many young women on college campuses are experiencing some type of gender violence and sexual assault,” said Kaback.
“Persephone and Me” broaches the topic of gender violence to secondary school, middle and high school students in an educational and entertaining way.
Willingham and Kaback also partnered with Strength United, an on-campus community organization which does prevention and risk reducing strategies with various populations. They also do counseling and interventions for different trauma and abusive situations. Kaback describes it as a tremendous organization that works with the Masters for Public Health program on campus.
One of the main focuses of the production was to take “Persephone and Me” as a play and use it as the catalyst for a conversation that Strength United and Public Health students led post performance with middle and high school audiences about gender violence, as well as healthy unhealthy and abusive relationships.
The Building Connections for Success Program, which focuses on Latino students, relates directly to the play being that the main character, Stephanie, is Latina.
“I wanted to see that cultural identity expressed more because there is such a large population of Latinos in LAUSD who we were mostly performing for. That’s how the grant idea was born and how the class touring theater utilized the play as an educational opportunity,” Kaback said.
During the Fall semester the class traveled to four schools and partnered with Student Tours on campus to perform for middle and high school students. They also performed at a professional theater venue in Canoga Park, The Madrid Theater, where six different schools were present. The evening performance benefitted community partners who are involved in the Institute for Community Health and Wellbeing Neighborhood Partners in Action.
Kaback says, “The Institute is a new initiative that CSUN has been engaged in since 2012 which views Canoga Park as an innovation zone. They work to find ways our students, faculty, and staff can participate in service learning, as well as how the residents can access some of the resources. It has turned into a long term project and I’m excited about how it will grow in the future.”
Kaback and Willingham were recently invited to present at an impact conference on community service learning which was held at Loyola Marymount. They presented their workshop called “Persephone and Me: Utilizing Applied Theater Techniques and Greek Mythology to Address Gender Violence and Sexual Assault With Secondary School Students.”
In March the creative duo also traveled to Baltimore with co-author Professor Sheri Strahl from the CSUN Public Health for the Comparative Drama Conference to present once again.
The production’s long term impact has received recognition through the University as well. In May Willingham was recognized with the Visionary Service Learning Award at CSUN for his work in this production.
Kaback said, “The play is eliciting interest nationally, and we are really excited to share what CSUN is doing and the Title Five Grant really helped make this all possible. It was the key resource that enabled us to aggregate even more resources. It was big success, and we look forward to replicating it sometime soon.”