All Aboard! ‘Songs of the Scarlet and Wayback’ Draws on Collective Grinnell History

March 08, 2024

Yesenia Mozo

The upcoming spring theatre, dance, and performance studies (TDPS) production, titled Songs of the Scarlet and Wayback, is a fictional play inspired by Poweshiek County community interviews, student archival research, and performances, pageants, and parties of Grinnell past. 

A cartoon-style poster with a woman next to a train. Text on the top reads, "Songs of the Scarlet and Wayback."

As one of the assistant professors of TDPS, Jen Shook directs one mainstage production annually, alternating between prewritten and original works. This year, the play was an active collaboration among the cast, students from Interdisciplinary Performance Theory and Practice (THD 240) and Critical Approaches to Theatre Methods: Playwriting (THD 350).

In the fall of 2022, Shook got the idea for the play from her Introduction to Performance Studies class and began sourcing material for it. “I like to have a lot of research behind me, some text and ideas to work with so that I’m not coming in with a totally blank slate,” she says. “We visited the College Archives and got interested in these old Grinnell songbooks.”

The songbooks included Songs of the Scarlet and Black from 1917 and tunes from the 1860s to 1950s, like the “Grinnell Hymn” and “Here Comes the Pioneers.” Shook and her students also stumbled upon what Shook calls “dorm diss tracks,” which past Grinnellians invented to participate in friendly rivalry.

“They’re dorm pride songs, from the era from in which you lived in the dorms for all four years,” notes Shook. “There’s definitely a sense of rivalry and personality from each of the dorms. Some of them say, ‘We are the greatest, we are the best.’ Some of them diss on the other dorms and say why they’re better than the other dorms.”

Shook and her classes gathered other historical pieces, too, thinking about which parts to use for the fictional play. Her second performance studies class, which focused on archives and cultural memories, uncovered interviews and oral histories from the Poweshiek Historical Preservation Project and Drake Library archives – they also found essays and poems that alum and Grinnell authors have written and will be restaging the town of Grinnell’s 75th-anniversary pageant from scripts titled “the Pioneers of Progress.”

A student with short brown hair wears a mask and black shirt. Over a projector, they hold two skinny sticks that manipulate the shadow puppets.

“My playwriting class worked closely with Community-Engaged Learning; Susan Sanning and Julie Lascol helped us identify people they thought we should interview. Some were alumni, some were not,” recalls Shook. “The Poweshiek Historical Preservation Project had some interviews they had already captured. That gave us some ideas.”

Among their findings were examples of dances, annual winter balls, annual May pageants, and annual colonial balls, “the event of the season for many years,” describes Shook.

“People would dress up like Martha and George Washington. So, we started getting interested in what it means to re-perform some of these performances and how that would help us think about what it means to be Grinnellian. What do we want people to associate with the idea of Grinnellian? How can we keep what is productive of our history but also be critical? Critique with love? How do we have a critical but ethical collaboration with the past?”

A woman with curly hair holds books. She smiles at the camera.
Director Jen Shook. She is currently working with an ensemble of 10 students, stage managers, and assistant designers. 

The show is a “play within a play,” focusing on snapshots of moments in time. “The students in the scenes of the play are debating and deciding what performances to showcase,” says Shook, “and what stories are most important to tell.” In the weeks leading up to opening night, students would constantly introduce new ideas, discard them, and piece them together into different versions of the play.​​​​​​It’s been great to work with different groups of students and see what creative lenses they bring.

“One of my students, for example, was interested in the idea of there being a boarding house where different kinds of people lived together. But we don’t know how well they knew each other, or if they were friends. So, they started thinking about what kind of secret romance and intrigue this would bring. One student wrote a queer comedy where all the people in the boarding house were gay and in love with each other. It is delightful. Maybe we’ll use that in the play, maybe not. I love using archives as a creative spark because sometimes it does draw you into wanting to learn more about the ‘factual history’ and make you take flights of fancy.”

Beyond Research: Weaving the Play Together

Also working on the play is talented Andra Velis Simon, who is currently teaching short courses in musical theatre and directing music for the play. So far, she has arranged songs for the play using an actor-muso style, which relies on music performed by actors and players with their own instruments and skills. “It turns out we have two trombones, a fiddle, a flute, and a marching kazoo band,” smiles Shook. “Because another thing we learned is that Grinnell has a history of collective, entertaining pep bands.”

Lucie Greene ’23, a freelance designer, designed the show’s set, which is in conversation with Grinnell’s campus architecture. She returned to Grinnell as one of the youngest set designers yet, having done theater work in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But the play’s connection to Grinnell doesn’t stop there. “The Grinnell Area Arts Council helped us collect clothing donations,” recounts Shook, “which we then ripped up to make paper out of them. That paper is part of what we are using to build the shadow puppets in the show. The idea behind it is that the world of Grinnell onstage is made of the clothes of the world of Grinnell offstage.”

Anticipate some shadow puppets, trains, and some very large squirrels – and watch out for a mention of Hallie Flanagan Davis ’11 (that’s 1911, not 2011). “I think this play is important in getting the students to think about the place they live in,” comments Shook, “even if it’s only for a few years of their life. This is home and we should be thinking about how to be in a good relationship with the place where we live, and part of that is knowing history and part of that is how we are continuing to have conversations with our neighbors.”

Director Shook leans over a projector. She stands in front of a screen with shadows of a squirrel, which she is manipulating with her hands.

Tickets for Songs of the Scarlet and Wayback

Tickets for the Songs of the Scarlet and Wayback production are available at the door or can be reserved in advance at the Bucksbaum Box Office. Visit or call 641-269-4444 from noon to 5 p.m. on March 7-8. Contact Joyce Bergan, 641-269-4378, with questions.

The show will be on the following times and dates:

  • 7:30 p.m., Thurs.-Sat., March 7–9, Flanagan Theatre in the Bucksbaum Arts Center
  • 2 p.m., Sun., March 10, Flanagan Theatre

The cast performed an excerpt teaser at Grinnell Area Arts Council on Feb. 24, which Shook hopes will be “a great first step for future collaborations around town.”

The show will officially premiere on Friday, March 8. The performance of the play on Thursday, March 7, will be a “preview” performance, open to the public, but with the design team and directors implementing notes and issues as they arise. The performance on Sunday, March 10 will be a “relaxed” performance, with accommodations for those sensitive to sound and light. The audience will also be in partial light to allow for movement during the performance. 

The performances will be filmed and released online in the upcoming month.

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