A Word With Artistic Director Julia Rhoads

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Before venue closures happened on the Big Island due to the coronavirus pandemic, I interviewed Julia Rhoads, founder and Artistic Director of Lucky Plush, a Chicago-based ensemble dance-theater company. A few days after the interview, the Kahilu Theatre suspended operation and canceled Lucky Plush’s Rink Life show slated for March 24.

Julia Rhoads

At that time, live entertainment events across the nation were being halted or postponed, and the Big Island followed by canceling the 2020 Merrie Monarch Festival. Before our interview, I explained to Ms. Rhoads what the Merrie Monarch Festival is, and how it impacted hundreds of dancers and performers who trained and traveled from various parts of the world to participate in the annual event. As a choreographer, she expressed her empathy for what those dancers were experiencing. Uncertain if Rink Life would make its Big Island debut at the Kahilu Theatre, we both remained optimistic and assumed that it would.

I decided to publish this interview for several reasons. Rather than let it sit in the digital archives, I felt the article has historic value, not only as an example of entertainment that was planned and canceled as a result of quarantine guidelines, but as a tribute to Rhoads and her ensemble’s dancers who planned and trained to perform us for on the Big Island.

There’s a moment toward the end of the interview where Rhoads expresses the joy and celebration of witnessing a large public performance, and as of this writing, it’s unknown what future theatre events will look like after we get the all-clear message. I’ve included several Rink Life video clips with the interview so you can have a sense of what the production is like. I do hope Lucky Plush is rebooked.

Tell me about Rink Life and Lucky Plush’s artistic process.
Rink Life is a hybrid dance-theater comedy show in which word is spoken and sung live. There are lots of different performance vocabularies. It is loosely inspired by the 1970s and ‘80s roller-rink culture. Part of the inspiration for the piece was nostalgia for a time when people were sharing real-time, listening to music and grooving to amazing tracks.

The dancers/performers/actors are not on skates, and the story is told through the setting of a rink-like structure with chairs. There’s an indoor rink and an outer rink where just basic folding chairs are facing outwards. Different relationships and dramas unfold through conversation and dialog. It’s really a playful and funny piece. But ultimately, the major takeaway is just how much we need to be in community with other people and lift each other up and support each other, too.

Why did you choose the roller rink for a setting?
For me, it’s a place where people would have a lot of different experiences that were in real-time as opposed to now where many things are mediated by phones and social media. It was a space where people gathered to celebrate and where relationships unfolded in real-time, real space. When you’re skating rink pattern, sometimes you hear partial conversations, and then misunderstandings are kind of passed like a torch from person to person. Ultimately, it’s revealed in unexpected ways, like through a three-part harmony, in the song “Stayin Alive.” I think audiences are really excited about it, because it’s like nothing they’ve ever seen before. Lucky Plush’s work is very relatable. So, when we move into abstraction and into these contemporary dance languages, the audience understands why everything’s happening. We have all these cultural references and even little kids that maybe have seen stuff about the ‘70s know those songs too.

Can you talk about the musical side of the show?
Most of the music comes from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and James Brown features in it too. On the Southside of Chicago, there’s a roller rink that developed a style that became popular called “JB Style Skating,” and it was based on the roller-disco era while listening to James Brown. There’s like a point in the show where we think about “The Hustle.” [A popular 1975 dance hit by Van McCoy.] The Hustle builds into a James Brown vocal score where each ensemble member is singing a different part while they’re doing a really fun kind of group social dance.

There’s another moment that leads into a conversation about somebody about to get married and filling out a marriage questionnaire. These questions somehow slip into Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It sounds really strange, but it’s very funny and there’s a bit of campiness to it.

How about the comedy element in the show?
Comedy for us is less about jokes and more about awkward circumstances and funny things happen as a result. Sometimes it’s about physical comedy as well. There’s a bit of social commentary and the way that we invite the audience to understand the world by creating expectations and subverting expectations. And that’s where the humor often occurs, when they’ve seen something happen and they see it again, and then it doesn’t happen because of something that happened in the relationship or the drama, and that creates tension and humor. There’s also an improvisational element in our work. Even though the show is very rigorously composed, there’s a way in which each performer has agency to how they respond to each other, how they deliver lines, and that kind of improvisational quality also lends itself to humor because they’re really listening to each other. It’s less about scripting everything, and more about them really being in a relationship with each other and having a lot of fun.

What would you like the audience to take away from the performance?
When audiences leave Rink Life, what we hear is that it’s unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. The specific collision of different performance vocabularies, the joyfulness of it and the humor. I think we’re kind of in a time right now where we need to come together and celebrate these kinds of experiences.

I know we’re in this particular moment with a coronavirus, which is terrifying, but I truly believe that seeing a live performance and going out… it’s about a celebration, about unity, about the necessity to support and hold people up. It’s just joyful and really a fun piece of movement theater.

One of the exciting things about Rink Life is that it received a National Theater Project Award. The New England Foundation to the Arts gives out eight national awards, which help with the creation and touring of work.

Our fingers are crossed that we will be there, and if not, we will reschedule. It’s not that it won’t happen. It’s just sad… the impact. I’m sorry to hear about those [Merrie Monarch] hula dancers. It’s just tragic. Honestly.


Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

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