Outreach Project Takes Faculty and Students on Odyssey of Their Own

Homer’s epic tale of a hero’s journey home ``The Odyssey" — was recreated on stage in Santa Barbara this summer — but with a unique, contemporary twist. In this production, not only did Odysseus embark on an arduous course back to his family in Ithaca, but cast members also revealed personal tales of their journeys from lawlessness and hopelessness to self-respect and redemption.

By Anna Davison

boatThe Odyssey Project was the brainchild of Michael Morgan, senior lecturer in UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Theater and Dance. Morgan was awarded a doctorate in Theater Studies from UC Santa Barbara in 2006 and has performed on stage around the country as well as directing and teaching.

The performance was the product of a new theater class dedicated to exploring personal, social and cultural transformation. It brought together UC Santa Barbara students and teens from Los Prietos Boys Camp, a local rehabilitation program for young offenders — most of them gang members and petty criminals — in an undertaking that Morgan describes as “both humbling and exhilarating.”

In bringing their troubled personal journeys to the stage the boys referenced the pain of absent parents, dead homies and escalating drug addiction. Later they offered heartfelt tributes to loved ones, including family and friends in the audience at the intimate Center Stage Theater in downtown Santa Barbara — Morgan chose the venue because he “wanted it to be in the community, not behind ivory tower walls.” The Odyssey, he says, “seemed like the perfect story” to serve as a starting point for the actors to delve into their own individual mythology.

For Morgan too, the production was something of a personal journey — “my Ithaca, my homecoming,” he says. “I feel like I've connected after all these years teaching."

"I was probably channeling my mother," he adds. “She was big on education and on making sure that education was about reaching out and not just something that was self-feeding. …This is about giving people a voice. I want to liberate non-actors' voices, to let them speak. They have a story to tell.”

The Los Prietos boys initially struggled to find their voices, Morgan says, and to be comfortable revealing their vulnerability.

"Some of us had trouble with that," says one of the Los Prietos actors. "We had to become outgoing. We had to open up to everybody."

Soon, though, the Los Prietos boys became less guarded and began to work more closely with the UC Santa Barbara students to explore the epics in their own lives. "It was like a chain reaction," Morgan says. “One of them said, 'Oh, I'll try that,' then another did.”

"You started learning about different people. It was a great experience," says one of the Los Prietos actors. “This was the most important class I’ve ever taken in my life," added a UC Santa Barbara student. "I'm learning about myself and I'm learning about other people."

The Odyssey Project was a one-off performance, but Morgan hopes to launch similar projects in the future. “This was a maiden voyage,” he says. “I’d like to do this with other people.”