A short chat with Josh Kenji about Engaged Theatre

A short chat with Josh Kenji about Engaged Theatre

Josh Kenji is an actor and Freehold faculty. This past October, Josh performed as Claudio and Brother Thomas in Engaged Theatre’s tour of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. We spoke to Josh about his acting experience, how he came to Engaged Theatre, and what it was like performing for extraordinary audiences.

Tell us about your acting journey?

I’ve been acting since middle school. I went to UW and studied musical theater, so that’s where I came out of. I ended up taking Meisner with Robin [Freehold Founder Robin Lynn Smith], of course, and then I ended up taking it a few more times with Robin. I honestly don’t have a ton of Shakespeare experience. I say that and…well, I’ve done a few Shakespeare plays: Pericles last year with Robin. I’ve done Sebastien, Twelfth Night. And I’ve worked on scenes from Shakespeare monologues–that’s about my Shakespeare experience. 

Was it studying with Robin where you first learned about Engaged Theatre?

It might have been on my radar before, but I think that was the first time I heard about it. I think they were doing a show that year, because I remember Robin would come to class directly from the prisons.

So you did
The Pericles Project last year [in 2022–Engaged Theatre did not tour due to the pandemic] but Measure for Measure was your first time doing the full tour. What were your expectations?

I think in terms of some of the process, because of last year I had some ideas about what the process might be. I think the biggest thing that was unknown was going to the prisons and Harborview. That was the biggest question mark. What is that going to be like? How’s that going to work? And so that was very different. And I honestly didn’t have expectations around that coming in, just because I had no clue what it would be like. 

What was your experience? One thing I heard is how you all had to build up a set each day. 

Yeah, it’s a lot of carrying. I once did a touring children’s show–way back when. When we did that, every day we had to spend at least like 30 minutes just carrying and hauling stuff out of the van, and then after school it’s 30 minutes back into the van. Then doing that at another school most days. So that part I was a little more familiar with. I think the scale of the set was definitely a little surprising. It’s a huge set that we had, and I was really impressed at how big the set was and how complicated it was to put together.

There are themes in Measure for Measure about justice and forgiveness. What was it like performing that in the prisons for those populations? 

I think it just hits differently in the prison populations. Not that the same or similar kinds of experiences haven’t happened in some of our performances at West of Lenin [where 5 public performances were staged at the conclusion of the tour]. But the questions that came out here [at West of Lenin] were like: How do we forgive someone who, by our current standards, is not someone that we should be forgiving and letting off the hook that easily? And I think it is interesting that in the prisons, that sense of mercy and forgiveness went further. Not that it didn’t hit for some folks at West of Lenin, but the response of like: Well, we probably should be more careful about forgiving those people who commit crimes like that. That hadn’t come up as much in the prisons or at Harborview, which was interesting. 

I think that people were much more ready to hear a story about mercy than…justice isn’t the right word, maybe. And I think that might be the issue–that out here in society it’s so complicated in terms of justice versus punishment. The way we go about it is leaning more in the vein of punishment, because there’s so much injustice. I think it’s a really interesting thing to think about. I don’t really have an answer.

Take police brutality, for instance. Especially during the pandemic, I felt a lot of anger and rage towards the police. And at the same time, I could sense myself kind of thinking: “Yeah, but at what point are we giving them a way to reconcile and come to terms with what they did and find some kind of a way forward?” But on the other hand…some of the worst offenders are causing death to people who aren’t given a second chance. And so it’s really complicated to think about this idea of justice versus punishment. Because it’s hard to really know, as humans, what that line is. I think we want people to be held accountable because there’s so many cases where [it doesn’t happen].

Are there any specific responses you got in the prisons that either surprised you or just stood out to you?

There were so many. I think on the first day there was a guy who came around and shook all of our hands afterwards. And he knew all of our names from the program. I was surprised by that and how supportive and grateful everyone was. Then on the second day, there was one guy who said [about the performance] “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen since my daughter’s birth!” A lot of folks hadn’t seen theater before–I mean that makes sense to me. But I think just the fact that they were so moved by it and they hadn’t had any prior exposure to theatre–they didn’t just write it off. That was surprising. 

Anything else do you want to say about that experience?

I was really surprised at–and this isn’t to say that our criminal justice system here is like the perfect solution that we have, because it’s not–but I was surprised at how nice the facilities were. I was surprised that there was a garden, and inmates could take pumpkins to their unit, and decorate them. The women’s prison was, like, insanely clean and the folks there were really friendly. And it seemed like there was a community for folks who are in there.

There probably are things that are happening that we don’t know about that aren’t good, but I was surprised at how it was, compared to maybe what portrayals of prisons are on TV.

It was really shocking to see, in a special offenders unit, how so many folks there visited this religion room. And there were little storage units for every religion you could think of, including Wicca, Indigenous traditions. It was really cool. It was interesting how a lot of folks had faith, a lot of folks were religious. And that was kind of profound in a way. 

There was one guy [in the special offenders unit] who was like, “Once I get out of here, is acting something that I could do?” I was impressed to see how much people wanted to engage with stuff and find some kind of way forward for themselves. 

The special offenders unit was really interesting, I think, because people just had really big hearts there. And that’s not what you would think of when you hear the term special. [You’d think of] scary, evil people. And there were people who have done really horrible things. And, and to see that they, too, are just kind of humans like us. They are the average person that you run into. It’s one thing to know that, but it’s another thing to experience it in person. 

Especially in the special offenders unit, there are some people who are just really young at heart. There are some folks who were just really kind of…genuine. They were excited. They want to engage. So it does make me kind of question what we’re doing as a society to fail these people.