A Story Through Customs

by Will Kiley

in Generation Without Borders

Post image for A Story Through Customs

(Generation Without Borders is an essay series created by TCG for the 50th Anniversary of World Theatre Day. Will Kiley’s essay is one of three winning essays that will be published in the May/June issue of AMERICAN THEATRE magazine. Learn more and submit your own essay here.)

Our borders and boundaries are thinning; I’ve felt them crumble in my hands. Last summer I left Cincinnati, Ohio for Nairobi, Kenya with aims to build and perform a brand new play as part of World Refugee Day. The experience was life changing and in one culminating instant revolutionized my understanding of theater’s global potential.

The performance was hosted by the United Nations and the audience was packed with people from all parts of the world. As we recited our co-authored poem, Ojullu (my Ethiopian scene partner) and I were lifted high above the heads of our multi-national ensemble. Separated by nearly twenty feet, our hands reached out pleadingly for one another and were slowly brought together. The audience erupted as we finally grasped hands. Perhaps some couldn’t hear or translate the poem, but no one mistook the connection. A connection that shattered boundaries of race, culture, religion and nationality. A connection built by thirteen youth, from four different countries, with vastly different pasts. Symbolized with a sense of immediacy and honesty that only theater can provide.

The bond was not fleeting. Just last Friday I woke up to a 12-digit phone call from Ojullu in Kenya. With a quick jump to Skype, a crystal clear conversation was had across the globe. As technology grows, our world shrinks. Theater will have to cross borders because the borders themselves are dissolving. From the Arab Spring utilizing Facebook to webcam renditions of pop songs on YouTube, our abilities to interact, and our strategies for doing so, are constantly expanding. Theater must utilize its powerful role in this newly connected world.

At its best, theater allows us to recognize, discover and challenge our humanity. As we move toward a global society this will be crucial. Theater’s fundamental building blocks lend itself to breaking down barriers and opening hearts. In the theater one must be: actively listening, inquisitive, open minded, truthful and trusting. Through these foundations the seemingly enormous space between any two people can be collapsed. This must be done.

Too many problems exist because we don’t see each other. Nations are only able to war with one another by dehumanizing their enemy. Global crises are ignored because statistics are not faces. People can be pushed aside as long as they stay “the other”. As art crosses over borders it replace this sense of “other” with faces, stories and relationships. How much harder will it be to go to war with Iran after watching “A Separation”?

With our hands linked, Ojullu and I transcended our contrasting pasts and became united in our shared future. We looked openly into one another, championed our differences and became global citizens striving forward. This is what theater can do. Must do. In the next fifty years, the dam of borders both local and international will continue to break apart. As theater artists we can either fuel the wave or be washed over. But have no fear; you can’t get held up for carrying a story through customs.


Will Kiley is a theater artist, activist, and adventure enthusiast. He has run from bulls in Spain, rodeo clowned for children in Colorado and marched for human rights with Cincinnati’s Homeless Coalition. In 2011 he traveled to Kenya with 4 other CCM Drama students and created a show with 8 refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan as part of The Great Globe Foundation’s “Dadaab Theater Project”. He is currently a junior BFA candidate in Drama at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music (CCM) and recipient of the 2012 Annie Fitzgerald Scholarship Award for Leadership and Civic Engagement.

  • Will Kiley

    http://www.greatglobefoundation.org/

    ^a link to the Great Globe Foundation. Their brave leap into the unknown created an experience that transformed my life and will continue to.

    -Will Kiley