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johnmichael rossi

theatre-maker, educator & researcher

‘JM’s’ theatre-making practice is marked by a collaborative approach, and developing theatrical material that is socially engaged, in both form and content. His creative practice, rooted in playwrighting and directing, involves curating and leading ensembles of performers and designers from multi-disciplinary backgrounds through the development and production of new theatrical works. His playtexts often reach beyond the confines of traditional theatre spaces, alluding to site-specific, immersive and participatory approaches to staging. His playwriting practice has been cultivated through putting early drafts of work "up on its feet" and experimenting with text in workshops and staged readings as his writing process, in revision, becomes a collaborative endeavour with designers and performers.

 

His practice and ethos as a theatre-maker is situated within a tradition of DIY theatre, inherently grassroots and experimental. Robert Jude Daniels, artistic director of Bootworks Theatre Collective (UK), defines a DIY (Do-It-Yourself) ethos of theatre making as “letting the artists and their definitions speak for themselves” (Daniels, DIY Theatre, 2015: 4). Daniels also refers to Anderson’s ‘Imagined Community’ and Turner’s ‘Communitas’ as underpinning the DIY ethos, which supports JM’s approach to playwriting as curatorial and collaborative, which he terms in his doctoral thesis as ‘collabo-wrighting’ (a hybrid approach to conventional playwriting practice and devising methods).

DIY practice is thread through his diverse body of work in the field of theatre, particularly in educational settings where he has devised, developed and staged new works in collaboration with colleagues and students. While the scale and budget of his productions have varied, in both professional and educational settings, his DIY ethos, highlights his focus on ensemble, collective learning and imaginative resourcefulness through found and recycled materials; and an interest in activating non-traditional, abandoned and public spaces with art.

 

As a performer, JM’s work veers into areas of political activism, as he maintains a mask practice, represented through a series of characters appearing in performance interventions: “Dottore Jomiro” and “D.Spair.”

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Photo by: Tomos Griffiths

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theatre in acdemia

The breadth of his work over the last decade has been situated in academia, through various posts held at Higher Education institutions in the UK, including University of Northampton, University of Bedfordshire and University of Reading, where he earned his doctoral degree.

The Northampton Years (2017-2021)

At University of Northampton (2017-2021), as Senior Lecturer in Acting & Drama, he served as Deputy Subject Leader for Performance, and the Programme Head for the BA (hons) in Drama. As Deputy Subject Leader he managed oversight of three performace-based undergraduate degrees including the university’s two conservatoire degrees centred around Acting training and endorsed by Actor’s Equity Association. As programme leader or the BA in Drama, (for which there were  single and joint honours tracks) he shaped the curriculum and ethos of the undergraduate Drama programme which set out to develop emerging theatre-makers, multi-skilled in areas of performance, design, writing, directing and producing. He also supervised postgraduate students pursuing practice-based PhD’s, and served as an internal examiner on a number of doctorate candidates in the creative arts.

 

It was during the Northampton years that Rossi produced the ‘Anonymous’ play cycle, a quartet of plays developed with students and staff through a course of learning centred around workshopping and developing a new work through the deconstruction of a classical work. Each play encompassed a yearlong development process leading to a full-scale production that involved faculty and students across the programme. The productions in 2020 and 2021 were innovative works of online/digital theatre, as a result of the global pandemic. Following production, all four plays (Titus Anonymous, Anonimo’s Osteria, Leaving Anon and Anonymous_User 0371789) were moved into literary production, as part of an independent publishing project that gave space for student reflections and archival materials to be published alongside the playtext.

 

JM also taught a script analysis module, directing Year 2 student productions of Annie Baker’s The Flick, Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, Nawal El Sadaawi’s God Resigns at the Summit and Jordan Tannahill’s Concord Floral. Each year, JM was committed to diversifying and decolonizing the curriculum by revising the list plays being studied in practice and theory. The script analysis module, alongside a Writing for Performance module (that culminated in an annual staged reading festival of student works) became a space to introduce and analyse the works of: Marita Bonner, debbie tucker green, Arinze Kene, Young Jean Lee, Lyn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Gertrude Stein, Kate Tempest, Fiona Templeton, Mac Wellman amongst many others.

 

With his first-year students, JM established an approach to ensemble-building through a scaffolded set of improvisation exercises combined with a movement practice (informed by Viewpoints), that forges a devised process that begins with exploring the newspaper headlines from their first formal day together as a class/ensemble. JM has referred to the process as a ‘dramaturgical rollercoaster’ which has produced a series of pun-plays: Froggy Timez, A Wanderful Mix-Up, Magic Apples and The Remarkable Rise of a Bowling Pin in the Specific Ocean.

 

The Bedford Years (2012-2016)

JM’s pedagogical approach to devising through ensemble-building began more formally during his time at University of Bedfordshire where, as Senior Lecturer in Theatre & Performing Arts, he served as Programme Head for the BA (hons) in Theatre & Professional Practice. Similar to his role at Northampton, he had a hand in shaping the learning journey for aspiring theatre artists. Here, his approach to instilling a collaborative mindset to creating theatrical work found its structure, as his work with first-year students established the ‘headline stimulus’ method which provided the fundamentals to succeeding on the three-year course. The first year journeys produced a series of plays cutting across styles, themes and genres: Journey to Chrysalis, 71013, Mark Rutherford Opening Night, Quarantine D1.01 and Imbroglio. He also designed and taught a Musical Theatre Production module which drew from the canon to devise new musicals with sampled and recycled songs. Deconstructing Hope was a pastiche of scenarios inspired  by a self-help book about hope; and Glitra Anesthetica was a deconstruction of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera.

 

The Conference Circuit (2013—current)

 

Since 2013, JM has been active member of the Performance-as-Research working group for the International Federation Theatre Research (IFTR), where he served as Co-Convener (2017-2021) As a PaR member, he has presented papers and performance lectures and co-facilitated workshops at conferences in Spain, England, India, Sweden, Brazil, Serbia, China and, more recently in digital spaces.

 

He has also been a member and presented his research at annual conferences. for the American Studies Association, Canadian Association of Theatre Research and Society of Artistic Research.

 

Practice-Led PhD, Reading (2011-2016)

 

In 2011, JM moved to the UK to pursue postgraduate study at University of Reading. His practice-led PhD, Collabowrighting the Hyper(play)text: A Postdramatic Digital Poetics, considers playwrighting by way of web-design as an expansion to collaborative playwrighting practices, and is centered around the process of writing, developing and designing Rumi High, a site-specific interactive play presented in the form of what he names a “hyper(play)text.” The aim of this research was to exhibit how literary playtexts can evoke multisensory trends prevalent in 21st century theatre. The thesis develops through direct engagement with the practice project, which explores the multisensory potential of written language when combined with hypermedia. The thesis traces the development process of Rumi High, which is presented digitally, as a ‘hyper(play)text,’ accessible through the Internet at www.RumiHigh.org. The reading experience for Rumi High aims to be a multisensory event where the reader interacts with sounds, images and written language in a manner that can be broadly viewed as a performance event. Here, ‘playwrighting’ practice is expanded spatially, collaboratively and textually. Plays are built, designed and crafted with many layers of meaning that explore both linguistic and graphic modes of poetic expression. The hyper(play)text establishes playwrighting practice as curatorial, where performance and literary playtexts are in a reciprocal relationship. Ultimately, the thesis argues that digital writing and reading spaces enable new approaches to expressing the many languages of performance, while expanding the collaborative network that produces the work.

 

During his time at Reading, he also taught undergraduate modules as a Guest Lecturer, where he co-directed a production of Mark Ravenhill’s Shoot Get Treasure Repeat. He was also the postgraduate representative serving a spokesperson for postgraduate concerns, on faculty-led committees; He was also a conference organizer for the postgraduate-led Journeys Across Media conference for two years (2012-2013).

 

 

Other Scholarly Activity

JM was a Theatre Diploma Examiner for the International Baccalaureate Organisation (2017) and served as an External Examiner at University of Pretoria in South Africa for a course on the department’s BA Hons Writing for Stage (2015-16).

 

He has been a Juror for Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University’s 18 Mart Art Sanat for Video Art & Performance Category (Turkey, 2021); and the Best Writing for Stage Category for Emerson College’s 36th Annual EVVY Awards (2017).

 

He has also been a Peer Reviewer for Global Performance Studies (GPS) is a peer-reviewed, online, interdisciplinary journal published under the auspices of Performance Studies international (PSi), Theme Issue: ‘Elasticity’ (2020); and Ruukku: Studies in Artistic Research, a Finnish peer-reviewed, online journal published under the auspices of the Society for Artistic Research (SAR), Issue 11, ‘How To Do Things with Performance?’ (2018).

productions
around the globe

Onkalo in Helsinki (2017-2018)

In 2018, JM collaborated with sculptor, Rachael Champion on Disseminating Onkalo: An interactive mystery play addressing the issue of nuclear containment, written in collaboration with Champion and commissioned by Zabludowicz Collection (London, 2018). The play is an interactive participatory performance, which borrows the format of murder mystery games, to explore the issues surrounding the world’s first nuclear repository, Onkalo, located in the municipality of Eurajoki in the southwest of Finland. The play makes use of dystopian speculative fiction to engage an invited audience to immerse itself in a playful yet compelling experience that addresses the significant issue humanity faces in regard to the storage and disposal of nuclear waste. More broadly, the work addresses a multitude of issues including: deep time, energy politics, semiotics, future technologies, how we relate to and understand the ancient world, and Finnish culture. The piece was written to be presented site-specifically, to take place in the installation of Rachael Champion’s sculpture: Discoverers of Onkalo, commissioned by the Zabludowicz Collection located in Sarvisalo, Finland and was presented in June 2018 as an interactive performance event that was devised and curated specifically for the Zabludowicz bi-annual VIP Open House event.

Dragons at Open House Hvar 

During the Summer of 2016 JM was artist-in-residence at Open House Hvar in Croatia to lead a project that engaged the community of Jelsa, in the creation of a promenade performance piece on Soline beach. Members of the community, tourists and OHH artists collaborated on the building and designing of large-scale puppetry, creating and playing music, and exploring innovative ways to tell the story of Pharos the Dragon, an invented myth created by children in the village of Jelsa where OHH is situated. The prior summer, OHH worked with children in the village to imagine a mythological dragon named Pharos as a symbol of togetherness and harmony. This material was then passed on to JM, to research (the history of Hvar, dragons, et al.) and write the invented myth of Pharos, prior to his residency. The next phase of the project aimed to engage the resident community of Jelsa, and visiting tourists, in the creation of a promenade performance on Soline beach. JM led a series of making and devising workshops leading up to the performance, which included OHH artists, local children and tourist families. Participants and OHH artists worked together to design and build the dragon puppet, also creating instruments with found beach objects, and exploring innovative ways to tell the story of Pharos the Dragon. The presentation was bi-lingual, Croatian and English, with JM performing as the English-speaking narrator.

 

The S’kool of Edumacation (2013-2018)

The S’kool of Edumacation is an on-going site-specific interactive performances that explores and parodies pedagogical histories and institutional norms. These performance interventions feature JM as ‘Dottore JoMiRo,’ a masked character that draws from a a mixture of traditions: commedia dell’arte, Balinese mask, and the work of Theatre du Soleil. These works are intended to interrogate pedagogic practice and education policy while transposong the classroom onto a new site for learning.

 

 

Lotos Collective (2009-2012)

In 2009, JM was awarded a Theatre Communications Group travel grant to collaborate with LOTOS Collective (UK) and Zoukak Theatre Company & Cultural Association (Lebanon) to develop Triangulated City, a devised live art performance presented across three public sites in Beirut, involving over thirty local artists of different mediums. His involvement with the project took on various roles including research and dramaturgy, devising, production managing, facilitating workshops, managing the budget, performing and composing the soundscape.

 

He subsequently became a member of LOTOS, as Wordsmith on Trial of the Mariner at Hoxton Hall (2011), which was discussed in Machon’s Immersive Theatres (Palgrave 2013). Based on Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the production was an interactive event with a mix of acting, large-scale puppetry, clowning and music that responded to the destruction of our oceans and its effects on climate change.  Throughout the process, the community of Hoxton was invited to donate their recycling to the production design. LOTOS hosted a number of ‘making’ workshops that involved local residents, where I led a series of collaborative writing workshops with youth involved in the Hoxton Select program, which informed my writing of the final act of the play, set in ‘The Plastic Courtroom.’ These activities around the production deepened brought various members of the community into the process, while embedding a new or renewed consciousness around waste, recycling and sustainability. He also collaborated with LOTOS on Noah’s Ark(I’ve), which was presented as a work-in-progress for the Barbican Pit Lab Series (2012).

 

 

The newFangled Years (2004-12)

From 2004-12, JM was the founding artistic director of the fiscally sponsored group, newFangled theatReR, a theatre ensemble for which he produced, directed and wrote several new works in NYC. newFangled theatReR formed in 2004 as an ever-evolving ensemble theatre company dedicated to the production of affordable, audience-centric and provocative theatrical events. The work was focused on the development of an ensemble-based approach to the art of storytelling through a unique blend of heightened physicality and poetic language. In addition to creative roles, he assumed administrative responsibilities for the company including fundraising, marketing, budgeting and production management.

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In addition to his educational work in Higher Education, JM has several years experience working in TIE settings, as a freelance Teaching Artist in NYC public schools.

Vital Theatre Company & Brooklyn Theatre Arts HS (2007-2011)

He worked with Vital Theatre to form Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School, where he served as Program Coordinator. In this capacity, he was a liaison between school administration, faculty and members of the arts organization. He designed and taught theatre arts integration curriculum and programs that built skills in performance, design and technical theatre. He was on the forefront of leading Vital’s education team in developing and implementing curriculum that engaged students through theatre and project-based learning endeavours in core subjects such as English, Math, Science and History. Throughout the school’s inaugural four years, JM was instrumental in contributing to the innovative structures, curricula and models that helped to establish Brooklyn Theatre Arts.

 

 

Women’s Project (2008-2011)

JM was the Education Director for Off-Broadway’s Women’s Project’s arts education program, which provided theatre-making residencies devoted to integrating the work of female playwrights into school curriculum. In addition to designing and teaching the curriculum, he was responsible for hiring and training teaching artists and leading professional development workshops for public school teachers. In this capacity, he also spearheaded WP’s involvement in ‘Plays Against Violence,’ an extended day program that ran across ‘transfer’ schools in all five boroughs of NYC. Transfer schools provide alternative models of learning for students that are ‘at-risk,’ and have often experienced gaps in their learning, or have been removed from their local school. The ‘Plays Against Violence’ residencies involved WP Teaching Artists working with classroom teachers and students in devising, rehearsing and performing a short play to promote anti-violence, which was presented in a festival at the Julia Miles Theatre. JM designed the curriculum, led a series of training workshops for teachers and teaching artists, and curated the festival with great success for two years.

 

LCI, BAC, MNMP (2007-2011)

JM has also worked with Manhattan New Music Project’s EASE: Everyday Arts for Special Education; a federally funded program, where he trained special education teachers to use arts-centered curriculum with a focus on autistic populations. He has also been on roster as a Teaching Artist for the highly respected Lincoln Center Institute, which is at the forefront of the field of aesthetic education, and Brooklyn Arts Council, where his experience and training in puppetry performance helped to design a series of residencies in primary school settings.