Play by Rider associate dean performed in Africa
Upon arriving in Africa, Ivan Fuller knew he would have to confront his fear.
He had written a new play, Deceived by Silence, which tells the story of an American teacher who travels to Rwanda 15 years after the country was turned upside down by a genocidal mass slaughter. Mirroring her fictional journey, Fuller, who is the associate dean of Rider’s School of Fine and Performing Arts, flew to Africa this summer, where his play would be presented by Rwandan actors at the annual Ubumuntu Arts Festival in Kigali, Rwanda.
Ubumuntu, which means “being human,” began in 2015 and takes place each year to help commemorate the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, a social class that is estimated to have lost as many as 1 million people during the genocide. Fuller worried Rwandans would question the authenticity of an American-penned script.
The germ of the play was born about four years ago when a former student traveled to Rwanda to help genocide survivors. The stories fascinated Fuller, who, in addition to being a full-time administrator, is an actor, director, professor and playwright. He has written four previous plays — each grounded in historical fact and several set against the backdrop of a major conflict, such as World War II or the American Civil War.
For his new play, Fuller says he was excited by the dramatic story itself but was also motivated to educate Americans about the Rwandan Genocide. Despite its recent performance in Africa, the play was written primarily with an American audience in mind. Fuller spent a year conducting research before he even began writing. “I needed to feel like I understood the issues and the people so I could write it honestly from their point of view,” he says. To his relief, he says the African performers “were amazed an American understood their experiences.”
After dedicating most of his lifetime to studying theatre, Fuller says he instinctively knows what makes for a good play. “For me, a good play is one that challenges me to see the world or some aspect of it, in a way that I wasn’t aware of.” Still, the first time he ever embarked on writing a script, around 2006, he petitioned for professional help to learn the craft. The result, Eating into the Fabric, a two-act play inspired by the true story of Leningrad under siege by Nazis, won a Holland New Voices Award for Outstanding Play.
Fuller, who received his bachelor’s in theatre from Butler University and his master’s and doctorate from Bowling Green State University, believes his training as an actor and a director make him a better playwright. As an actor, he understands how to get inside the head of a character. As a director, he understands how to bring the world of a play to life. "A playwright has to do both of those things,” Fuller says.
Today when he writes, Fuller knows his characters so fully that he compares writing dialogue to taking dictation. “In my head, the characters are real three-dimensional people,” he says. “I put them in a room and see what happens.”
Deceived by Silence has gone through several revisions and workshops, benefitting from a writing grant through Rider as well as a performance at the University. Following that, Fuller completely rewrote the script after traveling to Rwanda for the first time in the summer of 2016 and experiencing firsthand the country, the people and the feeling of what it was like to be an American in Rwanda.
Several other of Fuller’s plays have benefited from travel overseas. He completed his first draft of Awake in Me, which is based on the life and writings of Soviet poet Olga Berggolts, while serving as playwright-in-residence for Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2009. The following year, he began writing In Every Note in St. Petersburg, Russia. The play was a semifinalist for both the Eugene O’Neill National Playwriting Conference and the Princess Grace Playwriting Fellowship competition.
Because of his administrative role, Fuller usually teaches only one class per semester, usually theatre history. He also directs students in plays performed at the University. Fuller notes that Rider students are uncommonly committed and passionate about not only theatre but the arts in general. His goal as their professor or director is to help them cultivate an understanding of the reasoning behind those feelings. “It’s not to be rich or to be famous,” he says, “but to use the arts as a powerful vehicle to change the world.”
Each year, he preaches the same message to the School of Fine and Performing Arts' incoming class of freshmen. “I truly believe that the arts are the only entity that can change the world,” Fuller says. “The arts remind people that, for all the divisiveness in the world, we share a common humanity, that we’re the same, that we have universal thoughts and feelings.”
Presented with such a high-minded charge, how do students react?
“They explode in applause,” says Fuller, who is hoping for a similar reaction when Deceived by Silence returns from Africa for U.S. performances, potentially including at Rider. Production plans are currently in development.