Allie Wenner: Kyle Berlin has a lot to be excited about right now — for one thing, he just finished his senior year at Princeton and was named valedictorian of the Class of 2018. He’ll be going to Maine this summer to take part in an artistic residency and perform a play he wrote that explores the many questions that relate to the concept of “home” — such as who belongs in a home, what is a home, and what we want a home to be? I’m Allie Wenner, a writer for the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and I talked to Kyle last month about his inspiration for the play and how his travels around the world have shaped the person that he is today.
I’m here today with Kyle Berlin, he is a Spanish and Portuguese languages and cultures major, and he’s here in the studio on one of his final days at Princeton. He’s also valedictorian of the graduating Class of 2018, and he’ll be speaking at this year’s commencement ceremony, which is pretty cool. So, welcome, Kyle. And thank you for being here today.
Kyle Berlin: Thanks so much for having me.
AW: So I’ve really got to know, you know, what’s been the reaction to the valedictorian news? What do your friends and family think about all this?
KB: Including myself, the sort of general response has been surprise, on many different levels, for many different reasons. But of course, the people who care about me are excited, and other people that I know less well I think have expressed a certain degree of excitement because they don’t know what I’m going to say. And the secret is, I don’t know what I’m going to say either. So it’s been an interesting experience of micro-celebrity on campus, which makes me realize I don’t actually want to be famous in the larger world.
AW: And speaking of family and people that care about you, I wanted to ask you about your hometown of Arroyo Grande, California. Am I pronouncing that correctly?
AW: Great. So to my knowledge, you’re still somewhat involved with that community. But before we get into that, I wanted to ask, could you tell me a little bit about what it’s like in Arroyo Grande? What’s that community like?
KB: Yeah. So when people ask where I’m from, I say Arroyo Grande, California, it’s about halfway between LA and San Francisco, on the coast. So we very proudly call ourselves the Central Coast. And it’s a smallish community, about 15, 16,000 people, right on the coast, and there’s a lot of agriculture, semi-rural. I think the biggest city that people know is Santa Barbara, which is about an hour and a half to the south. And so it’s just the sort of informal, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, but the informal motto of the town is “nice town, normal people,” which kind of gives you a sense of the small-town vibes of the place.
AW: Yeah. I’m glad you brought up nice town, normal people, because I know that is the title of a project you’ve been working on at Princeton. So could you tell me a little bit about what it is, and how it relates to Arroyo Grande? Aside from being the motto of the town.
KB: So there’s this hometown coffee shop in the old Arroyo Grande village. So there’s like a 1950s-style village in the middle of the town, with old-style shops, and there are roosters that roam around, and there’s a swinging bridge, and it’s just kind of this idyllic little old timey village, and one of the places there is a coffee shop that sells these sort of memorabilia that says, “Nice town, normal people, 93420,” which is the ZIP code, Arroyo Grande, California. And that sort of idea of Arroyo Grande being a nice town, with normal people, as opposed to the craziness of LA, or San Francisco, or the meanness of the big city, I think that’s a very strong part of the Arroyo Grande identity. But it’s also extremely complicated. So last year, after the 2016 election, when there seemed to be so much division in the country, I got to talking with some of my friends from home, and thinking about well, what’s actually going on now, in this country? What’s beneath these divisions? And it seemed to me that one of the central questions was the conflicting definitions of home, and who belongs, and who doesn’t, and what does it look like, and for whom. And so, we thought well, maybe the best way to investigate this is to go home ourselves, and just talk to people, and talk to them about home, and what home means to them. So then, last summer, I spent the summer with a Davis Project for Peace grant, that sort of sponsored the work, interviewing people, and then turning all of those interviews ± we interviewed almost 100 people in my hometown — and turning all those interviews into a documentary play, with music and a whole production.
AW: So in one summer, you did 100 interviews, and you wrote the script, and you did all the set and the costumes?
KB: Yes, it was a collaborative effort.
KB: Not just me. We had an amazing team of people, all from my town, who really got behind the project and helped out in so many ways.
AW: And going back to the interviews that you did in the beginning of the process — were there certain kinds of things that you found that people wanted to talk about when you were talking to them, or what kinds of things came up in conversation with Arroyo Grandeans?
KB: It’s a good question. I don’t know, I don’t know what we call ourselves, Arroyo Grande, yeah, that could be, that could work, Arroyo Grandean sounds good. That’s a good question. I think one of the things, after doing a number of interviews, one of the recurring themes that we started to notice was that people would, people had actually remarkably similar definitions of what home was, in a sort of abstract sense. A home is a place you feel comfortable. Home is a place you feel safe, where you’re surrounded by people that you love, things like this. And that was pretty broadly true across backgrounds, and identities, and age groups, and everything. But where it differed was that when you started talking to people, really, most people just wanted to share their story, and their particular perspective. And so we were worried going into it that people wouldn’t want to talk, but in fact the opposite was true. And it sort of turned, sometimes, into — it felt like a session for people to air their grievances about the town, or about their lives, and it just made me realize that people just want to be heard. And I’m not sure that there’s a lot of space for that right now. I think our listening skills as a society are pretty down, for a number of reasons. So that was something that I just noticed, is that people would sort of have the similar thing, but then also have their particular experience that they just really wanted to tell to someone, and air that.
AW: As you said, home is kind of the central theme, or the question of home. But is there a way — can you give us an abridged version of sort of the plot, and the storyline, in Nice Town, Normal People?
KB: Yeah. So the theater company that was sort of started with this Davis Project for Peace grant, and that I co-founded with my friend and collaborator from home, and actually there are three of us. So we all went to high school together, Arroyo Grande, big public high school. We all went to high school, and now we all went in separate directions, and then we came back and decided to start this theater company with this Davis Project for Peace grant. And that theater company is called Rhizome Theater Company. So, in terms of the show, what we did is we took all of the interviews, we transcribed them all, and did this huge document. And then, we located central themes that we found in many interviews. And then we sorted quotes from each transcript into those theme sections. And then we decided that we would take those theme sections and try to make them into a sort of semi-narrative conversation. So that through the show, it’s structured in three acts. The first act is, we call “Where We Are.” So people talking about Arroyo Grande now, and how they feel about the place now. The second act is, “Where We Were,” so talking about history, and the complex history of discrimination, but also of support, and community in Arroyo Grande. And then the third act, naturally, is “Where Are We Going,” and people talking about their fears and their hopes for the future. And within those acts, we have many different little scenes, wherein we’re trying to stage conversations between people who didn’t actually talk to each other. If someone in one interview, for example, said something about their concerns about overdevelopment in Arroyo Grande, and someone in a different interview also said that, then maybe we’d put those quotes together and sort of stage this conversation between them.
AW: And how many actors are in this play? How big of a show is this?
KB: So, it’s just me, and my collaborator, the cofounder of the theater company. We believe very firmly in the, I don’t want to say very firmly, but we believed in the sort of ethnographer as performer. Like, as in, meaning that we did the interviews, and we wanted to also be the ones to perform them. Because we felt that we were there for them, and so we had a sort of sense of what the people were saying, and their body language and everything. By no means are we trying to do a naturalistic impression of everybody. It becomes more like a mosaic of voices. Sort of almost like a Greek chorus of different people talking. But then there’s also, I should mention, very important, on the piano is our third collaborator, Makulumy Alexander-Hills, who wrote new music and performs it, and underscores the whole show. So he’s not acting, but he is certainly a key component of the show performance.
AW: Very cool. And if I remember correctly, you performed, or Rhizome Theater Company performed Nice Town, Normal People in Princeton a few months ago, right?
AW: What was that experience like?
KB: Well, that was crazy. Because you know, we made this show in Arroyo Grande, about Arroyo Grande, for Arroyo Grande, and we never thought that it would have a life after that. But what we found was the response to the show in Arroyo Grande was extremely strong, more than we anticipated. And people coming up afterwards and saying, this could be about any small town in America right now. Because there’s these recurring themes, and of course every place is distinctive. But the opportunity arose to perform it at Princeton, because of this migrations conference that was happening throughout the spring semester, and actually the owner of Labyrinth Books, Dorothea, suggested that I do this show as part of that conference. And so that, we ended up doing that, and Dean of the College Jill Dolan, was there, and I admire her greatly, and she led a talkback, and she’s obviously a theater scholar herself. So it turned into this amazing opportunity. And it was really interesting to see how people responded to the show outside of the context in which it was made. You know, everyone who saw the show in Arroyo Grande knew Arroyo Grande, because they’re from there. So what was it like for people in Princeton to consider the show as something else, as an artifact, or as speaking to their own experience, or not?
AW: And do you feel that people in Princeton could identify with the themes? I mean, what was the reaction, at least that you heard from the audience, after the show?
KB: Yeah, it was very gratifying to see that, in fact, the show could survive, I think, the transfer. We lost some of the jokes in translation. Some of, like, the Briscoe Underpass, L-O-L, which is one of our hugest laugh lines in Arroyo Grande, but no one understands it —
AW: Crickets. Crickets in New Jersey?
KB: Yeah. Exactly. And there’s no reason why they should understand it. But people talking about how it really did make them think about similarities to Princeton, and also we had people visiting not from Princeton, who also said that it spoke to how they feel about their town. So much so that a Princeton alum actually invited us to come to her town, her small town in Maine this summer, which is now, we’re going to do an artistic residency there for a couple weeks, in East Blue Hill, Maine, which was a product of this Princeton performance. So we’re going to be there for a couple of weeks, living with different people in the town, it’s an about 2,000 person town. So, even smaller than Arroyo Grande. And we’ll be performing our show a couple times for the town, and hopefully, fostering a sort of community dialogue about how our show speaks to their town, or not. And so we’re doing a little bit of research about the town by talking to people, and also in advance. But then, on top of that, we’ll be doing workshops for people who are interested in crafting a draft of their own show about this town in Maine. So, from the beginning, from interviewing straight through to compiling, and then producing. And it’ll be a sort of whirlwind of making their own show, hopefully.
AW: Awesome. How long are you going to be up there?
KB: At least two weeks. That’s the plan for now, it might be longer. We don’t know what doors will open, or where we may go next in the area.
AW: And speaking of travel, I wanted to ask you, I know you’ve done a lot of traveling during your time at Princeton.
AW: Shortlist here: you did a bridge year in Peru, you did a global seminar in Africa, you studied abroad in Cuba, just to name a few. You know, I’m wondering how have your travels influenced the work that you’ve done at Princeton, and the work that you want to do after Princeton?
KB: That’s a great question. Sometimes I give campus tours, and my line is, one of my favorite things about Princeton is all the chances there are to get out of Princeton, sponsored by Princeton. And I think that from the get-go, doing the bridge year in Peru, just really gave me a perspective on my time here that has really served me as a student, and — but also just as a human here, trying to — I think it, you know, we often hear how easy it is to get sort of wrapped up in the place that we are, I think having had these international experiences, I was able to gain a certain irony, or a certain sense of this is not the endgame. This is not everything. And of course, what happens here is important, but there’s a great big world out there. And it’s important for me, my travels are important for me to not only keep that perspective, but also to think about how my learning here can be applied in the larger context. Or thinking about the world beyond Princeton, New Jersey as important as the books, or more important than the books that I’m reading here. And that learning can happen, outside of the classroom, or the library. And then my favorite memories and experiences, and the best relationships that I’ve formed, have been because of this time and space that I was afforded in different places.
AW: Now you’re about to graduate, and perhaps reflecting back on your time here at Princeton, and in other places besides Princeton, but I’m wondering, you know, if you could go back in time to your freshman-year self, what would you tell yourself? You know, and what you know now.
KB: Ooh. Great question. You know, partly because of my time in Peru, I was devoted, I told myself at the beginning of my time here that I would never like, study or do something that would cut off my opportunity to just, to have a meaningful conversation with someone, or to hang out with someone. And I think I tried to stick to that, but if I could do it again, I think I would tell myself, even more, I would say do less, and I would say hang out more. Not because of a sort of simple, “Oh, I wish that I had more pleasure,” whatnot, but because I think that hanging out is one of the best ways to learn about yourself, but also about other people, and about the world.
I think that some of the things that I’m going to remember emotionally, affectively, but also intellectually, come from conversations that I’ve had with people here. And you know, also in the places that I’ve traveled. And so, I think I would really tell myself. And I tried to tell, for example, incoming first-year students who I mentor, that you know, yes you should work hard, but please don’t work too hard. You have the rest of your life to work hard, and our society will make you work hard. We’re not bad at that.
AW: And to wrap it up here, Kyle, I mean what can we expect from Kyle Berlin going forward? You’ve got your plans up in Maine for a couple weeks. Do you have any other plans in the near future for post-Princeton?
KB: Yeah. So, the Maine thing, then I’m going to Peru to spend a little time with the family that I lived with when I was there on my bridge year, visit them. And then, I’m hoping to work on a book that is — that I don’t necessarily have a concrete idea for yet, but if any listeners have any ideas, or want to sponsor me to write a book, I will write a book. But that’s the hope, to sort of pursue an artistic project for at least a year. And I think it’ll probably be a combination of the kind of work that I’ve done with Nice Town, Normal People, but maybe putting it on the page as well as on the stage.
AW: Great. Well, definitely be in touch with the Princeton Alumni Weekly. You know we love to promote alumni books.
KB: OK, good.
AW: And I look forward to seeing what comes up with that, and in the short-term, hearing your commencement address. We’ll see how prepared it is. And thank you so much for your time this morning, Kyle. I really appreciate you coming in to meet with us.
KB: Thanks so much for having me.
KB: It’s been fun.
AW: Great to meet you.
This interview was recorded at Princeton’s Broadcast Studio, with help from Daniel Kearns, and the music was licensed from FristCom.com. And if you’ve enjoyed this podcast, we invite you to subscribe to Princeton Alumni Weekly podcasts in iTunes. We’ll be publishing more interviews all year long.