In simulations, drama professor is always on stage

Scott Magelssen has had more lives than an accident-prone cat. He has been a waiter in a logging camp. An anthrax victim. A Mexican migrant trying to cross into the U.S. An observer during an attack on an Iraqi village. He has experienced all these and more through interactive simulations, which he shares in his book Simming, which was published in June.

Magelssen traces his interest in simulations to his teenage years in Wisconsin, where he worked as a lumberjack waiter at Historyland, a tourist venue that featured a simulated 19th century Wisconsin logging camp and Indian encampment. He wrote a paper about Historyland as a graduate student in drama, followed by a Ph.D. dissertation on other tourist sites that use simulations to bring the past to life. In his book, he focuses on how simulations can promote social change.

To research the book, Magelssen, associate professor of drama, participated in or observed more than a dozen simulations. Some serve a training role, such as an Iraqi province simulation staged north of Death Valley to prepare U.S. soldiers headed for the Middle East. Others cater to tourists. At family-friendly Colonial Williamsburg, visitors observe actors depicting life in colonial America. A living history museum in Indiana offers a more immersive—and emotional—simulation in which participants take on the role of slaves escaping to freedom through the Underground Railroad.

The most intense simulation Magelssen has personally experienced? That would be a grueling six-hour simulation of an illegal nighttime border crossing into the U.S. Led by veteran migrants in Mexico, the simulation involves running from (simulated) U.S. Border Patrol police, down steep hills into the muck of the riverbeds, losing shoes and dodging prickly cacti. It is designed for Mexican tourists, both to generate revenue and to discourage actual border crossings.

Magelssen, who teaches theater history and performance studies at the UW, acknowledges that simulations, particularly those that place privileged visitors in the role of society’s downtrodden, tread into sensitive territory. “What does it mean when the majority of people doing the Underground Railroad simulation are white, or when I play a Mexican migrant?” he says. “On the one hand, it’s arrogant to assume that we can step into the shoes of someone who has suffered in the past. On the other, what kind of people are we if we only stick to bodily experiencing our own localized history, our own ethnic and cultural identity? Are we better citizens of the world if we are invited to step into each others’ experiences?”

Magelssen, who was photographed above in the Burke Museum Café because it evokes an early 18th century French room, with its waxed wood paneling and 18th century oil paintings, believes there’s a lot to gain from walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. “That bodily difference complicates and adds nuance to one’s experience of history,” says the co-editor of “One goal of my book is to talk about the difficult issues that arise. By taking those questions head on, we can have a deeper and richer experience.”