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Can ‘Change the Game’ Be a Game-Changer?

Updated: Jan 12

The production of “Change the Game” at Chance Theater in summer 2023 was the second of two workshops, the first held at Maverick Theater. Both stagings led to further changes, with Bruschke spending August and September 2023 changing two songs and smoothing over unwieldy dialogue. Photos by Timothy Bennett and courtesy of Jon Bruschke

 

Could the activities of a college debate team, the music of a garage rock band, and the theories espoused in a late ’60s book by a Brazilian educator possibly have anything in common?


Before you answer that, you’ll have to consider the background, career and ideals of Jon Bruschke, who last year combined his passion for coaching students in the art of debating with his lifelong love of classic and punk rock and his interest in the writings of Paulo Friere.


The result was the original musical “Change the Game,” with a book by Bruschke and music and lyrics by Bruschke, Andrew Howat and Tyrone Stokes (who performs under the name "Lyrically Twisted").


The show had two workshop productions in summer 2022. Now it’s headed for two performances in Laguna Beach in the first week of the new year.


Of particular interest to anyone who sees the play is that its setting is Orange County. For years, Bruschke has taught debate at Cal State University, Fullerton, so he made the main characters of “Change the Game” a group of college students bent on preserving the ethnic and cultural identity of a low-income neighborhood which they highly prize – and which they have seen slip away through gentrification.


In an interview with Culture OC, Bruschke said he’s not a playwright by trade and that this is his only work for the stage.


These are photos from the workshop production of "Change the Game" at Chance Theater. Jon Bruschke’s socially oriented rock musical came to him in a dream during the pandemic. Since then, he has been revising and reworking the show to sharpen and improve it. Photos by Timothy Bennett and courtesy of Jon Bruschke

 

Bruschke said that in May 2020, two months into the pandemic, he “literally woke up from a dream about debate and rock music, and the ‘hook’ I eventually settled on was an answer” to a question posed to him by one of his debate students.


That question is “What would happen if this incredibly diverse, incredibly smart group of college students and their professor” tried to put into action their knowledge of the theories posed by Friere in his book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”? What if they tried to apply those theories to their lives and tried to effect significant, substantive changes to the political power structure of Orange County?


Bruschke said the day after his revelatory dream, he encapsulated the story’s ideas in a three-page summary he sent to Howat. After a year and a half of table reads with friends and a considerable amount of writing, the first working script emerged.


“To try it out with more seasoned performers” to tighten the script and sharpen its concepts, “we then had table readings with theater students at Troy High School and through the theater program at Hope International University, which included both student and adult performers.”


The work in progress was first titled “Change the Game” in July 2022. A workshop production in August at Maverick Theater led to further script revisions and a workshop staging at Chance Theater this past summer. Still unsatisfied with the project, Bruschke and company spent August and September changing two of the show’s songs and smoothing over unwieldy dialogue.


The character who performs what Bruschke calls “a lyrically twisted” hip-hop number “was, in early versions of the script, too much of a Black male stereotype. We solved that by splitting the role into two characters, one of whom is pure comic relief and the other who struggles to find their voice.”


In the Chance production, that role was embodied by show co-creator Howat, but Bruschke believes in incorporating his cast members’ identities and talents into the show.


“A pure joy of the show is that I’m able to constantly amend the script to fit the unique strengths of each cast member,” he said – so now, that same role is being played by JoJo Fares, a Chinese person Bruschke said was “adopted and brought to Orange County at the age of 1 by her adoptive parents, a white cop dad and an Ashkenazi mom.”


Overall, though, since that first workshop at Maverick Theater, the show’s plot and the total number of songs are essentially unchanged – although, as Bruschke notes, “the arrangements have been changed to better convey key plot points.”


Orange County, Bruschke said, “was once a solid red county that’s now purple and has the very best and very worst of current politics, and all of this going on all at once.” It “still has the reputation of being a homogenous, mostly rich, Duloc-like place that houses Disneyland and has a growing Latinx population. To me, it’s so much more than that – it’s all cultures coming together to mix with each other.”


And so his rock musical “tackles this question: If you were an emerging adult growing up in a place like this and wanted to try to make the world a better place, what would you do? Would you focus your efforts around the Black vote or Latino vote, or would you try to find creative ways to explore the intersections and relationships that are already forming among the next generation and inside of public education?”


As for the show’s music, Bruschke said “the closest analog would be something like” the classic punk rock of “Hedwig and The Angry Inch” and the music of the group True to the Universe, a band the show’s co-creator Howat belongs to.


“There are power ballads with the female leads, one techno-rock ensemble song that’s heavy on electronic keyboards, and a real rocker that has a hip-hop bridge.”


Bruschke is both producer and director of the Laguna production. His wife, Freddi-Jo, is costume designer and prop master, and their daughter Andromeda is the show’s choreographer. Bruschke and Howat are the sound designers, and Thomas Keenan’s original set designs for the Chance Theater have been overhauled by Blythe Ryther to fit the smaller confines of the Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center.


Why heed this show and take it seriously? Bruschke said in a nutshell, theater audiences everywhere “have seen musicals about what it’s like to be in a distinct and tight-knit immigrant community.


“This show takes the next step and asks, ‘What happens when those immigrant communities get established, and the second generation gets together with people from completely ethnic enclaves from the county? What happens when the next generation of leaders meet each other in college and try to work together to improve the way politics happen?’ I see this in my classroom every day, and it fills me with awe, inspiration and hope.”


While an undergrad at CSUF in the late ’80s, Bruschke tried debating. He went on to earn M.A. and Ph.D. degrees, and taught at Baylor University before being hired onto the CSUF faculty in 1997. He’s been a debate coach since 1989, the most recent 13 years at CSUF, where he’s a faculty member and department chair.


While he has written “more than 80 academic papers, articles and books, this is my first foray into anything theatrical – but it’s the most important story about my life I have to tell.”


That story is “how a professor can work with students to transform lives. I feel like I’ve been living this piece of theater my entire adult life, and I have 30 years of garage-band originals to draw from.”


The veteran teacher and novice playwright said he “didn’t set out to write musical theater. I’ve just lived my life, and the major lessons I’ve lived, the people and ideas I’ve encountered, and the things I’m truly passionate about just really came together in this format. And I’m having a blast doing it.”


‘Change the Game’

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 5-6

Where: Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center, 235 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach

Admission: $30 general, $50 VIP

Contact: 949-652-2787, lbculturalartscenter.org


 

The Philosophy Behind a New Rock Musical

Jon Bruschke sees his new rock ‘n’ roll musical “Change the Game” as a way of communicating ideas espoused by Brazilian educator Paolo Friere in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” The 1968 book is widely regarded as one of the foundational texts of critical pedagogy, and proposes a pedagogy with a new relationship between teacher, student and society.


Brushke notes that even in democracies, what he calls “the very cynical game of current electoral politics” can lead even well-meaning candidates down a dark road.


“If you play politics only to win an election,” he said, “just to win, you end up having to compromise – and maybe sell out. Smear campaigns work, false claims flourish, and both can effectively get votes.


“But if you really want to change the world for the better, you have to do more than that. You need to win an election by appealing to the best parts of ideas and also then stay true to your mission once elected, even if it costs you money, or votes, or both.”


He said Friere’s answer to these quagmires “is that the ideas have to come from the bottom up, and that when you set out to change institutions to better address the needs of the poor and disenfranchised, you have to put them in leadership positions.”


Bruschke said tension arises in his play because “out of habit, everyone – students included – advance the professor as the candidate because he wants to help others. Only the ‘grandma’ character realizes that the female lead, who is the professor's top student, is the one who needs to lead the cause for it to be effective.”


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