When most people think of guerillas, they likely think of rebel fighters or great apes, not student theatricals. But for the Broccoli Project, a student theater group at UT Austin, guerilla means something else entirely: an approach to reimagining theater.
Back in 1991, the Broccoli Project was founded under the umbrella of Plan II Honors as an outlet for the major’s theater enthusiasts to bring their ideas to life. Calling itself “a guerrilla avant-garde theater troupe,” the project hosted script readings and put on shows varying from classic plays to student-written pieces for almost 30 years.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit campus, and the activities of the club began to dwindle until two new characters emerged to bring it back to life.
Grant Gilker, a junior Plan II and directing and playwriting student, joined the Broccoli Project as a freshman at the height of the pandemic. In his first semester, the club was largely inactive and Gilker’s involvement was minimal, but fellow project members managed to keep the project’s website and bank accounts alive. Then they turned the keys over to Gilker.
“I remember around Christmas of my freshman year, one of the seniors wrote the password to the club’s bank account on my arm in the back of an event space,” Gilker says. “From there, I started talking the club up, trying to get people on an email list on my notes app.”
Soon after, Gilker met Riley Church, a senior in UT’s radio-television-film and Plan II departments. The two hit it off instantly and soon paired up to revive the project.
One of the most significant changes Gilker and Church made was opening the project to students of any major, rather than limiting it to Plan II students. With this change, they were able to gather a sizable troupe, and the project came back strong in the spring of 2021 with the reading of student-written plays. The following semester the club produced the student-written stage show, “By The Numbers.”
The Broccoli Project has made its comeback with their “guerrilla avant-garde” sensibility, including their preference for non-hierarchical and low-commitment organizing. They also bring — and promote — unique plays and ideas.
“The Broccoli Project is proof of student initiative,” says Gilker. “We have students being silly, being fun together, and doing it with a lot of passion and inclusion with an eye towards student stories.”
From the moment they join the project, members — fondly referred to as “broccs” — are introduced to the unconventional ways of the troupe. The project does not require dues and doesn’t record attendance, so even popping in for one meeting can make you part of the brocc family. And as a Broccoli Project troupe member, students are encouraged to participate in a number of project traditions, including a pre-show scream, a secretive post-show ritual, and a pitch meeting during which anyone can put forward their ideas. Other traditions — including the story behind the name of the club — are secret and only told to members.
Aside from the shows and unique traditions, the Broccoli Project exists to form a smaller, tight-knit community in the midst of the larger university. Both Church and Gilker say they have found a family in the troupe.
“For every problem, we believe there is an answer out there and neither one of us has it yet. There’s no ownership over it and we can figure it out together,” Gilker says. “We have a lot of sayings and one of them is, ‘There’s a right answer and it’s somewhere between you and me.’”
The Broccoli Project troupe consists primarily of COLA students, though its ranks are increasingly interdisciplinary and members say they have found that their liberal arts education has prepared them for the interactions they have within the club.
“I have had professors from so many different fields in COLA support both me and the broccs,” Church said. “The interdisciplinary aspect of my classes has greatly improved my ability to think on my feet, interact with people from all backgrounds, and consider all perspectives when making art.”
This semester, an interdisciplinary group of students from fields including philosophy, neuroscience, biology, linguistics, creative writing, and history came together to produce the Broccoli Project’s most recent show, “IRIDOLOGY,” about the effects the pseudoscience of iridology has on a young man dealing with chronic illness and pain.
“We watch the main characters go through the process of attempting to get a diagnosis, and vignettes written by other disabled and chronically ill students (and supporters) are interspliced with the central story, showing multiple perspectives of being young and ill,” Church said.
Selected during their initial pitch meeting, the production of “IRIDOLOGY” was a group effort. As they do for all their plays, project members met and brainstormed to begin writing the script for the play. Then, actors were brought in and the play began to take shape as members contributed to the production process in any way they could.
“We have students who love writing and those who would rather implode than have their words spoken aloud on stage — and we find spaces for everyone,” says Church. “We’re completely homemade, with our lovely and talented designers able to repurpose almost anything to fit a script need.”
“The collaboration is the most important part that sets Broccoli apart. There isn’t another group that would let you not only write whatever you want but also figure out how to produce it,” Church continues. “Because our shows are so collaborative, everyone can bring in something super different to make our shows relatable to a wider audience which compounds the coolness of theater.”
In the past, the club has put on several productions that fit its guerrilla avant-garde sensibility. In spring of 2023, the club performed “Squirrel God,” a play about sentient squirrels. For “By the Numbers,” each member wrote their own mini scene as part of a larger choose-your-own-adventure style project with 33 alternative endings.
For each production, no matter the subject matter, all the project’s hard work, scriptwriting, collaboration, and practices ultimately culminate into a theatrical show — one its audience won’t soon forget. According to Church, Broccoli Project shows have been described as insane, layered, unnerving, and a cathartic outlet.
“At a Broccoli Project play, you’ll probably see mistakes on stage. You’ll also probably see some of the best, weirdest stuff,” Gilker says. “The wildest idea is always considered with the same value as the typical idea. That’s something that I think we all hold dear.”