Alum spotlight: Joe Carlson (BFA ’08, MFA ’11)

man sitting with intense gaze

Joe Carlson 2008 BFA in Performance, 2011 MFA in Pedagogy with an emphasis in Acting/Directing  (specializing in application of Ritual Poetic Drama within the African Continuum)

The thing that Joe is most proud of about his time at VCU was that “Tony Santiago and I led the creation of the Shafer Alliance Laboratory Theatre, which is still going strong after 14 years. They staged a play a week, all designed and performed by students. “

two men hugging in costume
Tony and Joe at the opening of Henry IV at Agecroft Hall, 2008.
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Joe in Dangerous Liaisons at VCU

Joe says, “I look around and see a stage.” This philosophy resulted in productions like Albee’s Zoo Story in Monroe Park and As You Like It in Northside Richmond’s Battery Park. “I was walking Dr. T’s dog (Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, PhD, a current professor of graduate acting and directing) and thought, ‘It would be cool to produce Shakespeare out here.’ ” He got a grant and cast the production with color-conscious casting featuring students and some local actors. “I wanted the kids to see themselves represented.” Joe’s production of As You Like It played to more than five hundred people over four shows. You can read a Style review here.

During his time at VCU, Joe became an active supporter and member of The Conciliation Project (TCP), a social justice theatre company that co-founder and artistic director Dr. T brought to Richmond when she started teaching at VCU. When Joe saw the TCP production of Uncle Tom: Deconstructed, “I was blown away. I realized theatre can be a catalyst for personal and collective revelation and potential transformation.” This original poetic drama examines racial stereotypes through the use of blackface minstrelsy and sparked meaningful conversation with the audience. Joe returned to VCU for his MFA using Dr. T’s methodology of Ritual Poetic Drama, and he continues to work with TCP, most recently last Fall, when he taught a class at Carnegie Mellon. Joe was also a facilitator for a workshop that TCP conducted for current VCU Theatre faculty and staff last semester.

an image from The P.I.C.: the Prison Industrial Project, a TCP project Joe acted in 2013.

The other woman who affected Joe at VCU was Janet Rodgers (professor emeritus, voice and speech), who took him to Serbia for summer work with the DAH Theatre, another theatre company focused on social issues and action.  The DAH produces politically driven, very movement/voice based work. Joe and Janet then traveled to the Sibiu International Theatre Festival in Romania to see work in the performing arts from all over Europe.

Right after grad school he was cast in Spielberg’s Lincoln, which was shot in Richmond, “My one line as a congressman was ‘Nay.’ ” Then he joined the acting company of Synetic Theatre in Arlington, later becoming the educational program manager for three years. He’s worked in theaters all over DC and the country, and even on a docudrama in New Zealand. 

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A Synetic teen company production of The Jungle Book, adapted and directed by Joe in the 2012-13 season.
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Joe as Macbeth in Voodoo Macbeth at American Century Theater in 2013.

Joe received one of VCU’s 10 under 10 awards in 2018, a program which acknowledges achievements by alumni who have earned their degree within the previous ten years. His acting accolades plus establishing himself as an educator and activist earned him the award.

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Joe was nominated for the Robert Prosky Award for Outstanding Actor in a Leading Role for his work in Olney Theatre Company’s production of Colossal in 2015. The production received a total of eight Helen Hayes Awards nominations

Joe was considering moving West, when he met his future wife Daven Ralston, who was acting in the Hub Theatre in Tysons Corner. “Instead I’m here and fell in love.” She worked at Old Town Books in Alexandria, VA and always wanted her own space. In 2019, they opened Charm City Books in Baltimore, an independent book shop and performance space. “We took our love of literature and bringing community together around arts and literature.” They chose to put down roots in Baltimore since Daven has family there.

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Joe and Daven at their wedding

Of course, COVID soon changed their plans to host events, but they prevailed. “We were very lucky that we were able to sell books (with free delivery and shipping for $5). We also started creating digital content, using our skills as artists with virtual story times.” You can watch episodes on their YouTube channel. Daven hosts with the help of a Whiskers the cat, a puppet voiced by Joe.

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Joe and Daven in front of the Charm City Books storefront, 2019

Joe continues to act. His next big project is Historical Film a comedy set in the world of Civil War reenactors written and directed by Will Bryan. Joe plays an eccentric history professor creating a revisionist film about the death of John Wilkes Booth. An international student hoping to save his student visa volunteers for the project.

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Joe and fellow actor Zana Gankhuyag, from the Historical Film website

Compiled by Liz Hopper (Emeritus Faculty) and Jerry Williams (BFA ’71) for the January 2021 Theatre Alumni Newsletter