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Godspell the musical marquis on front of a building

English Master’s Student Explores Clowns and Community in ‘Godspell’

Estudiante de maestría en inglés explora los payasos y la comunidad en 'Godspell'

A tornado damaged the community theater where Karsen Gromm planned to act in “Godspell Junior” when he was 12. Although the show was canceled, Gromm was “hooked on it” – también en español.

A tornado damaged the community theater where Karsen Gromm planned to act in “Godspell Junior” when he was 12. Although the show was canceled, Gromm was “hooked on it.” 

“Godspell” was a 1971 off-Broadway musical featuring parables from the Gospel of Matthew. In the half-century since its opening, “Godspell” and “Godspell Junior,” a youth adaption, has been performed in theaters all around the world by amateurs and professionals alike.

“I found the [1973] movie and watched that every week throughout middle school to the point that I’m almost 25 now and I have memorized the movie,” said Gromm.

Gromm came to the University of Northern Colorado’s English M.A. program with a bachelor’s degree in Traditional Animation and a minor in Fiction Writing from Columbia College, Chicago. He was attracted to the small department’s interdisciplinary approach. 

In his first semester at UNC, Gromm wrote a term paper about “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” in which he compared how each show emotionally impacted audiences. Further analysis of “Godspell” was the basis for his thesis titled “Not Thrones and Crowns, But Men: Clowning and Community as a Modern Reformation in Godspell (1971).”

Karsen Gromm
Karsen Gromm

“I wanted to do adaptation studies and look at visual elements of texts and how that effects the way you read the meaning. And I have done a lot of papers that are theology-adjacent or deal with our ideas of God in some way or another. ‘Godspell’ was at the intersection of all those things,” Gromm said.

Gromm explored two main ideas: the show’s original clown characters and community building.

“We were trying to figure out what the clown characters theologically say about who Jesus is, the philosophical idea and the effect the clown characters have on the show. ‘Godspell’ doesn’t have a traditional plot, but the thing that holds it all together is this idea of community building and writing the piece together as a community,” Gromm said.

On Dec. 6, 2022, Gromm garnered second place for “Send in the Clowns: How Godspell Interprets the Gospels” in UNC’s Three Minute Thesis competition, during which graduate students have three minutes to present their projects in easily understood language. 

“Doing three-minute thesis helped me find the meat: The clowns of ‘Godspell’ help us understand different images of divinity, see how religious expression changes over time, and how it can connect to contemporary audiences in a way the biblical text might not,” he said.

Gromm’s advisor was Lauren Brentnell, formerly an instructor in UNC’s Department of English and currently assistant director of the University Writing Center at Texas State University. He recalled Brentnell setting realistic expectations.

“I was always wishing I had done more, and they’d say, ‘You are on track; you have made good progress,’ so that was reassuring. Because a thesis is bigger and has different parts than a typical academic paper, they were good at clearly explaining the purpose of each part and how it looks in a humanities paper,” Gromm recalled.

Brentnell said Gromm started the process with a detailed full proposal. During their weekly meetings, he always came in with ideas. 

“Karsen has been a delight to work with. What I appreciated is he took something he may have thought was just a movie he watched multiple times and did research and turned it into a project like this,” Brentnell said.

Brentnell noted “Godspell” was uniquely written. 

“There are multiple people who wrote it and worked on it, so it changes over time, which is the heart of what Karsen is talking about. This research can help us understand collaborative works and how different adaptations change the meaning of things,” they said.

The entire process is something Gromm will take with him. 

“Being able to pull apart interconnected, complicated pieces of a thing the way that we had to do with this is a valuable skill going forward,” Gromm said, noting its relevance to anyone who has an interest in puzzling things out, whether it’s in the humanities or another field.

After graduating in May 2023, Gromm plans to pursue work at the intersection of art, writing and performance.

“I’m pretty open to what comes along,” he said. 

— written by Brenda Gillen 

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