ARCHIVE - TEACHING ‘THEATRE FOR GOOD’ (4-2-15)

Nosu 2

One of the most exciting recent developments in my teaching career has been the introduction of a new class that we’ve unofficially titled “Theatre for Good.” Exploring the worlds of applied theatre and drama, artistic social entrepreneurship, community development, Augusto Boal and even grant writing, we begin with a somewhat controversial statement: “Students in our program should not only ask not ‘what their degree can do for them’ but also ‘what their degree can do for their world.’ Freely appropriated from John F. Kennedy’s charge to the nation at his 1961 inauguration, the sentiment is similar in the call to think beyond the boundaries of ‘self’ to the larger challenges in our communities, our nation and our world.

Ultimately the development of this class has grown out of a strong distaste for the commercial slant that much of our culture and profession seems to have adopted. It is certainly not a new trend. As a young undergraduate student in Los Angeles, I can still distinctly remember snippets of breathy conversations from other 18-year-olds. “Did you hear? Josh’s agent and just booked him for a national commercial?” “No way! Oh, I can’t wait to book my first national!” The feeling one had as a student of theatre close to the epicenter of the entertainment industry complex was that the real goal in life was finding a good commercial agent.

Certainly the world of theatre and acting can and should open us to worlds unimagined. Passing on hidden treasures in a favorite play to a student who is new to the entire theatrical process is one of the great joys of this profession. Theatre can invite deep and rich cultural discussions, but it can also easily lead to a very insular and narcissistic world of “ME, ME, ME getting the part.”

In addition to providing a counterpoint to the self-absorbing aspects that theatre programs can succumb to, this class has also helped to counter another trend, that of the “unprofitable” nature of theatre itself in the world of shrinking educational funding. These days, the humanities are facing unprecedented challenges to “define their purpose” in this newest age of dollars and cents. If we can’t readily see how theatre and dance majors will contribute to our national or state GDP, then we may cut the programs entirely.

A class on “Theater for Good” class offers students (and administrators) powerful tools and specific examples of communities that have been radically bettered through the art (theatre, dance, music, etc.). The growing number of university theatre programs offering classes and even degree programs aligned with this “Good” philosophy – Applied Theatre, Theatre in Community, Theatre for Social Engagement – indicates that we are in middle of a rising swell for these exciting “Theatre Good” developments.

Here then are a few ideas for introducing a class on “Theatre for Good” into your curriculum:

1. MAKE IT PERSONAL

Showing students that artists in the theatre can be deeply concerned for the state of our world and communities – potential issues might include homelessness, bullying, racial injustice, the rise of religious extremism – is an extremely valuable lesson. What we can offer is not merely entertainment, though goodness knows, that too is essential for human flourishing. But by claiming to offer “tangible social change” the class takes on a deep sense of mission. We are looking to build the future well. My syllabus always starts with these thoughts:

I believe that theatre is not only a source of entertainment and joy for human flourishing, but can also be used as a tool for transformation. Students should be asking “not only what their degree can do for them” but also “what their degree can do for their community.” As the late director, writer, teacher and politician, Augusto Boal states: “Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.”

Thus, this seminar on Applied Theatre. I hope that through this class we can think more realistically about our individual roles in our specific communities, in our nation, in our world. Of course, I’m making an assumption here that we implicitly should “ask not what your degree can do for you” but rather “ask what your degree can do for your community.” Or, even better: “Ask not what your world can do for you – ask what you can do for your world.” This is an assumption you may not share with me. Perhaps you really only want to get a degree in Theatre (with an emphasis in TYA) in order to get filthy rich as you climb the ladder of monetary success and People-magazine-like fame, stepping on whoever gets in your way and in the process exploiting innocent mothers and children in developing areas of the world. If so, let me kindly direct you towards Interstate 405 and the City of Los Angeles. We’ll still be here when you return.

A bit of humor doesn’t hurt. Certainly those pursuing a career in theatre are not “exploiting innocent mothers and children in developing areas of the world,” but the tongue in cheek idea here is meant to highlight the reality that most people in our business don’t achieve “People-magazine-like fame” and that there is much more in life to work towards than Hollywood stardom.

2. MAKE IT COUNT

To me, teaching a course in “Applied Theatre” makes no sense unless you actually “apply” it to something. Theory is great but theatre folks want action. So we have tried – with varying degrees of success in each case – to find service projects in our communities (and even abroad) where we can workshop some of the ideas explored in class. The first year I offered the course, two of the students actually came out to a rural part of Southwestern China for several weeks. While there, they assisted a group of ethnic minority students we’ve been working with for over a decade to implement a devising project, ultimately allowing the participants to write a play about their distinct ethnic identity and the challenges they face within the dominant and often discriminatory Chinese culture.

Another time we partnered with a non-profit family service organization in our city that focuses on community health and empowerment. This non-profit is especially instrumental in helping students from various Pacific Islands to integrate into American society while still retaining their cultural identities. Our mission was to work with secondary students in an after school drop-in program to create original pieces of theatre centered around themes of food and culture. Though our initial plan was not fully realized, as the organization had scheduled too many other activities for this time slot, our group did benefit significantly from the experience. Over the course of many weeks we interacted with junior high school students from the Chook Islands, a group that none of us had any knowledge of. This offered my students a first-hand look into the challenges of recent minority immigrants, an eye-opening experience for many.

Recently a smaller and more academically-minded group wanted to delve fully into the the world of grant writing. For this project each student was responsible to find two non-profits to investigate, volunteering their time and energy to understanding the mission of these organizations in order to write a grant for them. In the past, one of these grants was actually funded, offering a wonderful gift to the student who had written the grant as well as the non-profit whose organization benefited from a surprise check in the mail.

These types of service projects take a significant amount of time to organize and what is constantly emphasized by practitioners of this work is the preeminent focus that should be given to connecting deeply with a particular community, especially if you are coming in as an outsider. The most successful ventures we’ve had have been with my own non-profit organization in China, since my theatre students are “grafted in” to the community we’ve been working with for over a decade by virtue of their relationship with me. Coming in as outside artists intent on “changing the world” will never achieve the community benefit that is actually being pursued. Therefore, taking the time to develop strong partnerships with organizers and non-profits involved in a particular community is how we’ve attempted to proceed in these projects.

3. BACK UP YOUR IDEAS

Dozens of resources in this growing field are now available. I’ve found that framing our class early on around several compelling films really launches us into these worlds with zeal. How can you not be moved by the riveting accounts being told about murderers whose lives are transformed by Shakespeare or trash pickers whose jaws drop open when they encounter a powerful piece of art? Several favorites include:

Shakespeare Trust Poster Waste Land

Of course many fantastic print resources are also now available in wonderfully inviting formats. These include the following AATE award-winning volumes:

  • Applied TheatreApplied Theatre: International Case Studies and Challenges for Practice edited by Monica Prendergast & Juliana Saxton.
  • Applied DramaApplied Drama: A Facilitator’s Handbook for Working in Community by Monica Prendergast & Juliana Saxton.

There are many additional resources, including highly academic journals, case studies, readers, etc. I always find it very illuminating to have students look to Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed along with his Games for Actors and Non-Actors as a way of directly connecting Boal’s seminal thoughts and writings with the present-day work we are exploring. Oftentimes even students pursuing graduate degrees in theatre are unfamiliar with Boal’s writings and his story and social/political approach to the world of theatre challenges many of their notions of what theatre actually is and what it can do.

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During the summer of 2012, several students from the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa traveled to central China to help a group of Nosu students to devise a piece about their unique cultural identity. The performance “I AM NOSU” resulted from this partnership, a 30-minute piece that was subsequently performed several times – in an apartment, outdoors, and in a city art museum. Here Tracy Robinson (MFA 2012) helps Nosu students to explore masked movement.

4. DON’T FORGET THE NUTS & BOLTS

Oftentimes I encounter students who have a fairly limited view of the world. Perhaps they’ve never traveled outside of the country or even their own state. They have no experience with the grinding poverty seen in the developing world or the persistent corruption within local or national governments in these places that make it difficult for average citizens to break out of cycles of poverty. They aren’t likely candidates to suddenly pick up a suitcase and trek out to a remote village to address a growing HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Still, I find that some of the “nuts and bolts” involved in exploring this type of work can be tremendously beneficial to these students. In addition to expanding their vision of what theatre can do, as a part of the class I offer in introduction to non-profit organizations and management, basic entrepreneurship and grant writing. This type of instruction is not a normal part of many theatre training programs, yet many who make their living in the theatre will no doubt work for a non-profit organization or may even try to form their own theatre company. Examining these decidedly non-artistic elements in a class setting offers many real world skills that students can add to their toolboxes.

Nosu 1

Another project from the summer of 2012 involved sending cameras home with our Nosu students for several weeks. Most of these students had never used a camera before, as all come from rural villages. As a group we selected our favorite fifty photos, had them professionally mounted and then displayed on the walls of the art museum during our devised performance piece.

GO! DO!

Our program has recently been blessed with the arrival of a great actor and improvisor from New Orleans. This actor is hilarious to watch on stage, a true clown, winning our state’s “Best Comic Actor” award in his first large-scale production in our department. However, prior to his arrival into our program he had not traveled very far from his native home. He may return to Louisiana and look to build a career in regional theatre companies there. After taking this course, however, he is planning to fly fifteen hours to central China, take a twelve hour overnight train up into the hills and eventually trek up by rickety bus and then foot into the remote region where we hold our annual summer theatre work among the Nosu Yi minority nationality of Southwest China.

In his words, “I love this type of work. Taking this course has opened my eyes to what I can do with theatre.” Other students have been similarly engaged to examine their own “life purposes” through an exploration of this challenging yet rewarding field. Case studies in the field of applied drama often cite “empowerment for community members” as one of the goals of their work. However, I have also found that the actual students examining the exciting world of applied theatre and drama are often themselves similarly empowered.

 


BrannerMark Branner is TYA Program Director, Assistant Professor Department of Theatre + Dance University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa. Born in Los Angeles but raised primarily in Taiwan, Mark returned to the U.S. to attend college, whereupon he quickly dropped a scholarship from UCLA to work as a clown with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Mark eventually received an MFA from the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa. He teaches courses in theatre for young audiences, puppetry, mask, and physical comedy. Previously Mark served as the director and producer of Theatre Arts at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, California. He has toured nationally with various groups, including Diavolo, and performed extensively in Asia, most notably in chuanju (Sichuan Opera), a regional Chinese theatre form. He and his family operate CiRCO Redempto, a community outreach program designed to benefit children from the Nosu Yi minority nationality of central China.

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