ARCHIVE - How One High School Theatre Program Engages Ohio Communities (3-27-15)

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I was in a Kinkos Fed-Ex office recently and picked up one of those books titled something like 1,000 Things You Should Do Before You Die—like rip-cord in Costa Rica. One of the entries I stumbled across was “See a high school play.” The motivation was that although the acting might not be Broadway-level talent, the commitment level of the kids would be inspirational.

Give a group of teenagers a creative project that culminates with public presentation, challenge them to push beyond their perceived limits, and mix in a hefty dose of adolescent hormones, and we get experiences energized by pure dedication. High school productions, whether budgeted with two hundred or twenty thousand dollars, demand students to give their best because a public audience is waiting. Unjaded and uncynical, teen performers and production crew members receive uncritical support from parents, teachers and friends in an arena where mistakes are forgiven (Green). Because of these factors, high school theatre fosters tremendous personal growth.

But this article is about what else high school theatre can do. High school theatre can make students think, and it can make a community think through socially-conscious theatre. Socially-conscious theatre is any form of theatre that encourages the teens who are crafting the play, the adults who guide the teens, and the audience, reflect on their relationships to one another and to the world, and consider ways to actively engage. Socially-conscious high school theatre can impact teens and adults in ways that help them more broadly perceive themselves and their surroundings.

At its core, this form is about stimulating awareness of situations and conditions that oppress under-served, under-represented, and otherwise silenced components of society. All of us can participate in socially-conscious theatre education by heightening our sensitivities to socially relevant situations. This is what I do as a director and model for my students, in rehearsal and in the classroom. Over the years, I have learned to tune to a critically-conscious radar that, upon reflection, deepens my awareness of equality in my role as a public school educator. I am aware of keeping this radar tuned as I teach direct theatre productions and teach my classes.

The primary aim of one course I teach in my high school, Social Issues Theatre, is to build critical consciousness in students. The course involves three primary steps.  Students 1) select and research a social issue that they believe is important for teens to think about, 2) craft an original scene that truthfully reflects the information they have gathered that stops when the stakes for the protagonist are at their highest, in order for audience members to suggest alternative outcomes of the scene, and 3) plan and co-lead with me a five-hour workshop devoted to the topic and held during the school day for 30 of their peers.

The topic of each class emerges from students’ interests. As the course unfolds, I re-position my traditional teacher’s stance of authority from center to sidelines, making room for students to voice opinions and drive their own learning. As I step out of center, students step in to lead, to listen, to learn – from one another. I believe that when students own classroom content, they develop an edge of attention that sharpens their awareness of oppressive forces and conditions that surround them. Two classes in particular led students to become actively engaged in responsible citizenship.

As context for the first example, it’s useful to know that a decade ago, our high school suffered a rash of teen suicides. One student hung himself in the boy’s bathroom on a school day morning. Over the course of two years, seven boys affiliated with BGHS had died by suicide. During that time, our Drama Club presented Dwayne Hartford’s AATE-Award-Winning play Eric and Elliot six times, following each performance with a talk-back led by a professional counselor. Teachers received in-service training to recognize signs of clinical depression because doctors assert that 90% of suicides are the result of clinical depression, and all 9th-graders now participate in counselor-led information sessions on teen suicide each fall.

Teen suicide has often been a top choice among students in the Social Issues Theatre class as they brainstorm topics of social import at the beginning of each semester, but until last fall the topic was eclipsed by others such as driving under the influence, abusing prescription pills, dating violence, self-mutilation, and domestic abuse. My role during the brainstorming is to keep the process moving and encourage students to share their points of view. I remind myself that the topic must come from them, and that any point of view I offer will carry weight because of my institutionalized figure of authority. Thus, I force myself to keep quiet.

The embedded clip shows a portion of the 20-minute theatre piece that the students wrote last fall. In this scene, students captured four elements that they had learned from their research: 1) Depression is a metaphorical best – and simultaneously worst – friend; 2) Teens who contemplate suicide may have factors in their families that exacerbate the depression; however, those same conditions are often shared by teens who are not suicidal, 3) teens who are suicidal may begin to drink alcohol, and 4) while girls attempt suicide more often than boys, boys’ attempts more frequently end in death because they are likely to chose permanent means of death such as guns. In this scene, the father of the suicidal teen, Blake, comes home and berates his son, but also reveals his own vulnerability. This portion of the scene shows an abstract character we named Depression urging Blake to find the gun.

Crafting an original scene is one aspect of the course; the workshop component can inspire teens speak out, lifting oppression off their own, and potentially others, shoulders by raising awareness. One of my students, ironically the student who chose to play the role of Blake’s friend who tried to get Blake to admit he is contemplating suicide, told me a few days before the performance that he had been wrestling with suicidal thoughts. (I told him that I was now responsible for informing his guidance counselor, which I did.) The class had structured a space during the workshop for comments from suicide survivors. During this section, my student surprised his peers by stepping onto the stage and coming out as a teen who is aware of his own depression. He told students directly how important it is to let others know, and to accept help.

The workshop continued, and my student effectively played the role he had rehearsed, that of Blake’s friend – and he improvised all thirteen of the suggestions the audience gave him to try to get Blake to admit he had a problem. . .and a gun.

This example begs the question can getting teens to think about a topic through theatre lead to action? It’s difficult to gauge, but the at the conclusion of the workshop, students were asked to fill in the blanks: “I came to this workshop thinking. . .but I’m leaving thinking. . . . Several students commented on how learning the signs for suicide made them aware of aspects of their own friends’ behavior which they may have over-looked. One of the students in the course reflected afterward, “Our workshop may have potentially saved someone’s life, because the participants realized that some of their friends are showing signs of suicide.”

As educators, we want to believe that the coursework we prepare for students makes a difference in their lives—and for some, passing the test is difference enough. However, I’m intrigued by the possible long-term impacts of social issues theatre, where for a major grade I require students to thoroughly reflect, but for which no standardized test exits. Tracking students can offer keys to longitudinal impact– but I rarely spare time to make a concerted effort at that. I did, however, interview students from my first social issues theatre class when I was writing the first edition of my book Temporary Stages, and the findings from ten years ago resonate still. One student said that he’d used the technique of listening to dual points of view that he’d practiced in class to mediate disagreements between his two college roommates. Another student reflected that the class impacts students most at an unconscious level, believing that students make an unconscious – but deep connection to knowledge that they experience in the class, and asserting that the best way to learn is when knowledge becomes a process of “naturally absorbed consciousness.”

A second class topic has led to the formation of a unique extension of our Drama Club – a theatre troupe that performs an original scene and follows with a workshop to raise awareness of human trafficking. The troupe has twice performed at the Annual International Prostitution, Sex Worker, and Human Trafficking Conference hosted by the University of Toledo, and has made numerous presentations in Ohio. The scene that students wrote stops just when the stakes are highest  and invites audience members to suggest strategies for the protagonist to extricate herself from a dangerous situation.

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The class learned why Toledo, Ohio, has been ranked number 4 in the country for sex trafficking of young girls: Interstate 75 extends from Michigan to Florida; there is an east west corridor via train and bus between New York and Chicago; there are great lakes that bridge the US to Canada, and an international airport in Detroit. Ohio is largely agricultural, drawing migrant workers throughout the summer, and we have more colleges per capita than any other state. The troupe was invited last month to present at a forum in New Breman, a small town in west-central Ohio. There we learned that small, out of the way Ohio communities like New Breman have become locales for the trafficking, even, of infants. Pic #4

Responsible Citizenship: Think. Care. Voice. Act. The Human Trafficking Awareness Troupe acts to act. At the 9th International conference in Toledo, representative Theresa Fedor, primarily responsible for passage of the Safe Harbor Act in Ohio, commented:

We can’t forget to ask the children to help spread awareness about sex traffickers. The youth are missing from the solution. We can’t be graphic with them, but we’ve got to talk about it with them. Even better, they need to talk with each other. (September 28, 2012)

Another attendee at the conference surmised that drama may very well be the most accessible portal to creating a safe space for honest dialogue among young people about the topic.

So – all this leads me back to that nagging question: Does any of this work really impact students? And if so, how? In what ways? I can only read signs, and wonder with hope that experiences in social issues theatre might plant seeds for change—for individual kids’ view of the world, and maybe even the communities that embrace them.

One such example came to me last September via a Facebook message from a student performer in the troupe last year. Now on a “gap” year before heading to college, Grace spent three months last fall working on a farm in Nepal. Despite the sad tone of the message, Grace’s awareness lifts my educator’s spirit.

I’ll end with the most recent act of this acting troupe. They participated in a Public Service Announcement contest sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Northwest Ohio to promote awareness of human trafficking.  

Yet, acting for civic responsibility doesn’t have to be always serious. Community engagement opportunities also include celebrations and fundraisers, such as helping out our Rotary Club in a fundraiser with a Halloween theme. The kids danced to “Thriller” and portrayed zombies as school busses dropped off adults in front of the cemetery to listen to stories of locals who’d made interesting contributions to the community. Additionally, my Latino-Latina students perform in an annual production that blends music and drama to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. This event involves Latino community members from elementary school kids to senior citizens and strengthens appreciation for Hispanic culture in Wood County, Ohio.

In closing, the strategies I incorporate as a theatre teacher/director prioritize student voice over mine, because I believe that encourages them think more deeply. Yet this non-traditional approach is challenged by the weighty muscle of my educational institution. My work plays out upon a temporary stage, because administrative sanctions, school levies, and conventional practices maintain the power to silence. Nevertheless, as I lead my students to exercise self-agency through high school theatre education, I consider their efforts, albeit temporary, as signs of success.

Green, Jesse. 2005 “The Supersizing of the High School Play.” New York Times, 8 May.


Dr. Jo Beth Gonzalez, president of AATE, is a twenty-eight year veteran of secondary theatre education, and teaches grades 8 through 12 in Bowling Green, OH. The author of two books on critical orientations to high school theatre, she was recently honored by the Ohio Chapter of the Educational Theatre Association as 2014-2015 Ohio Theatre Educator of the Year.

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