ARCHIVE - NATION BUILDING: EXPERIMENTS IN UNDERGRADUATE ENGAGEMENT AND TEACHING ARTISTRY AT ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY (12-8-14)

 

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300 eyeballs were staring back at me from 150 unmoving bodies. Silently and slowly, I counted up to eight. Unable to make it a full ten seconds, I repeated the question. “What connections can you make between Mau and Daphne’s story and life here in your nation?” I began counting again. Still, no movement. But I could see some mouths screwing up in thought, eyebrows furrowing. Even in the distant back rows, the students were thinking.

I waited. I am a great believer in giving students ample time to respond to a question.

The silence ran on.

I’d like to tell you how hands slowly rose up across the lecture hall,  and how the comments from the undergrads surpassed all my expectations. I’d love to say that every one of those students fulfilled my objective of “making connections between civic life in Arizona and the themes of Nation, ” but the truth, as usual, is more complicated than that.

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Mark Ravenhill’s adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s novel Nation tells the story of a boy and girl from two different nations thrown together in the wake of a devastating tsunami. Together, Mau, Daphne and the other survivors must grapple with questions of identity and community as they struggle to construct a new world. This complex production was the Theatre for Young Audiences selection for the ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre’s main stage 2013-2014 season. As the Education Director for the show, I worked with two ASU professors, Stephani Etheridge Woodson, Director of Theatre for Youth, and Richard Herrera, Associate Professor of Politics and Global Studies, to form an experimental partnership between their two schools. The professors and I agreed on a semester long residency of a team of Theatre for Youth graduate student teaching artists within Professor Herrera’s Government and Politics lecture class. The residency lay out was simple:

Three, 40 minute, pre-show workshops in the lecture hall, coinciding with student’s assigned reading of the novel Nation, focusing on the themes of systems of belief, representation, and justice.

An invitation to attend a special education and community performance and talkback with cast members. The matinee performance was offered at no-cost to students and community members thanks to the generous support of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre.

A final wrap-up visit to the class with cast members present to enhance the discussion.

I had been teaching undergraduate courses in creative drama and arts integration for several semesters, and I knew that this residency would force me to prove the power of what I had been professing. By implementing the methods of the master facilitators I had been studying, including Spolin, Heathcoat, Boal and Rhod, I hoped to facilitate learning for everyone involved.  My goals were clear: physically activate all students, including non-traditional learners, through creative drama practice and meaningful discussion, while providing a positive theatrical experience for students who were less likely to attend ASU theatre productions, thus encouraging life-long theatre appreciation.

From the start, there were constraints requiring careful consideration. Coordinating the dates of workshops alone proved challenging. The demands of the long-standing course syllabus, the Nation performance dates, and the availability of the graduate student teaching artists all had to be taken into account. My own schedule was an immediate challenge, as my undergraduate course, Creative Drama with Youth was held during the same Tuesday/Thursday afternoon time as Professor Herrera’s course. I determined to combine my efforts and bring the Creative Drama students into Professor Herrera’s classroom. In this way, the experimental residency would also serve as a learning lab for a new generation of teaching artists.

Our initial lesson was a proving ground. The majority of my creative drama work has been focused on students from ages seven to fourteen in traditional classrooms or open gym spaces, generally with room for movement and discussion. Attempting to fully engage 150 fully grown college students in a movie theatre style auditorium was a new experience. The constraints of the space, and the student’s accustomed level of anonymity were clear. The course had more than 160 students enrolled, but I was told not to expect more than 150 to be present on any given day. Students were accustomed to arriving, receiving a lecture while taking notes, or just as likely surfing the web, on their electronic devices. From almost the first moment of the residency, when graduate teaching artist Ashley Laverty asked the students to put away their laptops, we signaled that we were expecting more than passive consumption on their part. Undeterred by the chorus of heavy sighs and eye-rolls we received as they closed their machines, we invited students to energize their bodies by creating a human wave. As I ran back and forth across the front of the stadium seating, I hoped that my willingness to break with standard lecture conventions would create a comfortable space for students to risk expressing themselves verbally and physically. They would do more than receive, and we would do more than impart. They had given me their trust by removing the first barrier of their electronics. I was repaying that trust with a willingness to look a bit foolish.

The balance of trust and sharing teetered precariously throughout each workshop. Designing fast paced, short term curriculum to be implemented by others was a particular challenge. I initially set out to create lessons that would utilize what I saw as the strengths of the teaching artists presenting them, but quickly realized that this was too prescriptive. In creating high energy activities to be taught by specific high energy artists, or lists of specific discussion questions for a particularly gifted discussion moderator, I discounted the very strengths I was attempting to harness, and I lost track of how those activities and questions would be perceived by the students. Lessons flowed most naturally when I provided a strong structural foundation and objective while allowing for ample time for in-the-moment reflexive adaptation. The workshops employed a variety of methods to engage the participants and were especially effective when they used in-role, activated discussion activities like ‘take-a-stand,’ ‘vote with your feet,’ ‘spectrum of difference,’ and ‘forum theatre.’* While generally willing to participate in activities requiring physical movement around the hall, participants were resistant to physical activities that veered at all into the childish or silly. Additionally, as the residency moved along students became increasingly willing to take participatory risks.

The most challenging element of the residency was building investment from Professor Herrera’s students. I am leery of terming the residency as a partnership as neither my Creative Drama students or Political Science students had true agency in their participation. I hoped that over the course of the pre-show workshops students from both classes, particularly those without a background in theatre, would become invested enough in the process to eagerly attend the free matinee of Nation. Not wanting to engender resentment, I asked professor Herrera not to make attendance of the performance mandatory for the class.  This idealism got a dose of reality when less than a third of the enrolled students chose to attend. While I stand by my decision not to punitively require attendance, the lack-luster showing tells me that some kind of incentive, perhaps extra-credit, would have compelled a better turn out on a sunny Sunday afternoon. For those who did attend, the production and talkback were the  kind of positive theatrical experience I’d hoped for. The post-show discussion between with the audience, myself, and the cast was lively and thoughtful. So too was the discussion during the final workshop session of the residency between Professor Herrera’s students, select cast members, my fellow teaching artists, Ashley Laverty and Rivka Rocchio. One outcome I had not anticipated was the enthusiasm of undergraduate cast members to discuss their work and engage with their audiences. Several of them expressed a desire to participate more fully in these kinds of audience engagement activities in future productions.

Returning to the moment of suspenseful silence in the final workshop, I counted to 10 again, and then forced myself to stop counting. I took in the faces of my Creative Drama students who were waiting to see my next move as a facilitator, the cast and director of Nation eagerly waiting to hear about the perceptions of their audience, and 150 ASU Government and Politics students who seemed unable to articulate how this experiment had impacted their lives. We faced one another. I’d love to tell you a brilliant break through occurred, but the truth is not one hand went up. After what felt like an eternity, I assured the students that could continue pondering the question on their own and the discussion moved forward with a different question less pointed to my own objectives.

My experience with building a residency for Nation at Arizona State University can serve as a model for other theatre teaching artists seeking to engage new audiences generally outside the influence of the arts. Those looking for connections across campus at the university level should be particularly careful to garner true student partnership, beyond the working with a course professor, and likely limiting the number of participants to those who are fully motivated. Further experimentation is needed to determine the best practices for lesson implementation, student participation and incentivization, but as with all teaching artistry trust and careful attention to the reflexive teaching processes are paramount.

*Description of residency activities:

  • Take-a-stand: participants respond to ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ statements by standing or sitting.

  • Vote with your feet: students move to the left or right of the room to cast a vote for or against an issue, idea, or candidate.

  • Spectrum of difference: Participants (best with between 8 to 15) must order themselves between two alternatives, e.g. yesno, or binaries, e.g. formfunction, according to their personal feelings or beliefs.

  • Forum theatre: Theatre of the Oppressed technique in which a scene is played out and ‘spectactors’ are invited to stop the action, replace the protagonist and change the outcome.

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2013-02-09 10.49.26Miranda Giles is a third-year MFA candidate in Arizona State University’s Theatre for Youth Program. A teaching artist, playwright, and dramaturg, her focus is on intergenerational theatrical storytelling. She formerly worked as the education coordinator at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and taught and performed with the Theatrino T.I. E. Touring Company in Italy.

 
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