So I think I mentioned that the school I work in is a large, extremely diverse public high school, with such a range of religions, ethnicities, ages, and economic backgrounds represented that it’s often jokingly referred to as the United Nations. When I joined the district seven years ago, I was given the mission of creating a drama program. (The school, although not an arts magnet, already had programs in dance, music, television, and visual arts.) Initially I approached this task in a very traditional manner, looking to infuse my students with standard theatre history, theory, technique, and opportunities to perform and direct. But our school wasn’t a traditional school: our students were from all over the map, literally and figuratively. The issues they struggled with were so wide-ranging, and their academic and dramatic skills were so varied, I found myself seeking new ways to reach them, not just as a theatre artist but as an educator, mentor, and guide.
This journey led me to explore applied theatre. The practice is often traced to Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, in which non-conventional actors working in non-conventional spaces tackled issues of social significance. Today, around the world, the power of live theatre is helping to rehabilitate prisoners, integrate immigrant communities, and heal the wounds of war and displacement, among many other worthy purposes. Recent years have seen a surge of interest in this type of drama here in the United States—particularly in our schools.
Four years ago, our drama and television departments joined forces on a first venture into theatre with a social objective, integrating history, social studies, and civic responsibility into one dramatic event. The students’ experience, with this and subsequent projects, has been stunning. This year, we expanded the journey into device drama, where students have an opportunity to explore issues close to home and write their own piece of theatre to help create dialogue and change. The students created a list of issues they thought were key in our community, including: bullying, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, immigration and racism. The choice this first year was bullying. In order to tackle this issue in any meaningful fashion, we were required to do preliminary research. The students spent the summer creating a list of open-ended questions for other students and adults to answer. The teachers spent the summer doing research – national research on the issue, school district policies, statistics, and long term ramifications? Then in September, we met again and started an incredible, emotional, exhausting and exhilarating ride.
Over one thousand surveys were given to students and well over five hundred returned. The students from our district wrote. And wrote and wrote. Some of what we read was heartbreaking. Some was terrifying.
I stayed and watched as this guy was being taunted by a group of others because he was from Pakistan and they said he was a terrorist. Anonymous Survey
Some were just jaded. But we started to get a sense of what was happening in our school and who our primary targets were. And after compiling the information, we began devising the drama. The drama students started writing monologues, scenes, spoken word and transitions. They used the surveys, the interviews, the national research, the creative writing from the English students and their own experiences. The final piece they titled “Shadows.”
Since the creation of “Shadows,” the students have performed for over 2000 people, including small groups of students with follow-up dialogue and discussion; for the entire faculty and administration of the high school; for area universities; and have created an anti-bullying toolkit which includes curriculum, posters, pledge cards, DVDs with scenes from “Shadows,” and a music video written and performed by students.
Applied theatre is risky. It’s tough to do well. Administrators, students, and parents have to be taken on a journey to see the value in this work; they don’t immediately jump on board. But it can get entire schools and communities excited about art for change—and students excited about history, justice, politics, and the real people living among them. It can be used to explore global, state, local, and school issues. And it can be liberating for teachers. As Allan Creighton put it so well in Helping Teens Stop Violence: A Practical Guide for Counselors, Educators, and Parents (Hunter House, 1992):
“Giving up the role as the omniscient teacher with all the answers gives us a chance to be learners ourselves. Cultures across the world have always turned to young people for inspiration. Their hope that the world can be different, their outright insistence on justice and fair treatment (sometimes mislabeled “rebelliousness”), their insight and irreverence are essential to our own freedom.”
The most exciting path in this journey may be ours, as we listen to the young people we work with, discover their perspectives on the world, and witness the power they gain simply by having their voices heard.