Bringing Social Justice Theater to Schools
Using dramatic arts as a medium for exploration, foundry10 partnered teaching artists with teachers in the Seattle area to provide a context for students to interact with topics related to social justice. Using role-play, tableaux (frozen images depicting story), scene-creation and discussions, students engaged with difficult issues from a creative and often new perspective. Like August Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed practitioners find with SpectActors (audience members who are invited to join in the drama play) students also reflected, “using acting made it easier for me to talk about these issues” (a student from a participating school). Teachers and teaching artists worked together to develop curriculum tailored to their student’s interests and cultivated safe and creative classroom environments to explore issues related to the issues they/we face today. We ran five programs, in about twenty classrooms, and collaborated with teachers from four different schools who brought social justice theater curriculum to their English classes, graphic novel classes, podcast classes, history class, among others.
The theater wasn’t all fun and games. Students got to walk in the skin of a character other than themselves, affording them the freedom to empathize and relate to someone’s story other than their own. This provided for a freer discussion and actual learning rather than regurgitating preconceived opinions. “Something the arts is really good for is that sometimes when we’re facilitating something different they become accidentally engaged,” explained one teacher, Brian (graphic novel class). Teaching artist, Cessa went onto expand, “talking about social issues through something that’s creative not only affects the audience into social change maybe more so than something direct, but is also helpful to empower the voice of the creative artist to clarify their ideas and opinions.”
Engaging in role-play and discussion related to the used text, certain hot button topics including the issues they bring to the table. At foundry10, we are interested in exploring how students connect to social justice and believe providing an engaging medium like theater arts may empower student voice in these areas. Below are descriptions of the Social Justice Theater programs we conducted in the 2016-2017 school year, followed by some reflections by a teaching artist involved in the program.
Social Justice Theater at a Junior High School
Two hundred students, two teachers, two teaching artists, and a month long, collaboratively designed curriculum using theater arts to explore issues related to social justice.
Teacher Jeanne Medalia at a Junior High and Chelsea LeValley, foundry10 dramatic arts program developer, discovered a common interest in advocacy in social justice and theater arts through conversations during a professional development course for teachers and artists called TAT LAB. Partnering with Jeanne’s colleague, Jolene Conklin, as well as two other teaching artists, Meredith Berlin and Keni Cohen, they developed an idea for a month-long collaboration on social justice theater in every ninth grade English classroom at the school. In Winter 2017, the teachers and teaching artists built curriculum to bring awareness to social justice issues maybe that they’re experiencing in their own lives and to build a framework for open discussion and reflection. The month long intervention was designed to also prepare students to dive deeper into the social justice issues inherent in their upcoming unit on To Kill A Mockingbird. The goal was for students to reflect on the issues in small groups, respond by creating pieces of theater, and ultimately share with another class to facilitate a large group discussion. On the last day of the program, all two hundred students gathered to watch each class’s developed scene work. The teaching artist would give the audience time in pairs to discuss the justice issues they witnessed in the scenes before sharing as a large group. “I also noticed that the students were much more willing to tackle uncomfortable issues as characters, or when discussing choices characters made,” wrote one of the teaching artists, Meredith. In many of the student surveys, students reflected that playing a character other than themselves gave them the freedom to talk about justice issues from different perspectives without feeling like they were being judged.
Separation in the 9th grade english classes we’re told is traditionally, palpable at our school. Advanced students take the “challenge” class while other students are in the regular english class. Teacher Jeanne Medalia said, “our entire ninth grade was a part of the program. It was empowering to see that both sets of kids [both the challenge group and the advanced group] were offered the same thing and-” “and you can’t tell the difference,” finished, teaching artist, Keni Cohen. In speculating why the separation was less palpable with the theater arts and social justice issues at the curriculum helm had a lot to do with adding a teaching artist to the classroom. “It added another voice, another level to have the teaching artists present in the classroom,” said Jolene, “an adult other than the teachers and parents for them to see come in and speak from the heart,” finished Meredith.
Smashing together difficult conversation topics with asking students to do artistic expression seemed to be just uncomfortable, for teachers and students alike, to foster true personal and group growth. The teachers takeaway and buy in from this group of students surprised both the teachers, and it seemed, the students themselves. As students cheered for one another and reflected openly at the end presentations it was clear the experience built community and empathy. In some interviews a student reflected, “I didn’t know what these issues were about until this.” It seems it also brought necessary awareness.
POETRY AND MOVEMENT AT a Seattle Public School’s High School
For the past several years teachers Chelsey and Melissa at this HS have been running a poetry-advocacy class called, The Naked Truth. This year they wanted students to use their bodies and voices more expressively to communicate their written stories in their final performance for their peers and teachers. Teaming up with foundry10 teaching artist, Cessa Betancourt, they explored theater techniques and movement strategies including making a machine of voices speaking evocative sentences in repetition from their poems, group tableaus that expressed the drama of the words and also how to physically embody your poetry to make it performance. Using movement and devised theater practices the teachers and teaching artists guided the students in exploring their spoken word pieces, ultimately tying them together into a dynamic final performance. After the performance, students retired to their classroom for a discussion and reflection. For some of them, this was their first time performing ever and they were elated! Students shared how empowered they felt that peers came up to them afterwards and responded to their work by expressing that they identified with their stories. Cessa noted, “It’s really exciting to work with such smart kids who are able to engage in discussion about the power of using art as a device for social change.” These students felt they made a difference with their piece of theater. From a huddled circle beforehand they prepared to share with their community their voice and through feedback from their audience, felt they had given voice to others who were voiceless.
GRAPHIC NOVEL CLASS at a Seattle Public Schools HS
“Public art can be a really powerful way for students to educate other people and get people to act on ideas or issues they are concerned about” explained teaching artist, Cessa Betancourt. When high school English teacher, Brian Charest, expressed interest in emboldening student discussion of social justice issues through their unit on graphic novel American Born Chinese and others this winter/spring, dramatic arts exercises seemed to be a natural fit. Partnering Brian with foundry10 teaching artist Cessa Betancourt, they used movement, collages, art, character exploration to live into the exquisite imagery of the graphic novels. Together, Brian and Cessa provided a safe and explorative environment for students to reflect on the issues of social justice they were encountering in the novels. Through guided exercises, students reimagined scenes from the novels as related to particular issues, made personal collages on their opinions about the issues, wrote letters to government officials, and collaborated on a group piece of artwork to help them process their experience reading the graphic novels. Then, they added movement and music and finally generated a moment of theatrical response to the material with their bodies in space at the end of each class session. She is continued to work together that spring using a new graphic novel, March. Brian explained, “As a language arts teacher, whose done a lot of work with students with special needs, that just allowing students to express themselves and their opinions through media in different ways is really important… One of the things that works about this collaboration is that Cessa brings a different set of expertise to the classroom, that theater arts and justice background whereas I’m more of a traditional language arts person. It’s been really powerful for the students to have a different voice and different experiences to approach this material in the classroom.” We are excited about their future collaborations.
Social Justice Theater at another High School in King County
Theater arts teacher, Daniella, at a Seattle area High School teamed up with foundry10 teaching artist and new works developer, Zoe Wilson, to dive deep into a three week social justice theater arts intervention in their classroom. Zoe, alongside Daniella, used techniques from Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed body of work, as well as devised theater practices to facilitate the students’ experience generating moments of theater that highlight issues of social justice relevant to their everyday lives. The students performed their pieces in front of peers and community members on Monday, May 12th, 2017 in the evening. Here’s a bit of insight from their conversation:
Zoe: It’s been interesting to see them work together and be forced to collaborate.
F10: What is a challenge you’ve seen in this group collaboration model?
Daniella: The compromise…being able to speak your truth and knowing how to step back to cut down the piece for the whole.
Zoe: Our goals were to expose students to the idea that theater does not have to just be with a script. Theater can be devised and created by the students. When you’re able to create your own work you’re empowered by it. And there’s nothing more powerful than talking about a social justice issue that you really care about. Students brought in articles, social media posts, pieces of music, and they were given the task to make a scene with that source material. Then they sorted through the created pieces and chose which ones would stay in the show. They came up with this idea that the performance is a phone and you click on certain apps and from those apps, like youtube, facebook, etc. scenes occur. And all those scenes are the social justice themes we explored.
Daniella: One of the exercises that I’ve loved is your..the flocking exercise you did. Its forced them to release and to take on a leadership role and then give it up to others. Its really great and different than anything we do at our school. The fact that it’s an original devised piece. Everything is really scripted. This is not scripted, completely new, they’re all making it, and it’s their issues, social justice based. The first day they brought in newspaper articles and did scenes on them and I got goosebumps.
This year, foundry10 is partnering with some of the same schools and some new, to develop tailored programming for students and educators to encounter these issues of social justice through engagement with theater arts. If you know an educator who’d be interested, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. We’re looking forward to this new year!
Social Justice Theater at Nathan Hale High School
Eleventh grade English teachers Kristina and Sarah, at Nathan Hale High School, did a unit where all five eleventh grade classes wrote, recorded, and produced a podcast. They teamed up with foundry10 to steer the students’ storytelling toward issues related to social justice. Playwright, actor, voice-over artist, director and foundry10 teaching artist James Sasser joined their classrooms to guide the students in idea generation as they identified issues of justice within given plays, script writing, and performance skills in preparation for their final podcasts. We were interested in the way students brought vulnerability and openness as they processed social justice issues through developing stories within the context of a small group dynamic, and ultimately shared their creative work as a podcast with a larger audience. Their program runs through May 2017. We look forward to their reflections near the end of the school year.
“We’re really excited to have James here, somebody who works in the industry and has a more professional take on the lingo. I don’t know how to make a podcast, I’ve never made one and James is like yeah! I’ve made one. James is like a real life mentor text. He can help students realize their ideas.”
“In the three plays we’re looking at, Fences, Piano Lesson, Raisin in the Sun, these issues of social justice are a part of it. They’re having to really look at subtle issues of social justice, a day in the life, particularly some of our white students who haven’t had to think about it from that perspective. To put it in a specific character it gives them immediacy for these issues and I think it can be a little overwhelming with them and they’re grappling with that in a good way. The day in the life exercise was striving to connect with your own feelings of being treated unfairly, to find the compassion connection, especially for people who haven’t experienced institutional racism in a direct way, to help students relate directly to a character’s experience through your own experience.
“Working with students reconnects me with the fundamentals of writing. I feel like I’m reconnecting with my own fundamentals by helping them learn it for the first time.”- James Sasser
We talk about narrative a lot as teachers but we don’t have the lingo
Teaching artist reflections – Kenmore:
F10: What was the focus of the social justice program you did with your teacher?
Our focus was to give students an opportunity to use dramatic techniques to explore social justice issues that are important to them in the present, in preparation for their study of To Kill a Mockingbird and civil rights issues in the United States. The process involved building trust, learning to work as an ensemble, identifying issues of importance, and learning movement and acting techniques to create a piece to perform to their peers in other classes.
F10: What were things you wanted to learn from it?
Which techniques would the students be excited by? How much trust could be established in just a month? How would the students deal with the need to collaborate and compromise? Could we reach consensus on which issues were important? What kinds of emotions would the process trigger? How much would the students be willing to share? Which techniques would be simple yet dynamic as we created a performance piece?
F10: How did you approach the curriculum? What was the typical class or process like for the students/teacher?
We generated pages and pages of ideas of activities we could do with the students, materials we could bring in, music we could use. We planned the first session together in detail, then waited to meet the students and get their responses before planning the rest of the curriculum in detail. We did, however, decide that there would be a mix of physical work, individual writing, sharing with a partner, working in small groups and large group discussions and presentation. After the first week, it became clear to us which of the many ideas we had could work together. But each day there was some degree of changing and adjusting our plans based on the ideas of the students, their energy coming into class, and their needs from moment to moment.
F10: What are some things you remember the students saying?
One thing that stands out in my memory were the several times that we introduced a difficult topic, and there would be silence. If we asked them to discuss with somebody nearby then share what they heard or agreed on, that would open the discussion and others would be willing to jump in. I also noticed that the students were much more willing to tackle uncomfortable issues as characters, or when discussing choices characters made.
Often the students remarked that within one class, people could have opposed views and still respect each other. Or have opposite experiences. For example, we were discussing places we felt safe. We started out by anonymously writing on two papers a place we felt comfortable or safe, and one we felt uncomfortable or unsafe. Then we crumpled them up, threw them in the middle, and read a random one we picked up. Many students named their rooms, or their homes on the “safe” paper, but a few put it on the “unsafe” paper. That was something that made the students think, and they dealt with it with maturity and seriousness. We also talked about potentially divisive issues such as sexism, racism, zenophobia, homophobia. By that point, the students had had the experience of listening deeply and respectfully to each other, and I was very impressed that they were willing to grapple with these issues without attacking each other.
F10: What is something you took away from the program/experience?
Ninth graders notice, know and experience way more than they usually have the opportunity to reveal. They are hungry to learn from each other and, when they know they are safe to be honest, they are extremely expressive and capable of making connections that are complex and creating art that is surprising and compelling. They have many questions that I do not know how to answer, questions that need to be asked.