I am not only a freelance applied theatre practitioner; I also am adjunct college acting instructor. A teaching artist has to piece together a living, right? Neither of the colleges in which I teach house a theatre department or acting program; rather, in my introductory acting courses I teach acting as an arsenal of skills, techniques, and tools to apply to filmmaking, directing, writing, and life.
A few weeks ago I was brought in to lead a theatre workshop in a faculty friend’s Aesthetic Expressions class. With these “traditional” college sophomores (ages 19 to 21), I wanted to explore how theatre can be an aesthetic tool for social change. According to Augusto Boal, “Some of us make theatre, all of us are theatre” (Boal 7). As S. Leigh Thompson wrote in Theatre of Change: Theatre as an aesthetic tool for social and political change, “humans are capable of simultaneous acting and reflection – performer and audience in one – and this makes it possible for humans to analyze what they do as they do it” (The Forum Project).
I could have chosen any number of topics to use in this workshop, but because this particular college has a majority male student population (this year’s freshman class is 33% female, 67% male, with no reported genderqueer or transgender population), I wanted to engage students in an experiential dialogue about the nature of power, privilege, gender expression, and performance.
There has been talk on campus recently about women’s voices being marginalized or silenced. The college has no gender center or women’s center, although there have been meetings about the critical need to create one. Diversity, inclusion, and social justice are exciting buzzwords, yet the day-to-day lives of students (as I see/hear/witness them) reflect a cognitive dissonance. Therefore, I chose “gender” as the topic for us to explore in our brief, one-hour theatre workshop.
I noticed that the class had seventeen male-identified students and three female-identified students. My instructor friend, a female, participated and observed, yet did not insert her opinions during the workshop. After introductions, I led the group in a “Bubbling” activity to create a visual representation of “gender” on the chalkboard. To do so, I asked these questions:
What are some labels (positive and/or negative) associated with gender?
Consider the way gender and sexuality are performed on campus, and in life. What labels come to mind when you think of those performances?
Think back to a time when you were called a name/label related to your gender. What was that label?
The men looked at each other. The women looked at the floor or walls. After a palpable silence they started offering words: “male,” “female,” “masculine,” “feminine,” “slut,” “gay,” “ho,” “dude,” “homo,” “tranny,” “bitch,” “bro”, which I wrote as tangents that branched off of “gender.” I thought we were getting somewhere! I prepared to launch into an Image Theatre exercise called “Sculpting,” in which “sculptors” nonverbally sculpt their “clay” partners into an image of a given word or concept. But first, the following dialogue ensued (with participants’ genders listed as I feel it exemplifies internalized subordination and oppression):
Student A (male): People are making a big deal out of nothing about this gender stuff.
Student B (female): And why do people care if someone says, “That’s so gay?” What’s the big deal? Just ignore it if you don’t like it! I’m bisexual and Hispanic and I don’t care if I hear someone say that.
Student C female): I don’t care if someone calls me “bitch.” I think it’s funny. Who takes that kind of insult seriously, anyway?
Student D (male): This is too politically correct. Come on. How can a person go through life letting every little thing bother them?
I was tongue-tied. I struggled to curb my anxiety and stay professional. This conversation wasn’t even the point of my workshop! I tried to clarify the positions I heard without negating their perspectives. I had wrongly assumed these students would have a working vocabulary of gender oppression, ideas like rigid gender roles and sexist language: women=weak, men=strong; women raise children, men bring home the paycheck; women are emotional, men are rational; “be a man;” “you throw like a girl….”
Suddenly, my lesson plan seemed naïve. It occurred to me to introduce the concept of micro-aggressions, those everyday slights, insults, and indignities visited upon marginalized groups by well-meaning friends, family members, neighbors, etc. (The power of micro-aggressions lies in their invisibility; the doer is unaware that their behavior demeans the person on the receiving end.) I wanted students to understand that theatre can be a trial-and-error practice of re-creating our world. But, after their initial reactions, I wasn’t sure how successful I would be.
We got to a point where I felt comfortable leading the Sculpting activities, choosing “bitch” and “dude” from the Bubbling activity as inspiration. Pairs took turns as sculptor and clay. Then we debriefed their observations of the sculptures as both art and message. Some students noticed that female-associated insults were used toward women who were “acting like men,” and often used to demean men because they were “acting like girls.” Other students noticed that the words I chose from the Bubbling suggestions seemed loaded and unequal. Aha! Even facilitators can have modus operandi.
I found the clearest mini-victory during a final moment in our culminating activity. In small groups, I had students nonverbally re-shape their collaboratively created images of “oppression” into images of “a socially just world.” I unfroze all but one group at a time while the rest of us observed and reflected upon each tableau. The last group’s frozen image provided an “aha” moment that resonated throughout the room:
Student 1: “Their image looks closed. Like they’re happily holding hands and dancing, but no one else is allowed in.”
Me: So do you think it is possible for a world to be socially just for some, but not all?
Student 2: Yeah, it’s kind of like a gated community, right? Like, everyone inside is equal, but you have to be able to afford to live there or you’re not allowed in.
Student 3: Yeah, or everyone who lives there has to be a certain color.
Student 4: Or maybe you can be kicked out if you don’t look how other people in the community think you should look, or you love someone you’re not supposed to, according to the neighbors, or whatever.
Light bulbs. Small victories. And when I got home, big sighs and a bubble bath.
Boal, Augusto. Legislative Theatre. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Thompson, S. Leigh. Theatre of Change: Theatre of the Oppressed as a Tool for Social and Political Change. www.theforumproject.org