Teaching “Performance and Social Change” as an Honors Course

By Dr. Leah White

Dr. White is an Associate Professor and Director of Forensics in the Communication Studies Department at Minnesota State University, Mankato.   She received her BA degree in Communication from Concordia College, her MA in Speech from Kansas State University, and her Ph.D. in Communication Studies from Arizona State University.  Leah’s academic interests include performance studies, feminist theory and forensic pedagogy.

Leah White

I have taught the Honors Seminar “Performance and Social Change” twice in the past five years and both experiences have been highlights of my academic career. I proposed the course because my experiences trying to teach Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre techniques as a unit in other courses had been unsuccessful. I realized to successfully teach this material, I needed a course format focused only on Boal’s methods and I needed students fully prepared to take on the risks that come with using Theatre of the Oppressed techniques. The Honors Program provided me with the freedom to create this course, and access to students interested in taking on the challenge.

Although I am passionate about the course content and enjoy the opportunity to expose students to Boal’s work and the theoretical concepts behind his methods, it is the process of working with students to create an effective performance that excites me the most about the class. We begin the class with no predetermined performance goal, beyond a commitment to use the methods to address an issue of injustice present within the Mankato Community. The students choose the issue we will address and I work with them to find an appropriate performance opportunity. Performances grounded in Boal’s methods must emerge from the performers involved. Through storytelling and improvisational techniques, rough script outlines develop. Once I had taught students the methods I had to trust the students to work well collaboratively with only minimal guidance from me. As a person who thrives on schedules, plans and control, teaching this course has been a growth opportunity for me as well.

The performances went well both semesters. In 2011 we worked with 7th and 8th graders at St. Peter Middle School and in 2014 we worked with International Students at MNSU. My fondest memories of the classes, however, are not of the performances, but of the risks the students enrolled in the class took to get to the point they could present these performances. The course begins with students reading about and discussing concepts relevant to oppression and privilege. Many students have not yet had an opportunity to critically reflect on how their own lives are marked with elements of both privilege and oppression. Therefore, after a few weeks of intensive reading, but before we begin working closely with Boal’s methods, we take time to share some of our own stories related to these concepts. Students are asked to present a “Difficult Moments” narrative in which they share a memory of a time when they either experienced oppression, contributed to the oppression of another, or observed the oppression of another but did not intervene. These stories are difficult because we often shy away from openly discussing oppression and privilege. The discussions are frequently messy and emotionally charged. Yet, these experiences mark us in very deep ways and sharing them allows us to find points of commonality. Within this identification with others we are able to become proactive agents for change. I have been profoundly touched by the stories my students have shared during this assignment and the level of self-awareness emerging from the experience.

I believe when students choose to become members of the Honors Program they are making a commitment to being open to academic challenges beyond what other students will experience while at MNSU. This does not mean the classes are more rigorous in a traditional sense, but rather the classes are designed to disrupt one’s comfortable patterns and encourage academic reflection of difficult questions; many that may not have answers. I am very appreciative that the students enrolled in my Honors Seminar willingly embraced these unknowns.

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