By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant
Assistant Professor of Instruction in the Department of Theatre and Dance Dr. Sara Simons led the Faculty Fellows seminar held October 4th, beginning with a simple question: who can tell what story? As an educator of future theatre teachers, Dr. Simons noted that her interest in investigating the classroom came from both theoretical and practical concerns. For Simons’ students, the ethics of who can best present a story and whether stories can be told across identity markers quickly become issues of importance in high school theater classrooms. Simons’ students value exposing their own future students to plays and stories from a diverse range of writers and voices, yet many also question how to teach such perspectives. But such conversations are not limited to theatre education, as many Fellows noted.
Simons led the seminar through a series of kinesthetic exercises, many of which she teaches in her own classroom. She began with exercises adapted from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed canon, asking Fellows to follow a series of commands (walk, stop, jump, say your name), then to reverse those commands–to walk when Simons told the group to stop, to jump when Simons asked the group to state their names, and so on. The Fellows debriefed after the activity, noting the activity established new meanings and rules, forcing each of the participants to think before they acted. Simons framed this activity as a way for her to teach students the process of unlearning their assumptions, beliefs, and automatic responses–something, she noted, that is not only continual, but often bumpy.
Simons asked the group frequently to describe what they achieved in the activity, providing the participants an opportunity to reflect on their teaching as well as on their assumptions around teaching texts from authors of different backgrounds from their students (or their own), among other things. Simons noted that theatre education frequently positions theatre as both “a mirror and a window,” representing both the audience’s experiences and experiences that may never have had. But that view of theatre can be complicated by issues of who is permitted to tell stories of marginalized people, and who is represented in theatre as a whole.
Simons instructed Fellows to assemble into small groups to discuss various hypothetical scenarios around storytelling, authenticity, and representation. Fellows debriefed on the assignment as a group, discussing the ethics of writing or teaching stories from different societal positions and perspectives. Many Fellows noted that academic work in a variety of fields involves working in communities outside of their own, requiring researchers to consider how they are accountable to the communities they write about and what materials they need to elucidate or contextualize. Participants also discussed considerations of audience. In theatre, Simons noted, directors and producers frequently need to consider who the show is for, and whether they intend to expand the audience’s horizons or depict the audience’s own lives–the mirror, or the window. Fellows concluded that academics, writers, and others in creative professions often have to make risky moves to promote empathy in their audience, or in their students. Thus, an understanding of the power dynamics at work–in a piece, a production, or in culture broadly–are essential to teaching theatre, and to teaching and writing as a whole.
The seminar closed with each participant stating their final, one word summation of the discussion, providing each Fellow an opportunity to reflect on what they took from the session. Answers ranged widely, but many stated words like authenticity, empathy, context, and other broad topics, making connections to the concerns of past seminars.