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Editor's Note: ATHE and PTO co-sponsored this research done by Professor Anne Fliotsos from Purdue University

by Anne Fliotsos

Last year I became the new director of enCORE Interactive Theatre at Purdue University and began to review the literature about interactive theatre for social change in U.S. colleges and universities. Although articles and book chapters address this subject, there is scant information about the programs themselves, nor do professional organization keeps these statistics.

With the aid of Katherine Burke, President of Pedagogy & Theatre of the Oppressed, Inc. (PTO) and the sponsorship of ATHE we created a survey of four-year colleges & universities in the U.S., collecting data about their programs. This was a first step in discovering the basics of who we are and what do we do.

We obtained forty-three responses and were happy to find a variety of schools in terms of size and institutional type.

We wondered if schools that have interactive theatre troupes operate within or outside of the curriculum and found they were almost evenly divided: 53% extra-curricular and 47% curricular. The longevity of the curricular and extra-curricular troupes varied greatly, from one year to twenty-three years, with an average of eight years.

We asked further questions of those with courses and degrees in interactive theatre and theatre for social change: 35% have only one course, 37% have more than one course; furthermore 5% offer a major, 13% a minor, and 10% a concentration. Sample course titles included Theatre for Social Change (most frequent), Theatre and Justice, Playback Theatre, Drama Therapy, Applied Theatre, and Activism and Performance, among others.

We asked if scenes were scripted or not, with the following result:

Furthermore, we wanted to know the major influences on the troupes' methods. Not surprisingly, the greatest influence was Augusto Boal (82%), followed by Viola Spolin (43%), Playback Theatre (39%), and Michael Rohd (32%). Other influences were Agitprop Theatre, El Teatro Campesino, Bread & Puppet Theatre, Barbara Ann Teer, Paulo Freire, and Keith Johnstone, among others.

It is difficult to summarize characteristics of each program, as they vary greatly. Anywhere from one to forty students are active in creating and presenting workshops each year, with an average of eight students participating. Campus audiences for the troupes included student groups (residence halls, Greek houses, freshman class, international groups, study abroad, various student organizations) as well as faculty and staff groups. Off campus audiences include a wide range of community groups as well as specialized groups such as former prisoners, at-risk teens, City Hall, and even S.W.A.T. One respondent mentioned that the groups do not invite them to perform, rather the group gives a community performance and anyone can attend. In an age of networking it was surprising to find that word of mouth was the primary method of advertising, followed by email, posters, newspapers, and online outlets.

Of special interest were the top three goals for troupes:

  1. To develop respect for diverse points of view
  2. To identify/address issues of cultural diversity
  3. To identify/address oppression

We also found the topics that are most frequently presented:

  1. Discrimination based on gender or sexual identity
  2. Racial discrimination
  3. Bullying and/or micro-aggression
  4. Sexual Harassment or sexual violence
  5. Respecting diverse viewpoints.

Because assessment is critical in most academic environments, we asked who assessed the effectiveness of their troupes and how. More than half use a survey or questionnaire, but more than one-third do not formally assess effectiveness. This may be partially explained by the high level of extra-curricular troupes (53%), where assessment is less likely to be required. We also asked what changes the troupes had made based on the feedback they had gotten. Some of the answers included:

  • Find a more diverse group of actors
  • Share the “blame” and don't put it all on white/majority students
  • Strive for more and better assessment
  • Create clearer articulation of outcome measures
  • Increase length of scenes with a chance to enact a solution
  • Create new topics and tighter focus on content
  • Give more opportunities for spectator participation
  • Provide more information on the form of theatre
  • Time for discussion & allow anonymous questions on sensitive issues
  • Provide more access & training for community members
  • Facilitate class schedules to make student actors more available
  • Put additional forms of theatre for social change in the curriculum
  • Establish a center for community engagement

We also asked about each program's greatest success and biggest challenges, with an interesting mix of comments. Common themes for success were the positive impact on student performers, and audiences, as well as the pedagogical value. Specific comments included:

  • The students have gained confidence in theatre and expression
  • Raising awareness of the issues and promoting discussion
  • Including non-theatre majors and under-represented students
  • Transformation of conflict situations
  • Empowering student performers, writers, spectators
  • One-on-one time with the students
  • New courses in the curriculum based in these techniques

Common themes regarding challenges were scheduling, budget, support from the institution, finding an audience. Specific comments included:

  • Lack of support from administration and non-theatre faculty
  • Creating fresh work each time
  • Apathy; generating interest in social issue plays
  • Finding methods of assessment
  • Freedom of speech [on taboo subjects] in high schools
  • Balancing our performance schedule with other department performances and projects
  • Traveling off-campus with performers
  • Financial support and budget constraints
  • No room in the curriculum to add a class in this topic

This survey provides only a snapshot of campus interactive theatre/theatre for social change programs, but this snapshot reveals the variety of program types, methods, goals, successes and challenges of individual troupes. It also raises common questions for many programs: How can we break down barriers (institutional or otherwise) in order to have more successful programs? To that end, how can we best assess the effectiveness of our troupes in order to ensure their continued existence? I recently presented these statistics at the IX World Congress of the International University Theatre Association (IUTA) and asked the attendees to share their observations of such programs in their own countries. Surprisingly, a theatre professor from Germany told me she knew of no such programs there. I was just as surprised to find a professor from Croatia tell me that the topics for U.S. presentations were parallel to their own, with gender and sexual identity being the most popular subject. Clearly, there is room for much more inquiry into this fascinating field.

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