Theater as Protest: Guidelines for Empowering Students on Your Campus
This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more!
In Fall 2016 Playwright Catherine Filloux asked her Playwriting Workshop at the University of Rochester to create a Community Action Plan.
This curriculum was built with the purpose of empowering students in political and social activism through participation in theater-based activities and workshops. Through participation, we hope students will learn valuable strategies for engaging with their peers surrounding communities in political and social activism.
As a facilitator of this training, you are the gateway for participants to better understand protest action through theater. This is both a big responsibility, and a great privilege! As you conduct more and more trainings, you will experience nervousness, excitement, and ideally the joy of knowing you have effectively informed a group of people who may then go forward to improve the lives of everyone in their community. Remember you are not only a facilitator, but also a student. It’s important to leave every training having learned something from your audience. Allow them the opportunity to impress you, and they will!
It’s important in any group training to establish ground rules, preferably by consensus. If time is available, ask participants to raise their hands and suggest ground rules for the training. In this instance, the facilitator may make suggestions as well. It’s imperative the facilitator make clear they will follow the same rules as the participants. If there is little time available for the overall training, the facilitator may opt to simply present the ground rules listed below:
Some controversial or difficult topics may be discussed, and it is important everyone respects one another’s opinions, even if they disagree.
Difficult or private emotions or conversations may arise. Participants must respect the confidential nature of any such disclosures.
Right to Pass
Anyone has the right to pass participating in any activity. Participants are encouraged to examine their comfort zones, and push their boundaries if feasible.
Freedom of Expression
Participants are welcome to express their beliefs and feelings freely. While they should not actively attempt to antagonize or offend anyone, they should feel comfortable enough to say what they feel, without fear of reprisal.
This exercise is a warm-up to address expectations, concerns, and thoughts about this training. Ask people to sit, or stand, in a circle so everyone can be seen. Write the questions on a board or flip chart, and ask participants to briefly provide their answer for one question. Encourage people to not debate or question responses. This is an exercise in stating opinions and thoughts and there are no right or wrong answers! (5-10 min)
1. What do you hope to get out of today’s training?
2. What are some activist related issues you see in your school/ organization?
3. What is the experience of people in your school/ organization? In the community?
4. What is one thing you would like to learn from today’s session?
- It is important to know this training is a beginning and not a “be all, end all.” Let participants know there are resources available to them.
- Clarify that you as a facilitator do not represent any given community. Your beliefs are your own, and not necessarily shared by every other person in your community or even within the training, as there is diversity of thought in every community.
- Inform participants you will always do your best to make a distinction between your opinions and beliefs, items that are facts, and items that are considered factual but may be debated within culture at large.
Q & A
After all activities are completed, allow participants the opportunity to ask any remaining questions. This may be done in one of three ways:
1. Participants raise their hands and are called on by the facilitator.
2. Participants write questions down, and pass them up to the facilitator.
3. Participants write questions down on paper, crumple it up, and toss the paper at the facilitator (this is known as the Snowball Fight method!)
The method of Q & A will depend on the group. Consider how active, willing to participate, and open the participants have been during the previous exercises.
- If you do not know the answer to a question, be honest. Offer to collect that participants contact information, and get the answer to them in a timely manner.
- If you are uncomfortable answering a question, be honest. If you feel alright doing so, explain why you are uncomfortable. This situation could become a teachable moment, for both the participant and yourself.
- If a participant has asked a long or unclear question, summarize it for the audience, and be sure you are clear as to what the question is.
If there are multiple facilitators, and you disagree with one another as to the answer of a question, feel free to be clear about that. But do not argue! Be clear that not all people agree on all topics, just as it is within any community, and that is okay.
Goal: To use acting vocal warm-ups as a way to learn assertiveness and confidence in expressing your own opinion. (10-30 min)
Procedure: Have each member of the group write down their opinion about a topic starting with “I think…” or “In my opinion…” The projection activity includes first reading, then just saying their opinion. The facilitator, using their hands, calls on individuals to say their opinion out loud, then proceeds with the entire group to determine if the projection of the opinion should be done by whisper, middle voice, or loud voice. This activity should include tips from the facilitator about how actors use warm-ups before using their voice on the stage, what techniques could be used, and what to do to proceed with a loud voice; confidence without screaming.
1. Would you like to share how you feel after this activity?
2. How did you feel projecting your opinion loudly and confidently?
3. Do you always feel confident enough to share your opinion? If not, why?
4. Do you find acting techniques helpful in having better control over your voice? Do you think this is important in the experience of activism?
Let’s Get The Facts Straight
Goal: To use theater and playwriting to learn about teammates and the importance of getting the whole story. (10-30 mins)
Procedure: Have each member of the group write an anonymous, interesting fact about themselves. This can be an experience they’ve had, an interesting characteristic, or something similar. Collect and redistribute these notecards to new people, and instruct students to write a one-minute monologue based on the fact they received. The monologue should be in what the receiver imagines is the voice of the writer, and should provide some context to the fact itself (what the student can guess is context). Once writing is done, students should read their own monologues, followed by the fact’s owner, who should give actual context to the fact by telling the story of it. After all students have shared, the facilitator should lead discussion.
1. How did the process of writing and performing make you think critically about your source material?
2. Describe how it felt to see your fact interpreted by another person with missing context.
3. Was it difficult to “fill in the blanks” when writing? How could this practice apply to media writing?
4. How important is it to ensure accurate and complete context when presenting information? Do you think media outlets today do that?
5. How can we as media consumers ensure we are getting information with complete context? How can we ensure this in our day-to-day interactions with people?
Sticky Note Insecurities
Goal: To show students they are never as alone in their insecurities as they think they are, and that this group provides a safe and accepting space where you can be yourself without fear of judgement. (10 mins)
Procedure: Group members will work independently to write down as many of their personal insecurities they can think of in three minutes. Each insecurity will be written on a sticky note, which will then be placed on their back. Students will walk around the room for 5-7 minutes, looking at each other’s backs and removing every insecurity they see on other people that they also made note of for themselves. Emphasis should be placed on the discussion aspect because it is such a personal task to put your insecurities on display.
1. How did it feel to open up to everyone?
2. How did it feel to see everyone else’s insecurities on their back?
3. Do you have any insecurities unique to you? How so? Why?
Facilitator’s Note: Make sure to discuss these unique insecurities as much as the students feel comfortable with, because it may make them feel uncomfortable if one student ended up with insecurities they don’t share with anyone else in the room. Ask the other students if any of them share that insecurity but just didn’t write it down, and discuss the fact that even if this student is alone in this one aspect, they still have a strong support system from this group of people.
Newspaper Blackout Poetry
Goal: To help students learn how to look at something negative or positive in different perspectives. (30 mins)
Procedure: Group members will be given newspapers and sharpies. The articles chosen should reflect a current issue occurring on campus or in the world. Students should read the article to get a gist of what it’s about and what the perspective of the author is. Then they will use their sharpies to create a poem, selecting certain words from the article by blacking out the others. An example can be found below:
An alternate path for this activity would be for everyone to do the same article from the same newspaper and to share them with each other at the end.
1. Why did you choose this article?
2. What message is your poem trying to convey?
3. Was this a hard or easy task for you and why?
4. How do you think your poem can empower others?
Goal: To use creativity and acting techniques to learn how to express and read emotions. (10-30 mins)
Procedure: Exquisite Corpse is a method by which words are collectively assembled. Every member of the group will write a sentence on a paper, by the rule: “adjective noun adverb verb.” They then fold the paper to hide this line and pass it on to the next person, who will do the same and pass it to the next person and so on. When the texts are long enough, every member will use a different text as a monologue. Everyone will then draw from a pile of slips of paper a specific emotion. They will act out their monologue with the emotion from the draw. The rest of the group tries to guess what emotion they are conveying.
1. How did you feel about this activity?
2. Was it always easy to express or read the particular emotion?
3. Did you notice words might have a different meaning according to the emotion they are expressed by?
Two Truths and a Lie: Character Building Version
Goal: To call attention to the diversity in the room and the positive things the students feel about each other and themselves. (30 mins)
Procedure: Group members work independently to improvise a short monologue from a character of their own creation. This character must reveal three things about them, two of which they have in common with the creator. The other characteristic must be a positive characteristic belonging to another member of the group. The group should take approximately 5 minutes to come up with their character’s three characteristics, introduce their characters in a very brief (<1minute) monologue.
1. Which two characteristics did you choose about yourself? Why?
2. Which characteristic did you choose about someone else? Why?
3. Would you be friends with your character in real life? Why or why not?
4. What kinds of political opinions would your character most likely have?
5. Do you know anyone who has all three things in common with your character? How do they feel about the current political climate?
Agree to Disagree
Goal: To helps students practice understanding other points of view by interaction and acting. Students will be required to see arguments from various points of view while interacting with others. (25-30 mins)
Procedure: Choose three topics (current events, hot debate topics, etc.) people are bound to disagree on. Hand out a set of index cards, some having “agree” and some having “disagree.” If the card says “agree”, that student has to debate the topic using their own views. If the card says “disagree”, then the student must debate using a “devil’s advocate” point of view against their own views. This processes is repeated for each argument, so students who have one type of card may switch argument to argument. Thus, no one will know who is defending their own point of view or not. Try to encourage the group to come to a sort of agreement about the debate topics. They either all have to agree, or agree to disagree and give three reasons why the opposing view is understandable to some people, even if they disagree with the reasoning.
1. Did you find yourself becoming frustrated or upset?
2. What led you to finally agree with your peers?
3. What was it like for those who had to support arguments they disagreed with?
4. What was it like for those who supported their own ideas against those who disagree?
Movement Exercise: Action/Reaction
Goal: To use movement and choreography to draw attention to the power of collective action. (10-30 mins)
Procedure: The facilitator will begin by teaching the group a simple movement, for instance, a push of the arms on the beat, and has the group recite it in progressively larger groups. Once the whole group has performed the movement, the facilitator should teach a more complex, longer combination. This combination does not have to be set to music, but it should be beat-driven. Again, the facilitator should have the group perform the movement individually, then in progressively larger group until the entire group is performing the combination.
1. How did the process of movement make you aware of your actions?
2. Was it easier or harder when moving or dancing with a group to perform?
3. How can collective movement make action easier?
4. Did you feel your performance was more impactful when more people performed? Why?
5. How can collective movement and action make an impact in our daily lives?
In Your Shoes
Goal: To gain perspective on how others face discrimination. (25-45 mins)
Procedure: The facilitator will break the group into sets of two, preferably pairing up students who don't know one another well. Participants will then ask each other a set of questions which either the facilitator can create, or can be chosen from the set below. Once broken into pairs, the participants will ask each other the questions. When the participants regroup, each will share their partner’s response while speaking in the first person. Participants will then discuss what they learned from the other.
1. Have you been discriminated against yourself? A friend or family member?
2. When did you first become aware of your privilege (or lack thereof) within our society?
3. How has the above shaped your perspective?
4. How did it feel to repeat your partner’s words as if your own?
5. Did anything you learned from your partner or from the rest of the group change your perspective?
The Things I’ll Never Say
Goal: To act as an outlet during which students are able to speak their minds through the mouth of someone else. (20-45 mins)
Procedure: Group members will work in groups of 2-3 to prepare a short scene involving politically outspoken characters. Each group member should work to include something in their scene they feel about the current political climate, but are too afraid to say.
1. What did your character say that you are too afraid to in real life? How did it feel to say it?
2. Why are you afraid?
3. What made it okay for your character that doesn’t apply to you?
4. Would you feel comfortable speaking about this as yourself now? Why or why not?
5. How did it feel to hear others speaking their mind politically?
6. Did you particularly agree or disagree with any statements made? How would you deal with that if these students had spoken out as themselves instead of as characters?
Acting On Our Pasts: Taking Our Own Experiences and Staging Them
Goal: To elevate the voices and stories of various people who have been through different experiences. (30-90 mins)
Procedure: Give 10-30 minutes for each participant to write a monologue, story, or character interaction exhibiting an interaction, protest, crisis, or inner dialogue that deals with something they have struggled with. If participants prefer, have them take a story from a magazine or newspaper and write a monologue or interaction based off of that story. Ask any participants comfortable with having their story acted out or publicly read to write their name down on an index card. Shuffle these. Ask each participant whether they prefer to act or direct. Based on the responses, have those acting draw an index card. The person whose name is drawn will give their story to the person who drew their name. If the story has multiple roles, shuffle the name back in. Have those acting keep drawing names until you either run out of names or have no more people left to act. Assign those who are directing to a story with multiple acting roles. Give 5-10 minutes for rehearsal. Have the actors perform or read the stories, one group at a time, either to each other or to an audience.
1. What experience(s) surprised you?
2. What realizations did you make while writing or listening to these stories?
3. What was difficult to listen to?
4. What was difficult to write or say?
5. How has your perception of the people around you changed?
6. What is a struggle you want to talk about but didn’t?
Revolutionary Road Characters: Scavenger Hunt
Goal: To explore the history of activism in theater. (30-60 min)
Procedure: Find out the names of several actors, playwrights, directors, and plays pertaining to activism or your specific focus. Then assign each participant a name from the list. Have the participants take 5-10 minutes to research their assigned subject. Then, have each participant write up to a paragraph about their subject. Have each participant place their paragraph at different points around the space. Give each participant the full list of names you assigned, and have them look around the area to find out how each of these people or plays contributed to activism. Once everyone has found out about each actor, playwright, director, and/or play and written down what they learned, ask questions about what each of these people and plays did.
1. What was the most interesting person, and why?
2. How do you think these people and plays affected theater as a whole?
3. What was the most surprising fact you found?
4. How would you revolutionize theater as an activist?
Goal: To experience multiple ways to address conflicts that arise in the process of protest. (10-60 min)
Procedure: Starting with a volunteer, the facilitator will present one of the statements given below (or others that the facilitator or participants come up with). The volunteer responds. At any point, another participant may say “freeze” and take the place of the previous person; this may be repeated by other participants as necessary.
Facilitator’s Note: This activity is not about assessing the responses of participants, judging tone, navigating rationality, or convincing anyone. This activity is intended to provide participants with multiple perspectives, and open a dialogue about the many possible responses to any given situation.
a) You can’t/ shouldn’t protest this way. You’re doing it wrong.
b) But s/he has freedom of speech.
c) You’re not being very tolerant of my view.
1. What drove you to respond to the statement you responded to?
2. Why did you call ‘freeze’ at the moment you did?
3. Did you learn anything by listening to the responses of others? If so, what?
4. What emotional response did you have to the responses of others?