Best Practice

In the graduate student lounge in Susan Campbell Hall, a group of about 30 people watches performers act out a scenario in which one student makes insensitive remarks about another’s weight and appearance. “It took a lot of guts to post those photos from Halloween,” an actor says. “I wouldn’t have had the guts to wear that Wonder Woman costume, if I was as big as you.”

All of us in the audience, it’s fair to say, are wincing.

The scene brings to mind experiences—at work, school, or social gatherings—when someone says something insensitive and we don’t know how to constructively reply. UO theater troupe Rehearsals for Life (RfL) offers students, faculty, and staff members a creative opportunity to talk about, and prepare for, these uncomfortable moments. The troupe, founded in 2009 and sponsored by the Office of the Dean of Students and the Graduate School, offers workshops and performances that encourage audiences to think about—and practice—problematic interpersonal interactions that relate to equity and diversity.  In recognition for their exemplary work, the troupe recently earned a Gold Award from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA).

“Rehearsals for Life creates a space where people can address issues that we don’t talk about very easily,” says drama therapist Abigail Leeder, who directs the group.

RfL member Eric Braman, a graduate student in nonprofit management, says, “The problem is, someone saying ‘I’m offended’ tends to be the end of the conversation. But that should really be the beginning.”

Audience members are encouraged to do more than passively watch the scenes that RfL acts out. Instead, spectators are asked to call out, “stop” and then take the place of one of the actors on stage. The group then acts the scene out again with the audience volunteer improvising responses that might lead to a happier ending to the scene. In the case of the cringe-inducing comments about weight and appearance, the audience member who interrupted the scene was particularly effective. A graduate student—who happens to research body image and health—was able to ad-lib a compassionate but firm explanation that a slim figure does not necessarily equal good health. They pointed out that feelings of shame about one’s body are also very damaging to a person’s health.

In this approach, known as “forum theater” and developed by the Brazilian director and activist Augusto Boal, audience members become what Boal called “spect-actors.” They do not simply sit and watch a performance, but they are invited on stage to act out a scene and alter its ending. All of the exercises that RfL presents are based on the actual experiences of group members or spectators. So when the scenes depict racism or other oppressive behaviors, it is a powerful experience to see an audience member rewrite the script.

Of course, these “rehearsals” do not always go smoothly, and members of the troupe emphasize that their goal is not to tell others specifically what to say or not say. Instead, the group simply wants the audience to think and talk more deeply about the potential harm that biased attitudes and remarks can have on others. Group members make clear that they don’t see their work as coddling students or protecting them from reality—two common criticisms of the current higher education environment. Instead, they believe their work provides students with the tools and confidence to speak up in situations in which they otherwise might be silent.

Media commentators have lately been calling for more resilience among students and less hand-holding by colleges and universities—but they rarely offer specifics on how this might be accomplished. RfL, by contrast, offers actual tools to help people on campus enter into productive conversations about race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and other highly personal and often politicized issues.

Another technique the group uses is “playback theater.” An audience member shares a personal story, and then the actors perform a brief improvisation based on that story. The audience member then has opportunity to talk about how it felt to see their story acted out. Such performances also often lead to conversations about how to address bias in classroom or work settings.

“We find that by addressing these issues through theater,” says Leeder, “audience members are able to connect with the stories and experiences of others in ways that they might not if we were just having a conversation. We can use humor, we can present a wide range of experiences, and audiences can find something of themselves in these stories.”

During a recent workshop, actors performed a “story weaving” in which they shared personal stories in the form of monologues. Later, audience members recounted their own stories—from experiences with bias, stereotyping, and racism to their uncertainty about how to intervene when they feel others are being mistreated.

For members of RfL, there are no pat answers—getting audience members engaged in deep conversations  is the goal. “I find that in the Pacific Northwest, there is this air of social justice, but I worry that it often only exists on the surface level,” says Steve Livingston, a graduate student in counseling psychology. “But here we get the chance to go a lot deeper. Plus, I think acting in theater is a damn good time.”

The 10 members of Rehearsals for Life receive only a small stipend for their participation in the group. They are graduate students from a variety of disciplines, mostly from outside the arts, and each must commit to weekly rehearsals and regular performances for three terms. While a few have a performing background, some bring no theater experience at all.

Members say they reap considerable rewards from thinking deeply about how issues of social justice come into play in their daily lives, and from the feeling of contributing to the common good. Surveys given to workshop participants suggest that those who attend do feel better prepared for difficult conversations after attending RfL sessions.

And besides, we can all use more practice.

Mariah Acton, a graduate student in both conflict and dispute resolution and public administration, recounted an experience she had during Thanksgiving break. A relative was making statements that she found problematic and hurtful, but she could not figure out how to even begin a conversation about his comments. “I felt like I should call him out compassionately and respectfully, but I didn’t even know how to start that conversation.” She acknowledges that even for those who think about these issues all the time, it can be very difficult to know how to respond in the heat of the moment.

As RfL helps students prepare for difficult conversations with family, friends, and coworkers, they are grateful that there’s always time for another rehearsal.

—By Jonathan Graham

Jonathan Graham is the former managing editor of Oregon Quarterly.

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