Teachers Get Schooled, Backstage

Heaven Anderson PhotoKaty Rubin had a message for the teachers: “If you feel confused anytime in the next four hours, you’re doing it right.”

“If we want to change things,” she continued, “we first have to recognize that we don’t know. We have to be willing to be confused.”

For K-12 teachers who spend their days moving students through curriculum, rubrics, and tests, toward so-called clarity and away from confusion, Rubin’s invitation on Saturday was a welcome one. They could put aside their usual modes of being in a classroom. They were in a different kind of space.

That space was Long Wharf Theatre, and this was the final “Ed Lab” of the 2016-17 season. Ed Lab is Long Wharf’s professional development opportunity for teachers.

Katy Rubin, founder and executive director of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, facilitated this session with Rebecca Kelly Golfman, actor, attorney, and TONYC’s creative advocacy coordinator. Both women have Connecticut roots: Golfman is a Hartford native, and Rubin graduated from Wilbur Cross High School and Educational Center for the Arts (ECA) in New Haven. Their goal for the Ed Lab: to give teachers concrete tools to pursue change in their classrooms and in themselves.

Throughout the day, teachers and facilitators stayed away from talking politics, but the national context provided a pointed backdrop. Rob Esposito, drama teacher at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School, said the current political climate is making his job tougher than ever.

“There are a lot of very scared kids out there who feel personally attacked by the administration that’s in power,” he said. “They feel frightened and angry. I’ve never seen such fear of government in my lifetime. In our society right now, we’re teaching kids to fight hard and fight dirty. As a teacher, it’s really hard to go against that.”

Theatre of the Oppressed NYC offered ideas to try.

At Long Wharf, each of three annual Ed Labs is connected to a particular production. Teachers who participate receive free tickets for their students.  Saturday’s Ed Lab prefaced Smart People, opening March 15. In the play, four Harvard-affiliated professionals—an actress, surgical intern, and two professors—orbit each other, trying to talk about race without ever really getting to its core.

“The characters are having intense conversations about race and gender and how these things affect our everyday lives,” said Madelyn Ardito, Long Wharf’s director of education. “It’s electric. We felt Theatre of the Oppressed NYC was the perfect company for the Ed Lab because they’re actively working with people to develop tools for difficult conversations. Beyond their theater practice, they are dedicated to taking action.”

After breakfast in the Long Wharf green room (yogurt, donuts, and Rob Esposito’s homemade peanut brittle), teachers entered Rehearsal Hall B, where famous actors over the decades have run lines and practiced scenes. They weren’t here to do traditional theater, though. Throughout the day the group used workshops and games to examine social conditioning, power dynamics, and community needs and rights. They delved into strategies for “demechanization,” the reclaiming of one’s full humanity and agency. And they laughed a lot.

In a game designed to explore different dimensions of rules — following, making, breaking and changing them — Rubin gave the orders: “When I say ‘WALK,’ you walk. When I say ‘STOP,’ stop.” Easy enough.

“Now, when I say ‘WALK,’ you stop. When I say ‘STOP,’ walk.”

This was trickier. When she added CLAP, JUMP, hand and knee gestures — and reversed those too — things got downright impossible. After each section of the tightly structured day, teachers had a chance to reflect on what they learned. Where do rules come from, anyway? How did it feel to do the opposite of what we’re told? How do we change rules that we believe need changing?

The next game, “Homage to Magritte,” riffed on artist René Magritte’s famous painting of a smoking pipe with the caption, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). Using gestures only, teachers transformed an empty plastic water bottle into something else — a flashlight, crystal ball, rolling pin, umbrella.

“It’s about reclaiming our imaginations,” Rubin explained. “One of the things we need to do is to take our imaginations seriously as a tool to change ourselves and our situations. You can rewrite the rules using your imagination.”

For teacher Denise Cox, that idea resonated. She said some of her students seem cut off from their imaginations. They don’t relate to fiction. In a world dominated by news and nonfiction, imagination is less central to many kids’ experiences today. Yet in Theatre of the Oppressed, imagination is the most powerful, radical tool a person can possess.

Changing Theater For Change

Augusto Boal, legendary theater artist, developed Theatre of the Oppressed in Brazil in the 1970s. He’d been doing traditional political theater — what Rubin called “art with a message” — until he came to realize it didn’t go far enough. When Brazilian farmers, who had lost their land under the dictatorship, pushed back at Boal and his troupe for their incapacity to take action, Boal began to question traditional theater practice. He saw that he and his artists were reenacting oppression by “coming into other people’s space and telling them what to do,” explained Rubin, who studied with Boal in Brazil.

Inspired by the work of Paulo Freire, author of the 1968 classic book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Boal designed Theatre of the Oppressed as a tool for helping oppressed people discover and act on their own solutions.

Shared knowledge and power are fundamental to the philosophy. At the Ed Lab, several teachers were familiar with Freire’s challenging of traditional educational norms in which the teacher is the fountain of knowledge and knows exclusively what students need.

“Freire recognized that we all have power and information, just different kinds,” Rubin explained. “What I know is different from what you know.”

Hillhouse High School English teacher Danielle Palmieri said she learned “there are different modes of learning and approaching hard conversations about oppression, racism, and the systems that are working against our students.”

“A lot of my students have some consciousness,” she continued. “They know oppressive systems exist. But they may not have the opportunity to talk about these things in class. If you do it in the right way, like our facilitators did, you become surprised by what you already know.”

Special Education teacher Leslie Stasko from Foster Day School in Hamden plans to use the tactile “Homage to Magritte” to change students’ expectations and their tendency toward binary thinking. She loved Rubin’s call to become “comfortable with discomfort.”

“We need to model that for our students,” Stasko said, “and be open to their experience.”

In addition to teaching games, TONYC’s Ed Lab explored performance. Rebecca Kelly Golfman led the group in making a very short play. They set up chairs to form a traditional proscenium-style stage and audience. In this play, there were two characters: Katy Rubin and a teacher-actor from the group. The actor’s job was to try to get Rubin to shake his hand. The only rule: no spoken words.

Different teachers improvised different strategies. Rubin resisted at almost every turn. After each attempt, Golfman facilitated a conversation about what happened and why. This is called the “forum,” in which audience members explore solutions to a problem posed by a play — a basic performance structure of Theatre of the Oppressed. In a forum, there’s one rule: you can’t “actually hurt the person” you’re onstage with. Beyond that, every option remains on the table — even the exploration of violence as a tactic, perhaps using mime or other theatrical techniques.

Rubin observed that each time, the teacher-actors approached her individually, not collectively. There was no rule against involving other people, she reminded them.  She emphasized the collective nature of Theatre of the Oppressed: People find out they’re not alone and come together to solve the problems they face.

“That was my most surprising learning moment,” Palmieri said of the handshake play. “No matter how aware you think you are, there’s always room for overlooking steps in a process. If we were really listening, we would have understood that group action was a possible solution.”

Perhaps the teachers limited themselves, but they weren’t wrong. “We don’t ever, in any situation, tell someone they found the answer we were looking for,” said Rubin. “We never say, ‘that’s the right thing or the wrong thing.’ We’re not guiding or expecting things to go in a certain way.”

Building on the performance theme, facilitators asked each participant to imagine a real-life experience when they couldn’t access the healthcare they needed. Using concrete steps (and almost no words), within thirty minutes the teachers had created the basic building blocks of several short plays. In a full-length TONYC process, these plays would be developed into Forum Theater and shared with an audience, who would then be invited onstage to explore new solutions.

To close, two teachers facilitated one Theatre of the Oppressed exercise each and the group gave feedback. Rubin and Golfman offered several tips: Don’t explain the point of an exercise before you do it. Give people a chance to learn from their experiences. Recognize your own biases and notice when they come through. Ask yourself if you are lifting up certain voices over others. Trust the intelligence of other people in the room.

Teachers say they will “definitely” use the things they learned from TONYC in their classrooms.

“We all have the capacity to be both oppressor and oppressed,” said Golfman. “Sometimes that shifts from moment to moment and day to day. It’s really important that we examine ourselves and how systems of oppression are operating within us.”

“These are not theater games to be a better actor onstage, but to be a better actor in your life,” Rubin said. “We’re talking about using tools to have conversations about real things.”

“We have found, as artists going into schools and other spaces, that communities are dealing with a lot of problems,” said Long Wharf’s Ardito. “It hasn’t gotten better; it’s more volatile. We need intervention now. It’s our hope that beyond free tickets and professional development, we are giving people concrete things they can walk into their classrooms and use on a daily basis. We also want to give them tools to build community in the classroom — to really get to know each other as humans, be empathetic toward one another, and find ways to work together as a team.”

Esposito echoed Ardito. “We need empathy in our society right now,” he said. “I don’t see any way to teach it, other than through the arts.”


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