Inquiry, Reflection, Action!

By E. Okobi

Helen Barns in a scene from My Name is Rachel Corrie, their scene presentation for the 2012 NYU Steinhardt Educational Theatre Youth Ensemble scene showcase.

Paulo Freire’s theory of the student-teacher and Augusto Boal’s innovative work with “spect-actors”, and their espousal of an academic and artistic process based on inquiry, reflection, research and action inspired me to apply their theories in Theater: Pedagogy and Practice, a course taught in the Steinhardt Educational Theatre department by Amy Cordileone in Spring, 2012. The coursework involved working with members of the Educational Theatre Program’s Youth Ensemble.

The first thing we did as a group was sit and share our stories with each other, a feature common to Participatory Action Research, or PAR, a methodology deeply indebted to Freire. Through stories, we learned that not all of us had been born in the States, and that the majority of our little group was familiar with the immigration story, and its themes of cultural casualties (such as lost languages), code-switching and crossed signals. Together we reflected on the similarities and differences of our paths to the performing arts, and what we hoped to get from working together. We then set ground rules and established common goals together.

My colleague Justin Daniel and I were assigned three young women of varying performance experience and skill levels. Beyond meeting the challenge of finding scripts written for a multicultural, all female cast, I determined early that I would work with an intentionality that drew upon the work of Freire and Boal, and that developed their critical thinking and performance skills. After selections from the play My Name is Rachel Corrie were chosen for our scene, we set to work on character development and establishing the world of the play, which is based on the journals, letters and recordings of a young American woman killed while protesting Israeli government actions in Palestine. The young actors had all expressed a desire to take on challenging material, and this selection had been made with that request in mind. They immediately identified with the play’s young heroine, whose upbringing was quite different from their own, but whose words resonated with them nonetheless. We began establishing the world by first sharing the questions we had about Corrie’s life and writings. These questions informed the dramaturgical research undertaken by the young actors. Once this information was gathered, we reflected together on its content, and the emotional impact it had on us, and on ways to express what we’d learned through visual as well as physical performance. Each actor was cast to play Corrie at a specific time in her life (age twelve, nineteen and twenty-one respectively). Our questions and reflections led us to establish a spare set that provided not only visual context, but contributed its own narrative by tracing Corrie’s journey from sheltered young girl to worldly advocate.

Steinhardt Ed Theatre Youth Ensemble veteran Jackie Rivera portrays Rachel Corrie at age 21.

It’s a challenge to dramatize literature not written for performance. Our young actors repeatedly relied on inquiry, research, reflection and action to find the dramatic truth in Corrie’s writings, and to identify their own objectives and beat shifts. We discussed words, images and ideas found in Corrie’s writing that resonated with us, and used information gathered and reflections gleaned from conversations to ascertain their significance to Corrie, and in service to the story we were trying to tell. For the traditional director, this process can be frustrating. It is long, prone to tangents, and often takes time away from standard practices such as blocking and staging. It can be, however, invaluable to the young actor, particularly for those who join drama programs wishing to gain key pro-social, as well performance skills. The young ladies’ deep commitment to the subject matter provided incentive for them to memorize their lines, their curiosity led them to undertake exhaustive research well and beyond what they’d been asked to deliver, and the knowledge gained from this process bolstered their confidence in their ability to make thoughtful contributions to costume, props and staging for the piece.

By the time we began blocking our scene, their movements developed naturally and fluidly, shaped and informed by the research they’d done, their contributions to props and costumes, and their commitment to enlivening the words of a woman with whom they’d come to strongly identify. While Corrie’s words remain compelling more than a decade after her death, it’s uncertain that the actors we’d worked with would have produced the performances they gave without the freedom to fully engage with the text. If I had not come to this process convinced that the students I’d be working with had just as much to teach me as I did them, I would not have learned what I needed to know about their backgrounds and motivations to seek out a text that engaged them on both an academic and performance level. By treating my students as my intellectual equals, I co-facilitated a process through which they experienced marked artistic and academic growth. This experience underscored for me the genius of Freire and Boal, who assert that within each of us lies infinite, singular expertise. By allowing myself to acknowledge the skill of the students I worked with, I facilitated not just their growth as scholars, but also my own growth as an educator.

Members of the NYU Steinhardt Educational Theatre Youth Ensemble take their bows at the conclusion of their Spring 2012 showcase.

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The Program in Educational Theatre’s Youth Ensemble is comprised of young people aged 13-18 from the New York City area. They work with NYU students in Shakespeare’s Theatre I in fall and Theater: Pedagogy and Practice in spring with a culminating performance in April.