Last Friday I attended the Oskar Eustis Salon sponsored by the Providence Athenaeum. Response was so great the event was moved to the First Unitarian Church on Benefit Street to accommodate the eight hundred people eager to hear Eustis speak about the importance of theater in our society. Why theater is essential to democracy
As soon as he began to speak, I immediately made connections, in my inner monologue, to the FNED 346 course Schooling in a Democratic Society. Thus, I am compelled to reflect on his message in relation to the course themes he touched upon: oppression, diversity, dialogue, discourse, marginalization, and democracy.
In his opening remarks, he explained how the Athenians originated democracy. Greek theater began with one person standing and addressing the audience, presenting one point of view. It evolved to adding another person, then more individual actors on stage so that the audience could hear two sides of an issue through the dialogue resulting between or among the characters. The additional voices allowed the audience to feel empathy with characters and to see and understand how two sides, through dialogue, could reach a compromise that all could support. This model, involving the people in reaching an agreed upon decision is a model of how democracy works and it began with the Athenians and was memorialized by the Father of Greek Tragedy Aeschylus in his works, some of which survived through the ages to inform our understanding of that period of Athenian peace and citizenship. Theatre is a vehicle to engage different voices in solving some of the problems we face as people in our society, organizations, cities and politics. It is a way to bring us together to resolve conflict peacefully.
Ira Shor, in Education is Politics , emphasizes how important the participation of students is in schools and classrooms. Engaging students around their interests and through dialogue defining their goals and what they need to know and do to achieve those goals is a way not only to involve everyone but also for every voice to be heard (Freire, 1993):
The voices of the oppressed
The voices of different genders
The voices of sexual orientations
The voices of people with disabilities
The voices of all ethnic groups
The voices of all religions
Eustis gave examples of when the theatre brought (a) play(s) to the prisons, there were times when the prisoners responded out loud to various lines of dialogue. They turned the play into “call and response” as issues to which they related were addressed. Imagine how empowered the actors felt that their work was so relevant to the audience! So often, seeing a play is a privilege because one must have the resources to pay admission. Bringing this art form to the prison population gives the oppressed an opportunity to participate by experiencing the work and discussing it. (Johnson, 2018)
How do we do this in education? We ask classes to state what they know, what they want to know in this class, how they would like to show what they have learned (Shor, 2003. We structure classes to work in collaborative groups, so they can take advantage of the strengths of one another (Oakes, 1985). We offer classes opportunities to demonstrate their ideas in different forms that utilize their interests and/or culture (Fine, Roberts, et al, 2004; Lyiscott, 2018).
Eustis gave such a positive message about the power of theatre that I thought about the optimistic ideas in Delpit’s “Will It Help the Sheep” (2012) and Codell’s Educating Esmé (2009). Both centered on the passion, dedication and humility of teacher/actors making a difference in the lives of our fellow persons.
Codell, E. R. (2009). Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Delpit, L. (2012). Will It Help the Sheep? About Campus, July-August), wileyonlinelibrary.com.
Fine, M et al. (2004). Echoes of Brown :Youth Documenting and Performing the Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. NY: Teachers College Press.
Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. NY: Simon & Schuster.
Johnson, A. (2001). Privilege, Power, and Difference. Mountainview, CA: Mayfield Publ. Co.
Lyiscott, J. (2018). Why English Class is Silencing Students of Color. Ted Talk. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4dc1axRwE4
Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping Track: How Schools Restructure Unequally. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Shor, I. (2003). Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.