Acting toward social change

There’s a new major at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Nearly three years in the planning, Theater for Social Change (TFSC) combines course work in theory, history and studio practice of performance in ways that students can apply their talents to current social justice issues.

Similar programs have been up and running in Southern California and the East Coast. But according to Randy Wyatt, theater program director and associate professor of theater, it’s something new for the Midwest.

Why Grand Rapids?

“There’s always been a social change or an educational component in some ways that is part of the artistic and social culture of west Michigan,” Wyatt said. “So I think this is a really good area to put together a Theater for Social Change major.”

Making art relevant

Aquinas College graduates in related majors were already doing outreach in creative and artistic ways.

“I know that many of them work as managers in community theaters, and that they are trained to direct, act in and do set design,” said Barbara McCargar, chair of the music department. “But if you’re going to impact the community, what you’re doing has to be relevant to them. Randy collaborated with Dr. Mike Lorr, a member of the sociology faculty, and started working together to see what this kind of program would look like.”

Classes in directing, script writing and analysis, acting and improvisation are included for theater majors. Theater for Social Change adds courses like intercultural communication, race and ethnicity, social problems and community leadership.

Catholic social teachings are expressed in those courses that seek to teach students to “apply their aesthetic and storytelling talents to current social justice issues, declaring the truth of problems and exploring new approaches towards solutions in real life situations, not just in the classroom,” according to the college’s website.

The major will prepare students for opportunities in performance or to pursue graduate studies in fields like clinical therapy, public administration and social work.

“This ties everything together in a really beautiful way,” Wyatt said. “I grew up in an evangelical background, and the kind of theater I was involved in tended to be preachy and tended to assume that you already knew the answer. What I love about being here is that Aquinas really embraces the idea that there are mysteries of God and things that we don’t understand, and plenty of things that maybe we should look at the question more clearly, hopefully so that we can discover more complex and compassionate solutions. It’s really being able to articulate the questions rather than saying that we already know in some sort of arrogant way.”

Social efforts

Wyatt is passionate about the vitality of contemporary work with “a touchpoint of where we are now.” He also looks for classical work that resonates with current issues and a social dynamic that provides a new perception.

Theater for Social Change will include both product-oriented theater and process theater.

“Product-oriented is creating a piece and then putting it in some sort of theater setting, and you buy tickets and come to see it,” he said.

“That’s creating a product for the consumer, and we will do some of that. Process theater is where we go out into the community and get to know people and learn what it’s like to be them. It’s about the creation of a theatrical conversation. It’s about speaking alongside them, not for them.”

The Value of the Arts
The importance of having music, the theater and other arts on campus, said Barbara McCargar, chair of the music department at Aquinas College, is having an outlet for expression.

Wyatt already has done this kind of theater. Last year he collaborated with Mixed Roots Collective, a theater company that works with diverse voices, and Actors Theater of Grand Rapids to create a piece called “The Talk.” The 40-minute production explored some issues that African-American parents face with their children, including interacting with the police.

“It was not a play that finished with ‘and then this happened’ and everything was resolved,” he said. “It brought everything to the point of crisis and did not resolve it. That allowed us to open up the space when the play was over for the audience to talk about it and to bring their feelings to the table. I told them that they could write whatever they wanted on sticky notes and put them up.”

Wyatt is working on productions for the upcoming semesters and has some ideas for the future. The focus will be to bring social issues to light, give people voices to be heard and make people think.

“I want to take the audience by surprise in how they have become invested in the material,” he said.

The vision of Aquinas College, he noted, supports the vision of Theater for Social Change.

“One thing that impresses me about being on a Catholic campus is the commitment that my colleagues have to the dignity of people,” he said. “It astonishes me.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

Read more of the articles from the Fall college section here.