Theater, social change, and the many aspects of sustainability

I teach a class called “Performance and Social Change”, and it’s to this class that I brought ideas from the Trillium workshop. In the class we explore the body of theatrical techniques created by Brazilian director and activist Augusto Boal. “Theatre of the Oppressed”, the umbrella term for these tools, help people to observe, reflect, and catalyze social change. Students in the course learn some of Boal’s techniques, then are challenged to share the techniques through workshops that they lead with members of our community partner organization.  This past year, our community partner was the Durham Crisis Response Center, which provides services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Students find this course very empowering. For some students, the process of going from student to workshop leader is a challenge, and it’s a major victory when they do it. The students support each other, and receive support and encouragement from workshop participants as well.

We talk a lot about structures of power, which we try to be very mindful of. Complex structures of power are embedded in Duke and Durham’s town/gown history and in the race and class backgrounds we all bring into the room. It is super important for the students to become conscious of structures of power and power dynamics so that they can act and respond to each other and community partners consciously.  I see lightbulbs go off for them as they make real connections and are inspired by incredible members of the community who are working to undo racism, sexism and classism in the Duke/Durham community. Hopefully this experience sustains them and motivates them to be agents of social change beyond the course.

The content of the course always engages with the idea of sustainability from a social justice perspective. A piece of that picture is economic sustainability.  For instance, the Durham Crisis Response Center serves women who are living with domestic violence, and if a woman has no means of supporting herself or her kids, it’s a piece of why she might stay with a violent partner. The Justice Theater Project, another community partner we’ve worked with, struggles to achieve their own financial sustainability as a small theater company. We have also worked with NC WARN, which advocates for sustainable energy and environmental justice.

This year’s syllabus framed three different ways that the course would work to be sustainable and address issues of sustainability:  self-sustainability, social sustainability, and environmental sustainability. We start each class with yoga, breathing, and mindfulness practice. The content of the class, the theater techniques and the work with our community partners is all about social justice. Environmental sustainability is practiced through recycling, turning the lights out when the space is not in use, and in our food choices when we’re providing food for people. 

The lens of the Trillium workshop gave me a frame for thinking about and sharing with my student the above-mentioned aspects of sustainability.  Caring for ourselves, each other and our surroundings IS living in a sustainable manner.  Emphasizing sustainability in these ways on the syllabus helped legitimize those components of the class, underscoring their importance and making them more official. Thinking and talking about the personal and social as part of the big picture of sustainability helped me bring in the environmental piece to the class — asking students to make environmentally responsible choices became part of the class process.  Turning in all written assignments online was a shift for me to becoming as paperless as possible.  For the students, this was preferable!

Being part of the Trillium community and feeling like there is a community around sustainability at Duke has been great. It helps me feel less of a lone wolf. I have colleagues in the Dance Program who are rabid recyclers like myself, but now I’ve met others in this community across the university who I wouldn’t otherwise know. I think we need to use this community to generate a critical mass and move the crisis that we on planet Earth are facing into the mainstream of thought and action at Duke. The time is now!

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