How can someone who loves the performing arts but is also committed to civic engagement find a path to combine their interests in meaningful ways? How can they use their artistic gifts in service to their communities? This seminar will explore the many ways in which theater and other performing artists create work as a civic and service practice. We will begin by examining early-20th-century American movements such as the Living Newspaper and the Hull House theater project, then move to more recent examples of performance-based activism such as Larry Kramer’s ACTUP, Bread and Puppet Theater Company, Liz Lerman’s Dance Exchange, Urban Bushwomen, and Augusto Boal’s “legislative theater” model. We will also explore the role of civic engagement and service in theater for young audiences, educational theater, and applied theater practice, and will meet with students and educational leaders involved the Trenton Ensuring the Arts for Any Given Child Initiative. Finally, we will delve into examples of theater artists and companies currently creating civically engaged work such as the “Every 28 Hours” theater project, the Ghostlight Project, and Lookingglass Theatre Company’s Civic Practice Lab. Students will work toward a final paper or project that asks them to envision and potentially implement service and civic practice into an existing artistic endeavor, or to expand an existing service project to include the performing arts.
Throughout the course, students will be asked to read and think critically about the role of performing arts in society, explore and develop their own notion of civically engaged art-making, and consider the responsibility of theater artists to address questions of civic engagement and service. How do individual, systemic, and policy change interact and how can/do performing arts operate at all three of these levels? How might we as artists and arts lovers consider ways that our work can reflect and affect current sociopolitical conversations? What is our responsibility as art-makers to try to “be of service” or to shape or change civic society? Can/does a social change agenda hamper an artist’s creative efficacy? Can/do plays and productions influence civic practice without that being the primary intent of the creators?