Performing Arts and/as Civic Engagement

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?



Dear freshmen,

Erica Nagel, who is the director of education and engagement at the amazing McCarter theater, who are leaders in this field, is going to teach an extraordinary new course as a freshman seminar in the spring of 2018. The course will look at Performing Arts as Civic Engagement, a topic close to the heart of most of our theater students.

I don’t want you to miss this course because it is listed through FRS and not through THR at the moment; theater will accept this course as a requirement for the theater certificate. The course number is FRS 136 and fulfills an SA requirement. in my own experience with freshmen seminars, they are a really wonderful format through which to study and get to know people at the university. And I highly highly recommend Erica as an extraordinary faculty member. Several of our alums in the theater field got their start in her courses.


Jane Cox
Director of the Program in Theater 







Mondays, 1:30-4:20 pm


Erica Nagel