Community-Based Performance: Where Art and Activism Intersect

This is a semester-long interdisciplinary course for performing arts and public policy students that investigates the potential for performance as a catalyst for social change by pursuing the question, “How can the process of creating a performance clarify community conflict, create dialogue around issues, unite people to oppose oppression, and/or effect change in people’s lives?” Working alongside a community group, students harness the power of performing art to create positive change around a social issue. This is a hands-on, participatory course.

Students will experience:

  • Exercises, games and structures for creating original performance material;
  • A collaborative creative process that leads to a performance of an original work;
  • Techniques for creating safety, fostering creativity, and building trust in groups;
  • Group communication and leadership models, including peaceful conflict resolution;
  • Examination of their assumptions about themselves, their community, and their community neighbors;
  • Planning and facilitating creative workshops and rehearsals with a community group, followed by a performance with the group;
  • Researching, interviewing, writing a paper, and reporting on a community-based performing artist;
  • Keeping a journal of the process and writing a paper summarizing and evaluating the experience.

The Shape of the Semester

Part One: Students read community-based art theory while they practice: group communication, facilitation techniques, equitable power-sharing, consensus building, peaceful communication, and conflict resolution. At the same time, students collaborate to create an original performance piece. Students identify a theme and research it by gathering stories, improvising, reading, writing, and dialoguing. Students practice facilitating and playing theater games that enable creative dialogue on and investigation of social issues. Students also identify a community-based artist or company to research, interview, write a paper about, and make a class presentation about.

Young people who worked with Duke students to write and perform “Gossip Diary”

Part Two: Students work with a community group: they facilitate the creation of an original performance that addresses a local issue. Hand-in-hand with the community group, students define the issue, set goals for desired change; research the issue using interviews, story circles, readings or other methods; generate performance material by writing, playing theater games, and improvising; shape the material; rehearse it, and perform it with and for community members. Students write a final paper documenting the process of the course and the community work, reflecting on the journey, and evaluating the results.

What Duke students wrote about this course

“I learned so much in this course about leadership and communication! The class was truly an eye-opening experience. I have developed skills I can apply to any situation. The instructor was incredibly supportive and charismatic as well.”

“Sheila Kerrigan is passionate about the arts, social justice, and the development of her students–this was conveyed in every aspect of the class. She went above and beyond the call of duty in terms of encouraging participation & creating an environment where everyone could grow & thrive.”

“Sheila was an inspiration and an amazing leader. The course was intense but in a very personal, in-depth way. The requirements were well-thought-out and reflected well what we learned and how we learned it.”

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