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From shining in the spotlight to shining the spotlight on social issues: Theatre and Social Change at Messiah

In “The Real Thing: a Play,” Czechoslovakian producer and writer Tom Stoppard wrote, “Words are sacred … If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.” Nudging the world toward social change has been the goal of Messiah College’s Theatre and Social Change course since its introduction to the theatre curriculum in 2002. The impetus behind Theatre and Social Change (TASC) came after Messiah College professor Valerie Rae Smith facilitated the student-writing of an original production, “E.D. & Ana,” which studied eating disorders among college students. Smith says, “Students were so responsive to the play and the conversations surrounding “E.D. & Ana” that a general education course was created. By 2002 Theatre and Social Change was a term students used across campus, in the residence halls and in the classrooms.”

Creative outlets like theatre are typically considered pure entertainment, but TASC poses a novel question: what if theatre could shine the spotlight on stories that illuminate social issues? Through TASC Smith hopes “to disturb our notion of what theatre is, what it can be and how much potential theatre has to join our desires to heal a world in pain … at its best, TASC can be a part of God’s ongoing work of reconciliation.”   In selecting topics for class discussion and dramatization, Smith chooses social justice issues that students consider “taboo” or problematic, such as minimum wage reform, the death penalty, cancer, organ donation, medical ethics and human trafficking. Sophomore Courtney Chase says, “This is a different kind of theatre that discusses serious issues and helps me to understand a bit better the struggles people go through that I have not experienced.”

In class, students begin the semester studying parables, learning the power of words to “nudge the world” from the greatest storyteller of all times, Jesus. Students then study writings from 20th century authors and activists who applied Christian liberation theology to their theoretical development, such as  Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed.” Smith says, “Boal voiced my hopes when he said that ‘when we look beyond appearances, we see oppressors and oppressed people, in all societies, ethnic groups, genders and social classes … We have to create another world because we know it is possible. But it is up to us to build this other world with our hands and by acting on the stage and in our own life.’”

Senior theatre major Christie Heimbach says, “In last spring’s Theatre and Social Change class, we learned that an effective way to touch the audience is to reveal a performance which inspires questioning … I’ve always been extremely passionate about resolving injustices, and it’s exciting to think that you can create awareness with art.” This fall, Heimbach produced her senior show, “Beyond the Rain,” drawing from experiences of social injustice she saw while doing mission work in Africa. This moving show premiered in the Black Box theatre in the college’s new, state-of-the-art Calvin and Janet High Center for Worship and Performing Arts, a magnificent facility for theatre, dance, worship and music. Heimbach’s show will next be performed in Scotland at the Edinburg Fringe Festival in August.

Theatre and Social Change ultimately uses theatre as a venue for raising social consciousness and creating civic dialogue. Smith says, “TASC invites us to live in the tension, a place of both energy and, yes, enervation. When we give ourselves to the work we move from ignorance to knowledge, from defensiveness to vulnerability, from the despair that comes with the nightly news to the hope that comes in the morning when we dare to hope that we can change ourselves and our world for the better.”

By Katie Johnston ‘15. This story is part of the Mennonite World Review annual college issue.

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