- Odakle Ste? (Where Are You From?): Active Learning and Community-Based Theatre in Former Yugoslavia and the US
Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.—Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson (3)
I believe that theatre’s function is to remind us of the big human issues, to remind us of our terror and our humanity. In our quotidian lives, we live in constant repetitions of habitual patterns. Many of us sleep through our lives. Art should offer experiences that alter these patterns, awaken what is asleep, and remind us of our original terror.—Anne Bogart (7)
I remember my disorientation and anxiety upon entering the volunteers’ bedroom in Refugee Camp Two, Varazdin, Croatia. A blanket draped on a frayed rope separated a group of army cots from the smoke-filled kitchen area. Darko, our sponsor from the Croatian-based volunteer organization Suncokret, introduced choreographer Sabrina Peck, photographer Jessie Chornesky, and me to a group of people, whom I assumed to be volunteers, sitting around a kitchen table. Only later did I learn that two of the “volunteers,” Goran and Amra, were actually Bosnian refugees in the camp. They had not conformed to the picture in my head—they did not look or act as I expected refugees to behave. Through this disorientation, I learned to recognize and revise my (mis)perceptions. This moment marked the first of numerous incidents of facilitated learning and teaching, arrived at through disruptions engaged in developing original performances with youth in former Yugoslavia.
Creating theatre with participants who are not necessarily trained in the methodology of theatre-making provides several opportunities to examine the interactions of performance, identity, and learning. This article explores how the community-based performance process lends itself to active learning [End Page 171] techniques, detailing how participants, facilitators, and audience members learned about themselves and issues of identity through theatre pieces situated in the context of a war that is itself focused on identity. 1 The article concludes with a brief look at how techniques learned in former Yugoslavia have been usefully adapted to teaching the diverse student body of California State University, Los Angeles.
Community-Based Theatre and Active Learning
The participatory aspects of creating and performing community-based theatre model active learning techniques. Active learning refers to a pedagogical approach that encourages students to engage in reflection, questioning, and commentary, prompting synthesis and analysis of information, as opposed to the passive listening and regurgitation promoted by the lecture format (“Active Learning” 1). Like active learning, original community-based theatre encourages participants to ask questions, detail observations, and draw inferences. As a storytelling medium, theatre also lends itself to effective teaching. Psychologists have discerned several techniques that aid in the synthesis of information, including vivid, visual storytelling, and providing experiential, relevant, emotionally affective models (Zimbardo lecture).
Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo cites “surprise,” or the “violation of expectations” as an effective learning technique, echoing director Anne Bogart’s emphasis on “disorientation” and “disruption.” By disrupting conventions, theatre can prove pedagogically as well as artistically effective. Operating outside the realm of “conventional” theatre practice, community-based work operates as a learning tool by violating expectations of participants and facilitators. These initial violations can lead to further disruptions of form, providing a potential learning experience for audiences as well as participants.
Both active learning and community-based theatre practices also emphasize cooperation and long-term continuation. Community-based theatre, developed with, by, and for “communities,” 2 particularly benefits from collaboration with a local leadership structure. 3 Through Cornerstone, a community-based theatre company located in Los Angeles, I developed the Varazdin project with Suncokret, a Croatian-based humanitarian organization that sponsors volunteer projects in refugee camps. Suncokret organized our three-week stay in the summer of 1995, providing rehearsal and performance sites, a local population with whom to work, and a structure for participants to continue working...