- “Every 28 Hours” at Penn State University: Building Community through Performance and Dialogue
“The Every 28 Hours Plays” was a chance to build community and actively participate in the national conversation inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Penn State University is a very large, predominantly white institution that has been working on multiple levels to increase diversity, with varying degrees of success. Although our audiences for the two performances of The Every 28 Hours Plays were smaller than we anticipated, the impact on both audiences and participants was significant, largely because of the salon events that followed the performance.
Working with Joan Lipkin as artist-in-residence and producer, we brought together more than forty faculty and students, both undergraduate and graduate, in small production groups. We have a strong track record with other social-justice initiatives, including a collaboration with Dominique Morisseau, but this was our first community-wide initiative involving the School of Theatre and a partnership with the Institute for Arts and Humanities (IAH), the College of Arts and Architecture (CAA), the Africana Research Center, and others. Led by a steering group consisting of myself, Lauren Kooistra of IAH, Wilna Taylor from CAA, and Steve Snyder from the School of Theatre, we infused community engagement throughout the experience.
Rehearsal and performance processes galvanized students and faculty alike around the need for dialogue, empathy, and safe spaces. Each semester in our college, students organize and lead salons (organized group conversations) on topics of their choice, advised by Taylor, director of student engagement at CAA. Fortunately, our Every 28 Hours Plays team was able to partner with them. The performance of the collection of plays was followed by two separately scheduled salon events; each salon included the performance of one play from the collection to begin the event. We built on the existing salon structure by inviting faculty and staff from across our campus partners with expertise in facilitating dialogues around race to ensure that we maintained a safe space for deep and meaningful conversations. During the salons, participants shared personal experiences, fears, and concerns alongside the scholarship and research of colleagues who specialize in race, gender, and class.
The physical space also supported the tenets of the project. Since a traditional theatre space was not available, we booked the Pasquerilla Center for Spiritual and Ethical Development, an interfaith gathering space on campus. The beautiful and majestic space did not offer lighting, sets, or wings as a conventional theatre space would, so we were faced with the issue of making it more intimate. After our first read-through, Lipkin suggested that the large cast sit onstage to fill the space and also convey the idea of citizen-actors witnessing one another’s work, reinforcing the ritual and relationship of testimony, telling, and hearing.
Outside of the actual performance and salon spaces, we had multiple ways that people could comment, including videotaped interviews, large sheets of butcher-block paper, Post-it notes, and photo opportunities. In one area we created a “selfie station,” with “I Commit (fill in the blank)” cards for students to tweet or Instagram their commitment. We gathered powerful declamations from this station, including “I commit to equality,” “I commit to seeing you,” and “I commit to inclusivity,” among others. Dozens of Post-its were gathered with messages like “I cannot speak for [End Page 175] you, but I can walk with you.” Audiences filled their butcher-block sheets with clear statements of hope and need: “I feel we should dream big,” “I feel we should learn to listen with respect,” “We need justice,” “We need to hear each other,” “We need action,” “We need grace.”
While providing a valuable way for multiple voices to be heard, these comments alone would not have been sufficient. During our salon events, students of color spoke openly about both the value of these statements and the fact that signing a wall or placing a Post-it represents only the beginning of meaningful change. Conversation centered largely on the need to create deep and sustainable work that engages the institution on many levels. Our salon facilitators (including Lipkin), all with experience in managing difficult dialogues, met...