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  • On the Case for Devising Theatre for Social Justice on College Campuses
  • Joan Lipkin (bio)

Last July, in Montreal, I was honored to receive the Award for Leadership in Community-based Theatre and Civic Engagement from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE). Much of my work over the past twenty years has involved devising performances within various communities, with a specific eye toward social justice, so I see this award as recognition of my work, but more significantly for the field. At the time I used the occasion as a call to action to invite ATHE members to not only think about the field of community-based theatre and civic engagement at large, but in particular about the importance and efficacy of providing more opportunities for devising work on campus. Why this focus? Of course, not all devising deals with social justice, and not all work that focuses on civic engagement is devised. But I would suggest that this can be a potent combination. Devised performance is a growth area that offers exciting possibilities and innovative ways to make theatre. Universities know that the future of a robust theatre depends on developing new audiences, languages, and forms.

At the same time, we are at a critical juncture. Increased overt political tensions on college campuses call out for new and additional forms of dialogue, especially around race and gender. This headline from the New York Times’ February 2016 special issue on education, “After Racist Episodes: Blunt Discussions on Campus,” reflects the growing protests and awareness of racial discrimination at colleges and universities across the United States, and even abroad. Meanwhile, the US Department of Education has been increasing its investigations of colleges and universities with possible Title IX Sexual Violence violations. These tensions are a microcosm of nationwide concerns; for example, Black Lives Matter and sexual assaults by celebrated athletes, politicians, and entertainers.

More and more I wonder about teachable moments, about performative moments. I am interested in our conscious decisions as to how we can use theatre and visual symbols to signify alliances and reflect our belief systems. Wetheatre artists, educators, those who practice theatre for social justice, and of course our students. We are in a crucial moment in the United States, a moment in which we must deliberately challenge and shift the balance of power, indeed question the very nature of power; and we are in a time in which we can actively participate in dismantling discrimination. As we are increasingly moving toward a culture of divisiveness, perhaps even of contempt, forums for dialogue are ever more urgently needed. Devising opens space for more voices and ways for these voices to be heard; devising allows for the collective creation of scripts, fostering an inclusive, multi-vocal approach to creating theatre that fits well with the values of theatre for social justice.

While there are many useful definitions for devising, I most resonate with the idea that it is the endeavor to collectively create original and specific performances that could never exist without the participation of the particular people involved in a certain period of time. Devising is therefore inherently democratic; it removes us from fixed or static texts, which are most often credited to a single author, into new realms of possibilities for participation and representation. This makes devising ideal for working with students and for speaking to the specific issues of our time. The openness of the form and availability for participation, along with its contemporaneity, is a strong enticement for students, including those who are less experienced or perhaps even disinterested in performance. [End Page 255]

Devised work also suggests that there can be an active role for everyone who shows up. It makes it possible to move from the more typical hierarchy of roles that is inherently patriarchal and corporate, which dominates the current theatrical landscape into something else, into an environment in which the participants are collectively responsible for finding solutions. These participants are certainly the actors, but often also the audience. And when this happens, whether in a more traditional theatre venue or on a college campus, it can be exhilarating. Indeed, ramifications exist far beyond the individual piece or...