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  • The WandererStaging Autism as a Service Learning Project
  • Telory D. Arendell (bio)

In Fall 2009, my “Theatre for Social Change” students and I undertook a project at Missouri State University to create and stage a play about the autism spectrum. We began by researching what it meant to stage theatre for social change and, more specifically, where autism fit in that genre. This was in an integrated service learning course for which students spent one hour per week outside of class working at Rivendale, a K-12 local school for children on the autism spectrum. My own students, a mix of undergraduates in Acting, Set Design, Dance, and Psychology, worked with students with Asperger’s Syndrome, but we still wanted to speak to children across the spectrum in a play they could experience as viewers. We scripted a production and titled it The Wanderer.1


Stuart Hall asserts: “How a people are represented is how they are treated” (quoted in Madison, 178). At first glance, this statement appears simple in meaning and impact. Yet, tying this statement to histories of liberation movements for oppressed cultures, reveals its depth and scope. This statement had a huge effect on my “Theatre for Social Change” class. And, it taught me that the first step in any form of representation is to gain experiential knowledge of those one tries to represent.

Students began their service learning projects in the second week of the course. They mentored Rivendale students using theatre games geared toward language acquisition and social facilitation. The students used their service learning experiences and in-class improvisation to collectively script a short play. In week eight, each msu student presented their mock-up of an aspect of production in class for the final show: design, dramaturgy, directing, or acting. Students also submitted an individual report integrating course readings, their service learning experiences, their group performance building process, and highlights from their reflective journal entries.

My students were clear from the beginning of our improvisation work for this show that they did not want to directly portray the Rivendale students. They wanted the production to be about experiences they had shared or witnessed at Rivendale. We came up with characters such as The Bully, The Dancer, Voice Box Girl, Comic Book Boy, and the Juggler that led our Wanderer through a landscape much like Oz, where The Bully stole personal items that aided the other characters’ functionality. The stolen items are of course returned, and The Bully admits to merely wanting friends. All of our characters came about through interactions with Rivendale students in the classroom as well as my students’ [End Page 51] experiences with siblings or friends on the autism spectrum. We hoped that our play’s audience would be encouraged to recognize that with help from each other, we can find new ways to navigate social interactions. As with most children’s theatre, all wrongs are righted by show’s end, and we hope our audience of children exited with a shared sense of renegotiated difficulty. We had offered them ways to deal with frustrating interactions that they experienced with their teachers and peers on a daily basis. This story had a possible “narrative of overcoming” as its premise, and yet we made choices to complicate this simplification of disability. A colleague whose daughter was at Rivendale during the service learning project told me that her daughter made her family watch a tape of the production at least once a day for a few months after our performance.

One of our tools was a video shot by a film student. A set of silent film clips opened and closed our show. As a figure who gets ostracized in the initial film sequence, the Wanderer steps out of the film to become real in our play, and then steps back into the film after he has facilitated The Bully’s apology and the return of stolen items. The strongest lesson the Wanderer imparts to the other characters before stepping back into the film is that dependency on set objects or routines for functionality must make room for variation and a kind of self-sufficiency supported by the help of...


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pp. 51-64
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