Encountering Generation (Wh)Y: Building Bridges through Student-driven, Immersive, Interactive, and Technology-based Devising
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Encountering Generation (Wh)Y:
Building Bridges through Student-driven, Immersive, Interactive, and Technology-based Devising

Introduction

In fall 2014 the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University (an interdisciplinary endeavor at the intersection of the School of Foreign Service and the Department of Theater and Performance Studies; hereafter “the Lab”) launched Myriad Voices: A Cross-Cultural Performance Festival, a two-year collection of performances, convenings, public forums, interdisciplinary courses, and new theatrical work. The Lab was one of six universities and arts organizations nationwide to receive funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation as part of its Building Bridges program, which seeks to expand awareness and understanding about Muslim societies through the performing arts. Co-founding director of the Lab Derek Goldman saw Myriad Voices as an opportunity “to think expansively about ways of engaging performance” in an effort to “convey the diversity of Muslim majority populations” and “expose and call into question prevalent stereotypes,” while engaging students “in a truly dialogic performative process.” The third Myriad Voices event, Generation (Wh)Y: Global Voices On Stage, was an innovative multimedia performance devised by Georgetown students resulting from their year-long, interview-based dialogues with young people from nineteen countries, designed to create community and expand cultural understanding through one-on-one interactions. Here, we discuss the production’s efforts at authentically connecting interviewees and student deviser-performers, deviser-performers and audience members, audience members themselves, and (ultimately) notions of self and Other. We argue that achieving a truly dialogic process requires participants and audiences to build bridges despite various spatial, social, and emotional barriers, a goal we sought to accomplish through immersive, interactive, and technology-driven storytelling.

Specifically, the Duke Foundation’s grant tasked awardees with creating “cross-cultural knowledge and understanding by engaging young people and other audiences in performances [focused on] contemporary Muslim-majority regions of the world.” The grant targeted millennials (defined by the foundation as those born after 1980), a generation growing up in the aftermath of 9/11 and bombarded with images of Muslims as terrorists in social media, television, and film (see Ryzik). As such, Generation (Wh)Y, a free event held in Georgetown’s Davis Performing Arts Center (DPAC) in April 2015 sought to provide an alternate narrative and fulfill the foundation’s goal of building bridges between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Furthermore, it allowed the Lab to highlight the international nature of Washington, D.C., and Georgetown’s student body, as reflected in admissions rates: the undergraduate class of 2018 was admitted in 2014 with 8 percent of international students (Moore); it was 11 percent for the class of 2017, and 8 percent for the class of 2016 (Ashley). Outreach for Generation (Wh)Y focused on the university campus and previous attendees of Myriad Voices events (which included the Arab community for Syria: The Trojan Women and the South Asian community for Amrika Chalo). One international student, on seeing Generation (Wh)Y, [End Page 109] recognized the “think global, act local” intent of the production and its focus on millennial voices, remarking that it was “between us [students], you know, from us and to us.”

Indeed, the title of the show itself played with stereotypes: those of the millennial generation, Gen Y, being both wary of commitment (always asking “why”) and distracted by technology. By contrast, we believed that if students felt ownership over the project and experienced a genuine connection to its content, they would be fully engaged. Moreover, we believed that we could use students’ proficiency with technology to expand theatrical possibilities; in particular, we wanted to explore how technology could draw student devisers and audiences closer to their international peers by bringing those peers into the performance space.

As a project, Generation (Wh)Y rested on the notion of the “encounter,” which we defined based on a poem, “Peas and Carrots” by Egyptian political cartoonist Mohamed “Andeel” Qandeel, that explores the origin of humankind from the perspective of gods on high who split humanity into nations and tribes. Core Ensemble member Michelle Chen brought “Peas and Carrots” into the devising process and translated it from Arabic to English along...