“The popular artist must abandon the downtown stages and go to the neighborhoods, because only there will he [they] find people who are truly interested in changing society.”
– Augusto Boal, 1979, Theatre of the Oppressed
Peer theatre is the approach our troupe, Shaha: The Storytellers, takes to communicate with and educate students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst around issues of bias, exclusion and intersecting forms of oppression. Troupe members perform scenes inspired by their own lived experiences. Our interactive performance-workshops dramatically represent and facilitate reflective conversations on how issues of social justice manifest in students’ day-to-day lives, on- and off-campus. Shaha* supports Residential Life’s commitment to creating and sustaining inclusive, socially-just communities, and strives to promote self-awareness, increase dialogue, foster cross-cultural understanding, and inspire students to intervene in situations of social injustice.
Peer theatre is a powerful medium that has proven effective in many ways. Performance appeals to many of our senses, and using this forum for learning and teaching in higher education cultivates creativity, invites dialogue, and humanizes the experiences of students who are often expected to learn in more transactional, lecture-style settings. Peer theatre allows for varying levels of involvement and risk-taking from audience members, who can choose to participate with less fear of judgment, while observing and self-reflecting on their own experiences and choices. Shaha’s performance-workshops are designed to be delivered in almost any setting, including residence hall lounges, bringing difficult and meaningful discussions about critical social issues into the very spaces where students live. Seeing peers play out scenes of injustice and ignorance that they experience in their own everyday lives, provides a mirror through which to reflect on their own roles within systems of privilege and oppression.
More specifically, Shaha provides ongoing education for student paraprofessional staff who live and work in residence halls on campus. In these personal and professional development workshops, Resident Assistants and Peer Mentors brainstorm and experiment with strategies for intervening in real-life scenarios involving stereotyping and bias. After participating in recent Shaha workshops, participants shared these reactions about their experience: For example,
“Intent does not mean impact. Even though some of the characters did not mean to make people feel uncomfortable, their actions still needed to be checked. It’s really important to be aware of the language you are using, and how it will impact people.”
“Try to remain open-minded to opposing views.”
“Don’t be afraid to stand up when you see something that makes you feel uncomfortable.”
Overall, the student staff who participated in recent Shaha workshops said they would encourage others to engage, and considered them to be
- Eye-opening experiences for re-assessing their own views
- Informative in providing tools to deal with difficult situations
- Inclusive and community-oriented
At our upcoming ACPA2019 Experiential Program,, “Experience. Learn. Change: Educating for Social Justice and Diversity through Peer Theatre”, the troupe will perform and facilitate a selection of scenes about experiences of race, ethnicity, and other social identities. Facilitators will explain the pedagogical method of peer theatre by, for, and with college students about power, privilege, and oppression, as well as highlight structural and logistical details of implementation at the University. Session attendees will also have the opportunity to ask questions of troupe members and facilitators, to discuss specific advantages and unique challenges of this pedagogy.
* “Shaha” is a Swahili term for “storyteller”.
Eun Y. Lee, Dave Neely, and Karl Bluemel
University of Massachusetts Amherst