Students explore social change through class theater performance

Dylan Bassett | Contributing Reporter

Members of a freshman floor grapple with issues like marijuana, Adderall, roommate struggles and pressure to join specific cultural groups—all the while preparing for an impending General Chemistry exam—in “Freshman Dis-Orientation,” a drama performed in the basement of Mallinckrodt Center.

The performance, part of a three-hour forum theater put on by the 400-level drama course Theater for Social Change, invited audience members to “examine the challenges evident within our community, and explore creative methods of resolution,” according to the pamphlet handed out at the event.

In forum theater, a cast runs through its performance one time without interruptions and then repeats the scene for a second performance, during which interested audience members can shout, “Stop!” At that point, they can step on stage and take the place of an actor to change the way that the character acts in that scenario.

The technique enables spectators to become envoys for positive social change because they have the opportunity to wrestle with ambiguous situations that they might encounter in real life.

“It was interesting to see the students’ perspective on situations that I have to work with every day,” Mary Elliot, associate director of Residential Life, who intervened in the second iteration of the performance, said. “I work on the other end of things…I see kids getting in trouble for drugs, so it was interesting to see the student perspective.”

The audience, a mix of undergraduates, graduate students, professors and administrators, participated with charisma.

Junior Chelsea Whitaker performed the role of a resident advisor in the performance. As an actual RA at Washington University, Whitaker said she had to think about what she tries to do in her position.

“I really had to reverse all my choices and to learn how to be kind of this selfish person but also find [out] why [my character] would do it from a humanistic perspective,” Whitaker said.

Next semester, students who take Advanced Theater for Social Change, the subsequent course, will be leading similar workshops in schools and at other venues in the St. Louis community. These workshops will culminate in a performance by the workshop participants for their school or community. Similar to the performances given Sunday and Tuesday, those performances will feature three one-act plays, written and acted by students, local teenagers and community members.