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Wandering Thespians: Performance Across the Liberal Arts Curriculum
by Debra L. Freeberg

Wandering Thespians was not born out of frustration or sublime artistic insight. It was simply a good solution to a practical problem. I needed to provide the students in Calvin Theatre Company (CTC)-the theatre production class at Calvin College-with more opportunities to perform over the course of the semester, and I wanted to encourage greater support for the theatre program across the campus, making it more visible to the campus community. [1]   For decades Calvin's theatre program had enjoyed great success, usually selling out or nearly selling out most seasons' shows. Our audience consisted primarily of segments of the campus community and local alumni who loyally followed the department's acting company from Sophocles to Synge, Molière to Wilde, and Miller to Friel. However, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we noticed, along with many in the American artistic community, that our loyal following was becoming grayer. We also perceived that many of our new, younger faculty and staff from across campus did not attend our performances, even with a generous complimentary ticket policy for faculty and staff members. Moreover, the college administration, while very supportive, began requesting that the program meet each year a specific box-office income figure. Theatre at Calvin, along with other arts programs across the country, was increasingly pressured to consider the bottom-line. If an aging constituency and funding pressures were not enough, student attendance increasingly wavered from show to show.

Our concerns probably matched those of many other colleges. How could we get these newer faculty and staff excited about our program and lure a few more of them into the theatre each term? How could we transform these same faculty into active advocates of our program and supporters of our artistic season? How could we guarantee that the college administration would fund the program? How could we increase student interest in and awareness of the theatre? How could we show colleagues and students in different disciplines how valuable theatre is to their particular educational experience and to campus life more generally?

Confronted with a seemingly hopeless set of problems and with the support of my colleagues, I decided to launch an advocacy program, a traveling troupe called "Wandering Thespians," out of the Calvin Theatre Company class. [2]   Wandering Thespians did for us what theatre does best: it took theatre storytellers to the stage of real academic life-the campus classroom. As Director of Theatre, I wanted our campus community to recognize not only our artistic work in the theatre, but also the pedagogical potential that theatre can bring to the classroom. After all, our bread and butter as a liberal arts classroom was high-quality instruction with intensive faculty-student interaction. The appearance of young actors in various classrooms across campus made important friends and advocates of our program, served other departments, and underscored the theatre's educational importance in the liberal arts tradition. Also, it gave meaningful theatrical work to students who might not have been able to participate as fully in the mainstage productions. My theatre colleagues fully supported the idea, volunteering to direct a portion of the offerings and to support student directors and performers.

In the fall of 1993, our 85-student theatre production class, which was unusually large, staged Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. The play requires a small cast and relatively easy tech; maximum standard crew and cast capacity for the production was sixty-six students. After establishing a concession crew and slots for students to create their own monologue notebooks, I needed to provide some meaningful occupation for twelve to fourteen students. Ordinarily, they would have sewn costumes, found properties, hung lights, or served on a running crew. Overloading the conventional crews wasn't a viable option because there would not be enough time over the semester for students to fulfill their twenty-hour crew requirement. Wandering Thespians seemed the perfect opportunity to marry need with vision by involving people who either weren't aware of our work or who were not yet interested in the theatre.

A troupe of student actors and directors now visits any classroom on our campus to perform or interpret work that a faculty member deems of interest to her or his students. It's a simple idea that hearkens back to Calvin's past and to similar experiments on other campuses. As a designated production crew of CTC, Wandering Thespians serves the Calvin community with students' theatrical gifts and promotes our program while providing younger, less-experienced actors with more performance experience and offering young directors opportunities to direct. CTC's crew structure mirrors the various functions of a nonprofit theatre company; all facets of the operation, from publicity and front-of-house positions to stage prep and running crews, are staffed by about ninety students each semester. In addition to weekly class attendance in a lecture or workshop, each student is expected to complete at least twenty hours of crew work over the course of the semester. Students may sign up for any crew that interests them in a given semester, sampling as many different aspects of theatre production as possible during their four years at Calvin. Supervised crews staff our semester productions and provide educational process opportunities for class members. [3]

Each August, I place an ad for Wandering Thespians in our campus community electronic bulletin board. Any faculty member who would like something to be interpreted or performed in a classroom simply has to respond to the open call: "Yes, I'd like Wandering Thespians to visit my classroom on this date at this time." We accept requests until our schedule is full. Faculty members who invite Wandering Thespians into their classes must submit a finished (cut or edited) ten-minute script or text for performance. They usually understand that our job is not to find a play or write a script for them. The instructor also has to give us at least two weeks to produce a short, script-in-hand performance, and more if it is a fully memorized and staged text. They decide the form of performance (Reader's Theatre or memorized) and designate whether they would like the piece to be performed in costume. After their initial request is approved, instructors fill out a questionnaire that details the specifics of the particular classroom visit. Questions include: "Do you want us to appear at the beginning or end of your class period? Will you introduce the selection or shall we? Do you want the actors to be part of your class discussion?" At times, the professor asks the theatre students to answer questions. At other times, the students introduce their work, perform it, and leave the class and professor to discuss the material on their won. We begin visiting classrooms after the third week of the term, giving students and the coordinator of the Wandering Thespians time to set up the semester performance schedule and to begin rehearsals.

Although Wandering Thespians performance slots are first-come, first-served, I have denied a faculty member's request because of time constraints or preparation issues, or because the instructor was not entirely sure how to use Wandering Thespians. If an instructor merely wants us to "do something" related to the course subject, we might provide numerous plays or texts for the professor to read and consider. As much as my theatre colleagues and I enjoy being a resource for other colleagues, Wandering Thespian's crew time constraints do not normally permit a lengthy script search process. In one instance, our residence hall staff and a member of our counseling center wanted students to perform a series of date-rape and sexual harassment role plays for the residence halls. I thought it was a marvelous idea for a hand-selected group of mature students who had counseling training, but not for Wandering Thespians. Wandering Thespians is comprised of one-third to one-half first-year students, some with very limited life experiences, some with difficult life experiences. I worried that students role playing these scenarios could be placed in tense and risky situations as audience members emotionally responded to the material. [4]   The twenty-hour crew requirement precluded adding extensive training to the requirements of the crew, and I did not feel that the theatre faculty were trained or equipped to prep students for potential psychological responses. My caution was rewarded when I found out late in the term that one of the young women in Calvin Theatre Company had been sexually assaulted in the past. She did not want that information shared with others. It would have been an easy and devastating error to have assigned her to perform in such a role play. In addition to these examples, each term we have had to turn away requests because we have reached our performance maximum for the term or had conflicts with a season play opening. As Wandering Thespians expands, we expect this to be a growing problem.

We have interpreted everything from Socratic dialogues to plays to oral histories to nineteenth-century trial transcriptions and more. Typically, Wandering Thespians is asked to interpret play selections for English, theatre, and language departments. Our students have tackled scenes from Trifles, Equus, Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, Faust, The Bald Soprano, Major Barbara, Oedipus Rex, A Doll's House, The Duchess of Malfi, Antigone, M. Butterfly, A Raisin in the Sun, and She Stoops to Conquer. We have also performed short stories, excerpts from children's books, and poetry selections. History, sociology, and oral interpretation classes often request performances as well. We're still looking for an adventurous science professor.

Through Wandering Thespians, the theatre program has found new allies and fans. Of the colleagues in various disciplines across campus-German, religion, English, history, classics, philosophy, communication arts and sciences, and education-who have enlisted our services, most are now repeat customers. Semester evaluation forms and thank you letters indicate that the group is highly valued at Calvin College. All of our academic deans have invited Wandering Thespians into their classrooms. One dean wrote:

On behalf of my students in Philosophy 208 [Aesthetics], let me extend my thanks to you for bringing the Traveling Thespians to my class on Monday for a dramatic reading of Oedipus Rex. I was very impressed with the ability of the members of your company to make a very simple reading into an engaging encounter with Sophocles' characters.. [Y]ou gave us a vivid sense of the way in which the Greeks understood the significance of human life, as well as a concrete illustration of the critical categories employed by Aristotle in the Poetics. . . . Your presentation will illuminate our discussions of the elements and functions of art throughout the semester.

Evaluating a Wandering Thespian performance of the short story, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," an English colleague wrote: "A wonderful idea and a great contribution to teaching literature-adds important dimension." Another English faculty member indicated that he was "very pleased with the performance" of Equus but that he wanted in the future to be involved in the preparation process, meeting with the actors to discuss issues of interpretation and performance choices in order to help the actors understand the material at a deeper level and to shape the performance for his lecture/discussion. A colleague in history wrote: "In giving testimony about child labor conditions in nineteenth-century Britain, the Thespians, playing parts of workers who had experienced some of the horrors of the workplace, at times spoke very movingly. I will have them again next semester." A classics professor wrote in a thank you letter:

Your performance was very well prepared and delivered, and after you left it stimulated one of the best discussions we have had all semester. Perhaps you ought to come back more often! We are very grateful for your willingness to enhance our learning by bringing the text to life and discuss with us some of the technical issues involved in staging an ancient tragedy.

This professor has already booked Wandering Thespians again for next term. A sociology colleague who used Wandering Thespians for the first time in November 1996, wanted Wandering Thespians in her classroom not only to offer something different pedagogically, but also to have her oral history essays "spoken with excitement and passion." Her course deals with ethnicity, gender, and the voices of individual people within cultural contexts. "I want these different voices stressed," she noted. "I want my students to hear about other people outside their own culture and context and race."

Wandering Thespian's most unusual performance involved a scenario role play that was planned and rehearsed, but not scripted, for an Introduction to Communication Disorders class. The characters were an aphasic teenager, her inexperienced supervisor, a grocery worker, and a grocery store customer. A student crew member described their scenario:

The tension came from the fact that a young and relatively inexperienced supervisor was eager to finish her shift, and, therefore, pressured the aphasic girl to make a choice of what she wanted at the grocery store. As the aphasic had trouble making herself understood, the supervisor grew impatient, which in turn, caused the aphasic to become frantic and explain what she wanted by grabbing it out of a customer's cart, in view of the grocery store worker. The aphasic subsequently dropped the grocery on the floor, causing the customer to rage. The aphasic curled up on the floor while the supervisor ineptly tried to cope with both the customer and the patient.

In this case, the class had to solve the problem by taking one of the actor's places in the scene and resolving the conflict. According to the student actor, "One person volunteered as the supervisor, and offered to repay the customer; he then comforted the patient." The Wandering Thespians crew was "excellent," declared the Communication Disorders professor.

I needed a demonstration of a speech handicap. The Wandering Thespians did everything! They created an interactive script on a person with a traumatic brain injury. They researched the symptoms related to aphasia and the stereotypical responses to the handicap. They came into my classroom and performed a role play set in a grocery store. They did a marvelous job. They provided a piece of reality for my students. How does an aphasic person sound? How do you as audience members and as future speech pathologists react to this disability? Then they allowed the class to respond and change the scene, recommending more appropriate or helpful reactions. It caused them to look within themselves to see which character they would relate to in the extreme reactions to this disabled student. It pushed the students into a deeper level of consciousness of what that actual disability is and how they could handle it. For me, it also pushed the students into a deeper thinking about their own reactions or prejudices.

Due to the level of research required by the student actors in the development of the interactive scenario, this was both an unusual and a time-consuming performance project. The assignment was given to the strongest, most experienced Thespians-students who possessed the research skills and performance maturity to handle an improvisational performance event.

The benefits of Wandering Thespians extend beyond what we first imagined. It has provided meaningful academic service to many departments, creating good will among faculty members who sit on strategic planning and educational policy committees. It reminds the deans who have fiduciary responsibilities in their division that theatre is valuable to the college. It even helps to promote our season plays. When play content relates to course content, some of our colleagues in history and English have made the final play a requirement for their classes. Many of these faculty colleagues are now attending our performances and talking about our campus productions in their classrooms. Students tell me that often professors in other departments give mini-reviews and commercial endorsements in their classes, encouraging their students to attend.

Wandering Thespians has also performed for special college functions, like a scholarship banquet and our chapel program. During the fall of 1995, Wandering Thespians went outside the classroom at the request of the Development Office and mounted a twenty-minute piece, three revue-style sketches entitled Families, for Calvin's scholarship dinner. The event coordinator was pleased with the performance, commenting afterward:

It was exceptional. I like bringing theatre to people rather than the other way around. It showed our donors the variety of things present at Calvin-that there is something for everyone. The donors responded very well to the presentation and increased their scholarship giving. Such a service promotes the theatre program both on and off campus.

Challenges, of course, remain. The fact that Wandering Thespians is only a twenty-hour assignment in the Calvin Theatre Company makes it both manageable and limiting. The Wandering Thespians crew time includes reading, rehearsal, and performance. Currently, every crew member is expected to perform in at least three productions-four if one of the first three roles is a supernumerary. Students can also opt to direct a performance piece, which counts as one performance credit for the director and actors on the crew. Our first year, however, we overloaded the students. Students were required to perform in four presentations, but some students ended up in five. Although rehearsal and performance times seemed manageable, we failed to include the intellectual preparation time. Many of the students were first-year students with a limited dramatic literature background. We found that overworked students, still adjusting to the rigors of college life, resisted reading all of the play assignments. A faculty director remarked after our first season in 1993, "I think time spent reading the plays should count as crew work, and reading the play should be required.. It is a wonderful idea to do scenes from lots of plays, but unless students know what they are doing, the whole crew is considerably less effective as an educational tool." Obviously, if students don't understand the material, they have difficulty bringing the material alive in the classroom. We remedied this problem the following year by reducing the number of performances for each student and insuring adequate preparation of the plays they were to interpret.

Some semesters we have had difficulty staffing Wandering Thespians with enough men, especially when the faculty requests included far more male than female roles. Each semester we attempt to give an equal number of men and women an opportunity to serve on the Wandering Thespian crew. However, during one semester there were two women to each man; the scripts' ratios were the reverse. The necessity for crossgender casting caught one faculty member off guard. A history colleague wrote on his evaluation: "Michael Sadler was played by a woman. I think I erred by not introducing her as one of Michael Sadler's top aides-or possibly his wife. Again, I must say this was not a major distraction." The "but" is implied, especially conreting the "Michael Sadler Hearings," a nineteenth-century British trial transcript.

Students participating in Wandering Thespians possess varying levels of skill and experience. In addition, some student directors lack the confidence to manage and organize their peers. The Wandering Thespian coordinator has to insure that students are preparing for each project, including the logistics. The first semester, one cast forgot to note a classroom change and arrived late to an English class-hardly the kind of publicity we want. One actor never did find the room and the cast scrambled to reassign reading parts. The result was a lukewarm reception by the class, appropriately noted in the professor's evaluation.

We also discovered through trial and error over three years that Wandering Thespians faces two important administrative and coordination items. First, we can manage approximately ten different performances with a crew of fourteen over the course of one term. Second, a designated tour coordinator is essential. [5]   The coordinator, a faculty member or trained alumnus, directs at least four of the performances, maintains the performance calendar, makes assignments, and insures that the work load is evenly distributed over the course of the term. Students generally direct two or three of the performance pieces, and other faculty directors take part and direct occasionally as well. We seek our constituency's needs without burning out theatre faculty or students. Moreover, we are concerned with producing a high-quality production in a short time. It does us little good to promote our program and then produce shoddy work. Keeping the program modest and under control has contributed to our success.

Born out of practical necessity, Wandering Thespians has now benefited my theatre students and many other students across campus. One student witnessing a scene from Antigone in class echoed the thoughts of many when she wrote:

To read about Antigone is one thing; to see her stand there not three feet away from you, with a rope around her neck, is quite another. . . . I think students delve deeper into their learning, for most people love seeing other people act, even if they are inexperienced. It adds spice to a class. Movies have the same effect, but live is even more exciting.

The group also allows inexperienced actors to gain experience and confidence in their performance abilities. I have noticed a marked difference in some students' performances in mainstage auditions after serving on this crew. The directing experience in Wandering Thespians also enables some student participants to gain confidence before approaching their first, full one-act play.

Wandering Thespians has become a popular crew assignment even though the participants routinely exceed the course's stated requirements. In end-of-term student evaluations, group members have expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to extend their skills and to experiment with different theatrical performance contexts and styles. The first Wandering Thespian student director said in her end-of-semester review:

Well, if the comments don't convince you that this was a success, and that we loved it, remember that everyone I talked to said they would do it again. And six respondents said they would do it again without any changes. I think this could be one of the best things to come out of CTC because it allows more than just the handful of people to gain acting experience at Calvin.

Another student commented on the importance of this added experience:

This is a great crew because CTC should provide as much opportunity for acting and directing as it possibly can. The best way to learn and improve is through experience, and there is definitely a lot more room for more [experience] in CTC. The more the actors (and directors) do these scenes, the better the scenes and the individuals will get-which can only improve the company in general.

Still another found that participating in the group helped her in playwriting class. After playing the aphasic teenager in the Communication Disorders class role play, she wrote:

I played the aphasic, and simulated the speech difficulties by talking with my tongue on the roof of my mouth. I heartily enjoyed the role; it was something new, and also a challenge to me as an actress. I worked out a history for the character: her name was Kathy Mills. She had been a popular girl in high school, but was involved in a car accident resulting in her present speech and thought difficulties. She had brain damage, so her thoughts were muddled, and when she knew what she thought, she found it next to impossible to put it into words.

The role made a great impression on me; in fact for more than a week I felt uncomfortable. The role brought back feelings of my junior high years when I was an unpopular person and teased by my classmates. For the roles I stood hunched over and knotted my hands in my sleeves; I shuffled as I walked. It was very fun, but brought back all my feelings of insecurity and outsiderness.

Besides these unwanted old feelings, the result of the skit and lingering impressions has been made into a play: a one-act based on the same handicapped character, Kathy Mills . . . which I have entitled Memory.

Wandering Thespians has encouraged our academic community to view theatre as an important, influential, and exciting component of our liberal arts curriculum. I am happy to report that CTC's 1996 fall, seven-performance production of  Much Ado About Nothing sold out one week before opening. This hasn't happened since we did Godspell in the 1980s. We added an additional Wednesday night show, which also sold out. Can Wandering Thespians take all the credit? Perhaps not, but I am certain that more people anticipated this play's performance than in years prior to the group's emergence on campus. Wandering Thespians began its third year at Calvin College in the fall of 1996. Its first gig was a scripted role play for a criminal justice course. Who knows where we'll be next year? Theatre is "busting out all over" campus at Calvin College.

 

Debra Freeberg is a playwright, actress, and director with extensive experience in both academic and professional theatre. She is currently Director of Theatre at Calvin College.

Theatre Topics. 7.2. (September 1997), The John Hopkins University Press in cooperation with the Association for Theatre in Higher Education: 93-102.

 

[1] Calvin College is a 4000-student, academically rigorous college with a strong liberal arts tradition. In comparison to other church-related institutions' companion programs, Calvin's theatre program over the last thirty years has enjoyed a somewhat privileged status. At Calvin, the discipline of theatre was never relegated to mere "extracurricular activity" status. The theatre program was, and still is, recognized by its campus and community constituency for its high-quality artistic product. Moreover, Calvin's theatre program as originally structured insured that each production was tied directly to for-credit course work, integrating our curriculum with performance. Currently, the fall and the spring shows (half the theatre season) are produced by our selective theatre production class, the Calvin Theatre Company. Two special topics classes produce and mount the remaining season shows: one during the three-week January interim and the other, student-directed "Lab Bills," in the spring. For a further description of Calvin's program, see Patricia Vandenberg's Theatre Topics article "Integrating Production and Curriculum in the Liberal Arts Setting" 1.2. (1991): 149-153.

[2] The course builds on Calvin's own past: the production class was known as the "Thespians" from the early 1950s until 1991. In 1991, the company was renamed the Calvin Theatre Company.

[3] By incorporating the requirement within the current Calvin Theatre Company crew structure, I eliminated the need to burden students with additional course credits and the department with an additional course listing (where teaching credits are particularly scarce for new projects). This is particularly important in times of academic retrenchment and budget cutting.

[4] In the 1980s, I served on the Board of Directors of Saltworks Theatre Company, which gained nationwide recognition for its drug and alcohol abuse repertory in plays targeting elementary, junior high, and high school students. This company worked in conjunction with St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh and trained actors for six weeks, allowing the actors to follow a series of patient treatments and group therapy. The training taught actors how to handle audience members who were emotionally affected by the material. On the road, the actors served as compassionate listeners and clearing houses for treatment resources. They were prepared to deal with and understand the various types of responses these plays engendered. The Wandering Thespian crew did not have this necessary background.

[5] When Wandering Thespians began, I was fortunate to enlist the aid of alumna Jeane Leep, who had just finished a master's degree and lived in the area. She was paid a modest honorarium for her work with us. Our first coordinator's good humor and skill insured that this program became and remained successful.

 

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