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Students learn to use performance for social change

December 11, 2009

The intersection of theatre, performance and community activism is examined in one of this semester’s First-Year Experience seminars, “Performing Activism.” The course, taught by assistant professor Laura Hope in the department of Theatre Arts and Dance, explores how theatre and performance can be used as a tool of social justice and activism.

The class also discusses how artists, politicians, community activists and even nations use “performance” as a tool of propaganda, activism, coercion and dissent. Students are asked what constitutes “performance” and how it can be used both on and off the stage to achieve specific socio-political goals.

As part of its mission to educate the whole person, Loyola University New Orleans has implemented a program of seminars for all first-year students. The seminars are special-topics courses conducted by leading Loyola faculty. All are small classes grounded in an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge and an exploration of values. They provide unique classroom experiences, as well as co-curricular events, field trips, dinners, films and other social gatherings.

The students in the class are creating and presenting projects in the styles and themes of the artists being studied, including the Black Arts Movement writer Amiri Baraka and Brazilian artist and activist Augusto Boal. Baraka used agit-prop performances during the 1960s and 1970s to draw attention to civil rights issues. Boal was the founder of Theatre of the Oppressed, a theatrical form originally used in radical popular education movements.

Although “Performing Activism” falls outside the course of study for Max Welch, a music composition major, the course is a fit for him personally since he enjoys acting, playwriting and directing.

For the class group project, Welch and his group wrote and performed a short scene using the methods of the activist theatre group, The San Francisco Mime Troupe, who began using theatre in the 1960s to protest the Vietnam War.

“It was a delightful test of cooperation and organization with a pleasant element of creativity,” said Welch. “I am getting a great deal of global sociopolitical knowledge out of this seminar regarding everything from Nazi Germany to the Civil Rights Movement to the Dirty War in Argentina. I am also learning methods people use to make a difference in their communities, whether it is a good or bad difference, or if the community is a small town or the entire world.”

The reach of these seminars extends far beyond the classroom for Welch.

“I will take my knowledge of activist performance I am gaining from this class and use it in several aspects of my life and my career. As a composer, I wish to use my art not only as creative self-expression but also as a way to make a statement,” Welch said.

Melanie McKay, Ph.D., vice provost for faculty affairs, sees the seminar experience as a tool for students to use to approach learning in all of their classes.

“A liberal arts education teaches students to synthesize knowledge from different subject areas and to reflect critically on facts and ideas. These seminars help our first-year students begin that process,” says McKay.

For more information on the FYE, contact James Shields in the Office of Public Affairs at 504-861-5888 or jshields@loyno.edu.

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Loyola at a Glance is written and distributed for the faculty, staff, students and friends of Loyola University New Orleans. It is published by the Office of Public Affairs, Greenville Hall, Box 909, 7214 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70118. (504) 861-5888.

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