The Activist Classroom

As teachers of theatre history, theory, and performance theory and practice we engage in crucial public work: the training of future audiences. Our labour, every day, is social activism, whether we call it that or not. The latest issue of Canadian Theatre Review celebrates this work, and explores its challenges from multiple perspectives. It includes contributions from performers, public arts workers, students, and scholars who work in theatre for education, performance studies, English literature, and more. The issue also features a forum on pedagogical innovation in the theatre studies classroom, as well as five short scripts developed by students at Queen’s University as part of a seminar on theatre, witness, and social change.

We invite you to take a look at the editorial, below, provided free of charge in cooperation between the University of Toronto Press, the University of Michigan Press, and the Theatre Historiography Website, and to click the links at the end to purchase the rest of the issue, or a subscription to the journal. I hope you enjoy it!

Kim Solga

Toward the Activist Classroom

In the spring of 2005 I spent several months in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin. I was there to be a part of an innovative PhD stream called ‘‘Performance as a Public Practice.’’ My colleagues and I worked closely with extraordinary, socially engaged practitioners. We made work of our own and we talked again and again about how, when, and where theatre becomes a force for political and cultural change and when, where, and how it does not.

When I returned to Canada to take up my first full time teaching job in September that year, I was full of the theories and practices I had absorbed at UT and determined to implement the ethos of Performance as a Public Practice in my own teaching. My new job was in an English department, in which students were accustomed to calling plays ‘‘novels.’’ I knew immediately that by demanding the students learn by doing—by performing, embodying, making personal the very political work we would read together—I could help them to see theatre’s potent public strengths. We began (in the wake of Hurricane Katrina) with a simple exercise: what if you were a theatre artist in Houston, in Baton Rouge, or in Nashville, I asked them; how would you muster your resources to help the people of New Orleans? I was amazed at the eager, smart responses— something that continued each week thereafter as students, divided into teams for the term, made outstanding poor theatre and spoke with sensitivity about what they and their peers were accomplishing, for whom, and whether or not it mattered. We were on our way.

Six years on, I am now a decorated teacher at my school, something that makes me proud but also makes me laugh. After all, I’m not doing anything that my peers in theatre and drama departments across North America aren’t doing; I’m just a queer presence on a campus where ‘‘Theatre’’ no longer formally exists. I’ve always known that my students and I do good work, but I’ve also always known that we’re not special. I’ve been wanting to tap into the teaching and learning knowledge of my fellow theatre and performance teachers for a long time; this issue has grown from my hunger to know not just how my work fits in, but how it could be better, stronger, for the help, advice, and encouraging war stories of my peers. What makes us good teachers? What makes our classrooms collaborative learning spaces? What makes our classrooms safe spaces to try out unsafe ideas? What makes our classrooms places where large-scale change can, in tiny steps, appear to begin? What makes our teaching activist, anyway? How do we—teachers and students—define that term for ourselves?

My activist classroom is constantly evolving, and it will be so much richer for my experience of putting this issue of CTR together.

For those looking for concrete suggestions to improve their teaching, Julia Lane, James McKinnon, Grahame Renyk, and Jenn Stephenson offer exercises that can be transported straight from these pages into the classroom. Lane considers the natural weave between improv performance and environmental education, and provides simple, excellent exercises from a recent workshop. McKinnon asks us to consider the creativity required to produce a good adaptation, and to use that creativity to help students rethink their capacity to be producers of ‘‘real’’ art. Renyk and Stephenson introduce us to the ICE technique and its capacity to enliven both assessment and assignment design.

Learning to teach better isn’t just about absorbing new techniques, of course; it’s also about listening to the stories that mark us as teachers, for better or worse. Some classroom struggles can seem intractable, and those of us who fight for sexual, racial, and gendered social justice each day know all too well how hard bridging the divide between activist life choices and activist teaching choices can be. Natalie Alvarez and Stephen Johnson both teach the history of blackface performance. They stage here a conversation about the challenges of that work and share strategies that they have developed to help their students recognize the ‘‘real’’ness of race. Allison Hargreaves struggles with similar challenges in her classes on Indigenous performance: in her contribution she considers Marie Clements’ Burning Vision as a vehicle through which to help students recognize what damage neoliberal discourses of remembrance and redress can do. Alvarez, Johnson, and Hargreaves are, in their ways, all striving toward what Naila Keleta-Mae, in her memoir-manifesto, calls a ‘‘pedagogy of justice’’: a space ‘‘co-constituted’’ by teachers and students and able to ‘‘unmoor’’ us all in productive ways.

Over the years since Austin I have learned that my own best teachers are my students—they don’t have my resources or my experience, to be sure, but they know when it’s not working. Two of my former students, Paige Beck and Lauren Moore, reflect on their work in my classroom in our lead article, and teach me about exactly what I’m teaching when I stand in front of my classes. Monica Prendergast talks to colleagues and students, both former and current, and asks each of them to consider how activism impacts their work in community and applied theatre. Jan Selman remembers one of those unforgettable ‘‘teachable moments’’ and uses it to reflect on the role discomfort and discombobulation should play in any activist learning space. Susanne Shawyer reflects on her students’ struggle with the very idea of activism in a class on political theatre, and recounts an exuberant term’s end performance that changed some minds but not others. Finally, Tara Beagan takes up her new role as Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts by thinking through her formative relationship with her friend, mentor, and colleague Yvette Nolan. In this ‘‘mentor/mentee memoir,’’ Beagan asks what it means to be mentored, what it means to become a mentor, and imagines how a strong mentoring relationship may function as perhaps the ultimate ‘‘activist classroom.’’  *Our script for this issue is a shared endeavour, split evenly between teachers and students, the work of teaching and the work of learning. In May 2010 I was fortunate to take part in a workshop called ‘‘Elephants in the Classroom,’’ coordinated by Laura Levin and Marlis Schweitzer. Levin and Schweitzer publish the transcript of our discussions here; it offers some excellent classroom exercises (large scale and small scale) as well as candid, topical reflections on life in each of our institutions right now. Then, we honour the labours of our best students with five devised pieces produced by Julie Salverson’s senior drama seminar at Queen’s University. Curated and introduced by Kalanthe Khaiat, these pieces remind me of the very best student performances I have witnessed over the last few years in my own activist classroom. They deliver not didactic messages and not simplified acts of empathy, but challenging engagements with otherness that ask all of us to consider the potential and the limits of our activisms, both in the classroom and beyond.

I hope you enjoy the issue!

CTR 147 / 2011 “The Activist Classroom: Performance and Pedagogy” is now available at

CTR 147 investigates the power of performance as a tool for critical thinking and social and political action within and beyond the university theatre studies classroom. Contributors offer reflections on a wide range of subject areas, texts, and techniques including: the use of improv in the eco-critical classroom, the values and limits of performance as a tool for teaching difficult texts in an English Lit context, the role of the mentor in shaping the next generation of Indigenous artists, and the challenges of “staging” race as a still-urgent category in courses increasingly populated by students uncomfortable with the term.

This issue contains:

Toward the Activist Classroom
Kim Solga
DOI: 10.3138/ctr.147.3
Building the Activist Classroom: Learning to Collaborate, Learning through Performance in English 2470: Canadian Drama
Paige-Tiffany Beck, Lauren Moore, Kim Solga
DOI: 10.3138/ctr.147.5
Activist Awareness in the Theatre of the Oppressed Classroom
Susanne Shawyer
DOI: 10.3138/ctr.147.12
Applied Theatre and/as Activism
Monica Prendergast
DOI: 10.3138/ctr.147.18
When the Audience is Ourselves: From Intellectual Argument to Visceral Experience
Jan Selman
DOI: 10.3138/ctr.147.24
Minstrels in the Classroom: Teaching, Race, and Blackface
Natalie Alvarez, Stephen Johnson
DOI: 10.3138/ctr.147.31
A Pedagogy of Justice
Naila Keleta-Mae
DOI: 10.3138/ctr.147.38
Making it Up as We Go Along: Improvisation and Environmental Education
Julia Lane
DOI: 10.3138/ctr.147.43
“A Precise Instrument for Seeing”: Remembrance in Burning Vision and the Activist Classroom
Allison Hargreaves
DOI: 10.3138/ctr.147.49
Creative Copying?: The Pedagogy of Adaptation
James McKinnon
DOI: 10.3138/ctr.147.55
The ICE Approach: Saving the World One Broken Toaster at a Time
Grahame Renyk, Jenn Stephenson
DOI: 10.3138/ctr.147.61
“Elder up!”: A Mentor/Mentee Memoir
Tara Beagan
DOI: 10.3138/ctr.147.68
Elephants in the Classroom: A Forum on Performance Pedagogy
Marlis Schweitzer, Laura Levin, Cassandra Dee Ball, et al.
DOI: 10.3138/ctr.147.74
Accountable and Theatrical Acts of Witness: Queen’s University DRAM 476 Testimonial Project Pieces 2010
Kalanthe Khaiat
DOI: 10.3138/ctr.147.86
Views and Reviews
Natalie Alvarez
DOI: 10.3138/ctr.147.104

Canadian Theatre Review is the major magazine of record for Canadian theatre. It is committed to excellence in the critical analysis and innovative coverage of current developments in Canadian theatre, to advocating new issues and artists, and to publishing at least one significant new playscript per issue. The editorial board is committed to CTR‘s practice of theme issues that present multi-faceted and in-depth examinations of the emerging issues of the day and to expanding the practice of criticism in Canadian theatre and to the development of new voices.

For more information, please visit CTR Online at

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