When I first entered Arena Theater’s Work-Out room on Wednesday afternoon, I was immediately asked to engage. Specifically, I was asked, along with my colleagues, to respond to questions posed on giant white sheets of paper hanging on the walls. There was only one question I could answer quickly, “What do you hope to gain from this experience?” I answered, “Points of connection.” Those points most surely came, but they did so in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. I had expected – projected? – the/my usual methodology, sitting around a table and discussing readings, “getting cerebral” as one colleague puts it. And, concomitantly, staying safe, inside a group discussion where I may or may not be mentally and emotionally present. But my expectation was thwarted, and I am so glad it was since it is only because of those unexpected means of connection that I had, opened up for me, such a rich horizon of possibilities for cross-connections.
The learning we experienced as CACE participants was a kind of immersion experience into the theatrical craft. We did exercises that were bodily, impromptu – and, for an introvert like me, risky, vulnerable, and terrifying! The meta-concepts and practices of our Wheaton Theater Department were established: choice, seeing/being seen, letting one’s body think alongside one’s brain, cooperative projects, and process. The exercises and ideas were themselves often powerful, but, more than any one exercise, what I took away from this experience that I will apply to my own pedagogy – that point of connection I was seeking – is that through the risky and vulnerable exercises we engaged in, the instructors (Mark, Andy, and Michael) were able, in a mere three days, to create a rich and trusting community of people who felt bonded upon the conclusion of the seminar. To illustrate, this community, by day three, was able to do an exercise in which we shared extremely personal and emotional experiences of feeling oppressed by someone else. One group was even moved to tears. I don’t know if I have ever had a class wherein, by week sixteen (!), students felt this close and trusting of one another. What if I could establish this bond in the first week or two, I have been wondering? How different would our conversations about literature look! Students wouldn’t be silent out of fear of sounding stupid. They could respond charitably and honestly to one another. We could talk about connections between literature and life, ones that really matter to us.
There are other core Wheaton Theater principles that would immensely benefit my own classroom learning communities. For example, the Theater Department establishes a room wherein students have choice – they can opt out of an exercise or work-out – but they must opt out with the knowledge that they are trying to get back in. They don’t check out, in other words. Because of this, students are more heavily invested in the work being done when they are participating.
At our closing session, one of my colleagues eloquently described that one epiphany he had during our CACE seminar was that our Theater Department is in the business of dispensing wisdom. I couldn’t agree more. They are doing this for students – teaching them how to live with principles such as I’ve described above – but also for us faculty who have had the special privilege of learning their methodologies and outcomes. I will be applying these methodologies to my classroom this Fall!