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Diversity in Pedagogy: Initiatives in the Department of Theatre Arts

By Esther J. Terry

In 2012, the Department of Theatre Arts adopted a Casting Policy for its mainstage and lab productions. The policy affirmed the department’s purpose in striving to include many perspectives, in terms of plays, artistic choices, technical and design personnel, and actor selection. Since adopting the casting policy, the department has produced work like City of Asylum, Venus, Zanna, Don’t!, Compleat Female Stage Beauty, and In the Heights.

In addition to supporting a variety of perspectives in its productions, the department aims to further enhance pedagogical and curriculum diversity. The Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences expresses a commitment to “providing our students with an educational experience that adequately prepares them for life, learning, and work in the increasingly global world.” The recent initiative at Pitt, Hail to Diversity, indicates that many students and faculty are working to create a more inclusive university. Educators in Theatre Arts encourage students “to take risks and to see each class, audition, and production opportunity as a fresh opportunity for greatness.”

The department began three new courses: Theatre and Collaboration, Enjoying Performances, and Contemporary Global Stages. In Theatre and Collaboration, students practice and examine the theatrical process through case studies in every aspect from playwriting to producing to theatre critic. In Enjoying Performances, students analyze audience experiences and “cognitive foundations of performance.” Contemporary Global Stages repeats every spring, and introduces one mode of performance in a worldwide, multicultural locations. This year’s iteration, taught by Christiana Molldrem Harkulich, is Crossing Global Stages: Gender, Drag, and Performance in the Contemporary World.

In January, Dr. Lisa Jackson-Schebetta led a Diversity Workshop for faculty, staff, guest artists, and graduate students. All participants read “The Welcome Table: Casting for an Integrated Society,” by Daniel Banks and “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by Peggy McIntosh.  Upon their arrival, participants filled out surveys, answering “When I think about “diversity,” I define it as ….” and listing their personal concerns or reactions to diversity initiatives.

 

One participant wrote that they wanted “the best environment … in class, to support all my students.” Another wondered, “is it a zero-sum game, that privileges/advantages for one are disadvantages/non-opportunity for another?” Others wrote their concern about saying the wrong thing in relation to a text or performance, and asked if a diversity initiative inherently “hides white entitlement?”

Based on the questionnaires and articles, Jackson-Schebetta led participants through Social Mapping exercises and Boalian Imagery work. Participants first responded to the written statements by moving around the room in relation to other members of the group. They then moved to creating image tableaux, and shifted the tableau composition after hearing reactions from the group. In the discussion, workshop participants analyzed questions of focus, and the range of possible tableaux narratives based on changes in compositional relationships. At the end, participants gathered into small groups, to discuss actionable items for the near future. The suggestions ranged from surveying the plays taught in every class to practical pedagogical strategies in classrooms.

To further support graduate students, Vivian Appler and Esther J. Terry facilitated a Graduate Teaching Colloquium on Diverse Pedagogies. Participants shared techniques they have used to encourage and respect multiple perspectives in student-focused discussions. Appler led theatre and improvisation games, to model the construction of safe discussion spaces. Terry introduced a range of plays and scenes that educators can include in classwork, and for their individual pedagogical development. In late March, guest artist Jim Walsh (of the Romero Theatre Troup) led a pedagogical workshop on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed.

Moving forward, the department will use theatre and performance to strengthen and diversify conversations in the university and Pittsburgh, through pedagogy, productions, research, and community outreach. A committee composed of faculty and graduate students is currently developing a long term, community outreach effort known as The Welcome Table. This initiative will create new opportunities for performance, by promoting and mobilizing around the idea of difference as an inherent resource.