This is the second story in a two-part feature about an innovative theater arts program taking place at the University of Minnesota, Duluth (UMD). Please visit this link to read the first story.
By William E. Payne, University of Minnesota, Duluth
The masked storytelling project involving the University of Minnesota Duluth and the Grant/Nettleton Elementary Schools completed its work with a post-project reflection session. The UMD faculty, students, and community partners involved with the project gathered during finals week to evaluate what worked, what didn’t work, and to strategize for next year.
Shane Johnson, Family Liaison of Grant Community School, was very positive about the achieved outcomes of the project;
From my perspective, the outcomes for the children were experiencing and creating a story about social justice with college students. The larger outcome is that our children formed a relationship with a person in college – someone besides their teacher or someone directly from the school. Many of our children do not know such people and it is a real life opportunity to work with the college students. I would not want to change our focus on stories about social justice and using mask theater to express those stories.
Shane goes on to suggest how the project could be improved in the future;
I wonder if your students would be willing to teach our students some of the techniques of masked theater. Maybe our children could perform with your students. Something to think about…
This is a great idea. After experiencing the project this year, it became clear to me that the actors needed to spend more time earlier in the semester with the elementary school children. I plan to add a 4-6 hour service-learning requirement during the first half of the semester, most of which will take place before our first performance for the children.
I also want to build the relationship between the young person writing the story and the college student adapting that story into a scenario for performance. I am also hopeful that we can host the Grant/Nettleton students on the UMD campus for a mask workshop.
The potential and value for a creative, project-based relationship between these elementary school students and the UMD college students was a surprise to me. Having experienced it, and heard Shane Johnson speak about the impact it had on her students, it makes sense. I also see the value this relationship has for my students. Senior BFA Acting student Emily Crom wrote in her journal:
I didn’t realize how important what we were doing was to these kids. It was amazing to introduce an art form to these kids and I loved the stories they wrote. Imagination is so important, and keeping it alive for these children was a very rewarding experience.
All of the actors in the Masks class are asked to reflect on their experiences with the elementary schools through a journal. One of the last questions I posed to them was “In what ways has this process changed the way you see your role in a community? The role of the artist in primary education?” Here is the answer of Junior Kaio Kealahapauole;
It has shown me that I have a role in the community and primary education. It has also shown me how important the imagination is in the lives of children and our own. It has shown me that I can have a positive effect if I so choose-that I have the power to inspire and that the smallest child could have an equal if not greater effect on me. I truly hope that there are more theatre programs out there working with kids to help them expand their imagination through reading, writing, and performing. I hope UMD is not the only one.
Brenda Butterfield, Associate Professor of Psychology for the Group Dynamics, course writes:
The line between theater and psychology is blurred at best and more often altogether nonexistent – it seemed like a natural connection waiting to happen. The theater students would explore and develop skills in improvised performance while the psychology students would have the opportunity to work as a group by helping children write stories about bullying and other social issues based on the personal experiences of the children. The learning objectives for the psychology students focused on applying the knowledge learned about group dynamics in the course to create an effective group experience and accomplish their goals. Once the goal was accomplished, the psychology students and the children were to hand the stories off to the theater students who would then perform the stories at a school wide performance. The thirteen stories created were focused on the theme of social justice/bullying, were unique in voice and style, and were very entertaining.
While both Bill and I have ample experience collaborating with community partners to make effective service-learning experiences happen, it was our first time collaborating across departments and colleges within our institution. While anticipated issues arose none were too big to overcome.
The themes of collaboration and service-learning were strong enough to overcome many of the barriers both within the institution and between the institution and the community. It was an exciting first time venture that met the objectives for undergraduate students, school children, community program staff and instructors as well. It also proved to be a project ripe with promise for future endeavors.
Anyone interested in more details about the project, or other ways to modify it for your theatre/psychology/elementary school programs, please feel free to email us.