It’s easy to imagine theater students worrying about costumes and learning lines, rushing to rehearsals, or performing on stage. Students at Quinnipiac University do this all the time. But, as part of their theater program over the past 15 years, they’ve also collaborated with combat veterans, worked with children living in extreme poverty in Nicaragua, explored “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland first-hand, developed plays with at-risk youth in New Haven, and spoken with inmates in Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary.
“Everybody should have to visit a VA hospital; everybody should have to go into a lethal injection chamber,” Dr. Crystal Brian, Quinnipiac’s professor of theater since 2000, explains. “Once you are there, you can’t deny it. You can pretend to, but the innocence is gone and you can’t ever really be the same again.”
Brian introduced the concepts of theater for social change to her students and makes the case that theater itself is naturally theater for social change. The Greeks used it as a way of discussing the issues that faced them as a society, and today, when you consciously do theater with the idea that you’re changing yourself or changing the world, you are using theater as a way to understand social issues and engage in your communities.
Brian knows that her early students were an amazing group. They really latched onto this vision of what theater could be and how it connects to all aspects of life.
Allison Clark was one of those students from 2001-2005. She recalled what being involved with the theater meant to her, especially following the events of 9/11:
Not only did theater become a way for us to connect to our own catharsis, but we were asking our community to think and feel and respond to bigger questions as well.
In Clark’s freshman year, she was involved with “The Laramie Project,” a play about the reaction to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who had been beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming.
The following year students produced “The Antigone Project.” They considered the motives behind war and its impact on those involved by interacting and interviewing combat veterans, many of whom had fought in Vietnam. Listening to their experiences and hearing about the negative reactions and lack of support that often greeted their return home, was the moment when most of the students involved really personally connected with a marginalized population for the first time.
“It was profound for everyone involved,” Clark said. “I remember writing in a journal back then, “we held each other’s heartstrings.”
Student Kathryn Monigan was a freshman at Quinnipiac in 2003. Although she loved theater, she was not pursuing it as a major when she arrived on campus. After being cast in the production “The Troubles of Romeo and Juliet” in the spring of 2004, things began to change.
“Dr. Crystal Brian and her vision of Theater for Social Change altered my perspective on theater entirely,” Monigan said. “The concept that theater can carry with it a strong social message, and that the message can have the power to help heal a community, or bring about understanding and change, that to me is so impactful.”
The following spring, Monigan and Clark were among a group of students that traveled with Brian to tour “The Troubles of Romeo and Juliet” in peace and reconciliation centers throughout Northern Ireland. Speaking directly with former combatants and victims who experienced that period of conflict between Catholics and Protestants was an experience both feel fortunate to have had.
“Gaining an understanding of ‘The Troubles’ and seeing real life uses for the art of drama therapy had a profound impact on my understanding of conflict resolution between groups and individuals,” Monigan said.
During her senior year she was involved in the production of “Dead Man Walking.” The students traveled to New Orleans to meet with Sister Helen Prejean, who authored the book that went on to be adapted to stage and screen by Tim Robbins. They also toured Angola State Penitentiary, including the death house, and interviewed inmates there.
“I hope that we were able to translate some of the reality and sensitivity we now had to the audiences and community of Quinnipiac with our performances and talk backs,” Monigan said. “As a cast member, I can tell you these experiences will linger with me for the rest of my life.”
Brian, who had become friends with Robbins when they were both students at UCLA, arranged for the actor and director to participate in a workshop with students at Quinnipac. A photograph of Robbins with her students holds pride of place in Brian’s office, and the words he shared about the work being done through the Theater and Community program are framed with it:
I hope you understand how important the work you are doing is.
You are creating angels.
Brian believes the program does change the students who participate.
“Some of them are immediately drawn to it and they just realize they want to find a way to use this to make the world a better place,” she said. “But even those who take a bit longer to warm to the course have grasped the idea by the end and become different people because of it.”
This was the case in 2009, when students joined with youth from the New Haven Family Alliance’s Juvenile Review Board to create the play “Whitewashed: In the (Neighbor) ‘Hood.” At first, it seemed like students on both sides were struggling to enjoy the experience.
“But then they began to learn from each other, talking about their families and getting to know one another,” Brian said. “Then it became something.”
The play was performed at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater.
Theater students began taking annual trips to Nicaragua in 2006, in order to work with youngsters living in extreme poverty. During the year, the university’s students would collaborate with the students in Nicaragua to create a play they would workshop and perform during the spring or summer trip.
In 2013, the students, many of whom had no fathers in their lives, wrote a play to express the love and appreciation they had for their mothers. The Nicaraguan students were excited to travel by bus into the city of León to workshop the play. On the final day, their mothers were brought in to see the performance. The kids even learned to sing a song in English for their mothers.
“To see their moms come in to the city, and for them to see their children say how much they care about them and how glad they are to have them – it was beautiful,” Brian said.
Civil unrest has prevented students from traveling to Nicaragua the past two years, but Brian hopes to resume the trips in 2016.
Another project Brian is working to arrange for the 2016 spring semester involves the Lifers Group Youth Initiative at Cheshire Correctional Institute. Working within the prison is an idea she’s had brewing for some time, and she has made contact to arrange a meeting to discuss the project. If it gets the go-ahead, Brian hopes that students and inmates will be able to write and perform a play together.
Amber Hopwood is a criminal justice/psychology double major at Quinnipiac. She is one of several students eager to take part in the Cheshire project in the spring. The idea of rehabilitation was what really hooked her.
Theater can help people in ways that we may not think of or recognize at first, and as an undergraduate, to be able to do something to that extent, even getting to go into the prison and interact, is a big deal.
Hopwood is interested because it is really a way of doing something different. Theater will give inmates something fun and creative to do, an outlet that they can have input into and where it can become whatever they want it to be rather than a solution that is forced on them.
“I hope to come up with a program that sticks,” Hopwood continued. “Something that can open doors into the prison for other classes and programs that can also be effective. That’s the biggest thing – to help the prisoners.”
This kind of long lasting impact has happened for both Clark and Monigan.
Clark has become a Drama Therapist. Over the past 15 years she has worked with people in acute inpatient psychiatric settings, homeless populations, terminally ill children, women who have been physically and sexually abused, and victims of rape and incest.
“I aid in the coping and emotional support of those who believe their voices are not worth hearing, and I help them to understand their voices still need to be heard,” Clark said.. “It’s everything my work with Crystal [Brian] taught me.”
Monigan also uses the ideals and lessons she learned at Quinnipiac in her daily life. She acquired her teaching certification in Theater Arts and works as a high school teacher and director today. She uses a repertoire of shows that challenge social norms and address the larger issues of culture and society.
“I strive to teach my students that the arts can have a profound impact,” Monigan said. “I am forever thankful to Dr. Brian and the opportunities I was provided while at Quinnipiac University.”
Brian is proud that these opportunities help students to grow and develop by engaging with the local, national and global community. They are invaluable in helping to foster the understanding of the role “citizen artists” can play in our complex and sometimes troubled world.
To hear about the creation of Quinnipiac’s Theater and Community program from Crystal Brian and some of the students watch this clip edited from Kelly Shamburg’s student film, “Theater for Community.”