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Faculty Focus

Crossing the Line
What community theatre can accomplish

by Brooke Kiener, '99
Assistant Professor of Theatre

As a theatre instructor at Whitworth University, I've had the opportunity to witness incredible acts of transformation, both for students and audiences. Theatre, as a live and human art, brings people together into one space to experience stories that illuminate and redefine human experience. And as such it can be an incredibly powerful tool.

However, the most transformative theatrical experiences I've had have been in a community arts context, or more specifically, while working on community-based theatre projects. As a growing field, community-based theatre includes theatre organizations and artists who center their artistic life in specific communities for the purpose of using theatre to express the values, interests and concerns of those communities. In other words, it is theatre that is of the people, by the people, and for the people. And it is in this kind of working context that I have also experienced and found need for the Christian practices of hospitality and testimony.

For instance, in 2004 my department hosted the Theatre for Social Justice Institute at Whitworth, inviting community members to participate in a week of workshops that focused on the issue of socio-economic discrimination and culminated in the creation of an original script. One community group in particular was central to the formation of the work – a group of individuals from poor neighborhoods who met regularly to provide support for each other. When they came to Whitworth and worked among our students, many in the room experienced "fear of the stranger." People were hesitant to mingle or to interact, afraid of saying the wrong thing, of being criticized or misunderstood. But as the work began, interaction was necessary. And as participants shared their stories, fear gave way to awe and respect. The strangers in our midst, whom we had expected to need us, soon began to change us.

Further, we discovered through the workshop that accurate testimony meant we could not censor the parts of the story that were hard to tell. In one particular instance, a community member had witnessed a homeless friend of his being kicked out of a shelter because he was Muslim and refused to participate in the Christian prayer at meal time. My students were shocked by this story and found it difficult to believe. And as the group was writing the script, this particular story became a topic for heated discussion. Some insisted that including the story villainized Christian charities, which generally do a lot of good in the community. Others fought tooth and nail for its inclusion, believing that to exclude it was to be dishonest and to insult the participants who shared it. In the end, the story was included because most agreed that it was important to give accurate testimony.

In 2008 I taught a practicum course in community-based theatre, and students and I worked with a local nonprofit law firm to investigate issues of police power in Spokane through the following questions: "What should the relationship be between a police force and its citizenry?" and "What do we do when that relationship is somehow threatened or harmed?"

While we stretched ourselves beyond our disciplinary limits, researching everything from restraint devices to excited delirium, we again ventured into the community, to collect not just "expert" information but public opinion and diverse perspectives about law enforcement issues. You might expect that the most significant challenge we faced was familiarizing ourselves with foreign terminology, data and concepts. But once again I found that it wasn't the subject matter that was disconcerting; it was the subject "bearer." Students readily admitted their pre-existing biases about the police, stating, "I want to believe that the police are good, and that as long as I follow the rules I won't ever get hurt." But when confronted with evidence that showed otherwise, their inclination was to question the validity of the source bearing the information. Can we trust a lawyer who articulates her faith differently than we do? Can we trust someone who has been convicted of a crime? If the "expert" doesn't share my worldview, can I still trust his or her testimony?

As we worked on creating our show, Crossing the Line: an investigation of the police, power, and people, our challenge was to find one narrative that would equitably present the multitude of perspectives we had uncovered. In the end, we realized the story we could most accurately tell was our own – the story of a group of learners, who started with two questions, engaged in an extensive civic dialogue about those questions, and still had a hard time deciding what to believe in the end.

Thus, as an artist and a teacher, I continue to look for ways in which I can use theatre to bring strangers together to share stories and to create new work that expands our understanding of citizenship, justice and democracy.

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