Building giant, colorful puppets. Devising complex performances in groups. Listening and learning from each other. These are all essential parts of Professor Harry Waters’s Community-based Theatres class, which allows students to engage with stories and voices from the communities they’re involved in, says Waters. Through story circles, theater games, and experiences in various Twin Cities theaters, the course teaches students how to create events and performances that share and celebrate the values of various communities.
The first step toward creating community-based theater, however, is building community among classmates. “Harry is somehow able to create this atmosphere where you’re not being judged, and you suddenly have 12 new friends,” says Selamawit Gebremariam ’13 (Tema, Ghana). That atmosphere is especially important in a class that transcends campus borders; everyone in the course must volunteer twice a week at Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater in Minneapolis.
“Heart of the Beast is amazing,” says John Stephens ’15 (Woodbury, Minn.). “When you walk in, it’s like Santa’s Workshop. All these different people at different tables, assembling their ‘toys,’ some floats, some puppets.” Those floats and puppets become part of the theater’s annual MayDay Parade, which proceeds down South Minneapolis’s Bloomington Avenue to a full-scale celebration in Powderhorn Park.
Students in Community-based Theatres also are required to participate in the MayDay parade and ceremony—not that any of them are complaining. “It’s been such a valuable experience to be part of MayDay,” says Gebremariam. “I appreciated it so much.”
“I got a sense of how important community theatre is as a tool—it’s so powerful. You can create community just by making props for a performance. Every part of it you can use to build community.”
Inviting guest artists to class to explain how they create art is a big component of Community-based Theatres as well. These guests have included artists who have worked at Cornerstone Theater, a multi-ethnic, ensemble-based company in Los Angeles; the John O’Neal Free Southern Theatre, a community-based radical theater originally based in Mississippi; Pangea World Theater of Minneapolis, which presents international, multidisciplinary work; and Twin Cities company Sandbox Theatre, which creates collaborative, newly imagined performance artworks.
“Sandbox gave us guidelines on how to transform ideas into art,” says Marni Schreiber ’14 (Pittsburgh, Penn.). She has since used techniques learned in Community-based Theatres in her other classes. Says Schreiber, “It’s definitely something I’ll keep using.” Justin Rasmussen ’16 (Watford City, N.D.) agrees, adding, “I got a sense of how important community theatre is as a tool—it’s so powerful. You can create community just by making props for a performance. Every part of it you can use to build community.”