“This class is different from any other; they have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
—Harry Waters Jr, professor

How many classes call for students to march in a parade wearing a salmon head? Or perform rapid-fire stretching exercises to Michael Jackson music? Or write and perform a skit about protesting an oil pipeline?

Not many, but that’s what makes Harry Waters Jr.’s Community Theater class so much fun.

Each class starts with an exercise warm up including stretches, sit-ups, and push-ups. Students then take over, leading at least part of each class, possibly asking each other about their most embarrassing moment or deepest insecurity, possibly acting out a social drama inspired by a recent news story.

Sound scary? “Good,” says theater professor Waters. Or as he tells his 20 students: “I”m not interested in you being comfortable. You won’t experience anything until it jangles you.”

Waters was inspired to create the class because of work he had previously done in community-based theater. Soon he realized that the Twin Cities’ 43-year-old May Day parade, a crazy collection of musicians, costumes, and giant puppets, would provide the perfect learning experience for his students.”It’s a great summation of what we’re learning in class,” says Waters of the community-conceived, -built, and -run parade and festival held the first Sunday of May in South Minneapolis.

Parade planning starts in March, when everyone from 8-year-olds to 80-year-olds meets at In the Heart of Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre in South Minneapolis to discuss the event’s theme and how it will be realized. By April, participants are working on their part of the parade—sewing, crafting masks, building floats—you name it. “I meet new people every time I come here,” says  Jacob Meltzer ’17 (Olympia, Wash.), who built a salmon costume from papier maché, shiny plastic scales, and glittery gloves transformed into fins.

The festival’s general theme was Resistance; Meltzer marched in a sub-section entitled Light, walking alongside people in both monkey and geode costumes, among other characters. “Giving voice to people’s personal stories is what community theater is all about,” says Waters. “This class is different from any other; they have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Yet Mac students seem to love it, flocking to the class every year, regardless of major. Over the semester they read books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Staging Social Justice, keep a journal reflecting on the course, and hear from artists who create theater with the homeless and others who are putting together a play at the state capitol. All along the way Waters asks that they be “fully present,” checking in with each other at the beginning of each class and being willing to take risks in hearing and presenting stories.

“I’m always amazed at the number of students who enroll because someone else told them to take the class,” says Waters. “It’s important that some version of this class continues beyond my tenure here. It’s a great way to experience the arts and social change, to work with artists, and to get off campus.”

September 25 2017

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