Monday, February 8, 2016

Building Houses: Community in Theater

     I’ve always felt that a theater class builds community organically, as the work we do to put up a show brings a group together in a way no other project can.  Producing a show doesn’t always build the most inclusive group, though. There have been semesters when we’ve worked intensely on a show and yet, come finals week, I realize that the lead actor has no idea what the curtain puller’s name is. Separations between class years and even between actors and techies still exist. To address those divisions, I tried a new approach this year and it seems to be paying off.
     Inspired by the houses in the Harry Potter novels, I created four houses for my drama class, each one named after a significant figure in American theater: Taymor, Miller, Bankhead, and Jones.  I tried to balance the namesakes among disciplines, so there is one director (Julie Taymor), one playwright (Arthur Miller), one actress (Tallulah Bankhead), and one designer (Robert Edmond Jones).
     Since I didn’t have access to the sorting hat, I tried to salt each group with a balance of freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, as well as dividing students who worked backstage and those who did more acting evenly among the four houses.  One of my goals was to have students interact with people they wouldn’t normally spend time with, so I tried to break up the cliques that naturally develop.
     Once I divided the class into houses, the first project I had them do was to find out who their namesake was and report back to the entire class.  The houses meet sporadically, sometimes for a fun activity (like a round of grudgeball), a team-building exercise, or something more serious (discussing the latest play reading assignment).
     As we near the end of the year, I wonder how to replenish the groups next year, and if each house will find a way to identify itself in the long term. In the short term, I’m happy with the way it’s helped students interact with people they might not usually go out of their way to touch base with in class or during production.

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