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Theater group encourages audience to interact about social issues

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Student practice scenes from a play during their InterACT class. InterACT will have a performance April 27 at the Drake Performance and Event Center.  Credit: Lauren Every / Lantern photographer

Student practice scenes from a play during their InterACT class. InterACT will have a performance April 27 at the Drake Performance and Event Center.
Credit: Lauren Every / Lantern photographer

While in most plays, audience members simply sit and enjoy the show, InterACT Theatre Project for Social Change, a theater group on campus, performs with the purpose of interacting and facilitating dialogue with the audience about social issues.

“The title says everything — we want the audience to interact with the actors and we want the actors to interact with who they are portraying,” said Andrew Trimmer, the undergraduate studies coordinator for the Department of Theatre and a former member of InterACT.

Students do this by first creating a short performance based on a controversial issue on campus, Trimmer said. Then, the actors remain in the characters that they have created so that the audience can ask questions about the performance.

“(The audience) can ask for information about what’s going on under the surface,” said Elizabeth Wellman, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Theatre who has taught InterACT for five semesters and was involved with the course “Creation of Outreach Theatre” before that as well. InterACT is a class that students audition to be in.

Audience members can also change what transpires on the stage by asking the actors to repeat scenes and change the outcomes, Wellman said.

The dialogue that results between the actors and the audience is aimed toward finding solutions for the issues presented by the short play.

“We don’t ever come to a performance knowing the answers,” Wellman said. “The majority of problems that we face, as a society, are complex and they require a lot of different voices to solve them. We come in with a lot of questions and we ask our audience to try and solve it.”

Issues InterACT has covered in the past include the stresses of being on a college campus, communication between instructors and students, and military veterans who make the transition to college life.

“Our goal is always to be as authentic and as close to what real people have told us is the deal,” Wellman said. This requires students to conduct interviews and do extensive research so that they can develop characters that represent a specific perspective on the issue at hand, Wellman said.

This is also where it becomes important for the actors to interact with the people that they aim to portray, Trimmer said.

In her experience with InterACT, Tameishia Peterson, a fourth-year in theater who was involved with the course for two semesters, was asked to explore the lives of minority students in the College of Nursing.

“It’s not like your average class where you find a topic, go to the library, and research,” Peterson said. “It was basically pulling from the statistics from this campus and looking at other predominantly white campuses and then interviewing the minority students who were involved with that program.”

Peterson would also spend time with nursing students to get an authentic feel for their situation so that she could translate that into a realistic character.

After developing their characters, the actors in InterACT have to generate a short performance. The students are the ones writing the piece, Trimmer said, adding that the process requires in-depth knowledge of the characters and the ability to improvise as a character.

“How you build your script is by standing up and just conversing with your classmates,” Peterson said. “With this course, you get a lot of improvisational skills. You’re forced to really delve into your character’s background, so you’re forced to really develop a real character.”

This becomes especially important during performances when the audience has the power to change the outcome of a scene or ask a character what he or she is feeling but maybe not expressing, Wellman said.

“It requires a level of bravery from the actors and from the audience,” Wellman said.

“I think the mission of InterACT is to facilitate social change — it’s to make people aware, it’s to basically allow people to have a discussion in a place where most people wouldn’t discuss things,” Peterson said.

InterACT was first created by Robin Post, a visiting assistant professor who specializes in Shakespeare, applied theatre, acting and voice. The program, according to Post’s faculty biography, “was established in 2006 with the mission to perform interactive theatre with socially conscious content.”

“InterACT has a service learning component — it’s a group and a course that’s meant to serve, specifically, the university community,” said Wellman.

For this reason, InterACT focuses on bridging the gaps between different departments on campus, Peterson said.

“Working with the different departments really helps you to understand that everybody has their place in life,” Peterson said. “You kind of just get an understanding of their world.”

Not only does InterACT coordinate with different groups on campus, but it also encourages students from any major to participate in the class.

“We really welcome a really diverse group of students,” Wellman said. “It makes us better, overwhelmingly. The best groups have come from a wide variety of experiences.”

Peterson emphasized the effects the group has outside of class.

“This is where you get to show your community what you’re made of,” Peterson said. “Everybody can be a vehicle for change.”

The next opportunity to see InterACT in action will be April 25 at 7 p.m. in the Bowen Theatre at the Drake Performance and Event Center. Admission will be free but seating is first come, first serve.

Trimmer said attending an InterACT performance is an inviting way to start a discussion on a topic that otherwise wouldn’t be discussed, in a non-intimidating environment.

“It gives people a space to be honest about where they’re coming from,” Wellman said. “As a teacher, it’s humbling because it reminds me that I don’t know everything — and I think that’s why I love it so much … I love InterACT — it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done.”

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