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DRAMA 270 A: Survey of Great Theatre for Social Change

Meeting Time: 
TTh 11:30am - 1:20pm
CDH 511A
Odai Johnson \ Photo by Kyler Martin
Odai Johnson

Syllabus Description:

Drama 270:   Theatre and Social Change

Odai Johnson   (odai@uw.edu


This course uses theatre-thinking to explore the 'how' of social change.  How, exactly, can effective change really be accomplished?   We will be considering a range of practices, styles, structures and forms through which actions, events, spectacles have been uniquely successful in advocating, envisioning, and staging political and social change.    It is not so much a course on social issues themselves, but on the genres of social change that contain them.   It is about how to effectively stage the change you envision.

We turn to theatre-thinking because any successful action has been thoughtfully 'produced,' and because of its communal nature and its liveness, it is uniquely suited to engaging in change.   The rules of engagement require choices, clarity, even finesse.  

Rallies, protests, ‘actions’ all speak to individuals with a proclivity toward change.  Participants are there because there is already a will.  How to speak to those without the will is the challenge of theatre for social change.   Socially engaged, activist theatre is not a contemporary invention.   For hundreds of years theatre in many forms has been reaching out across constituencies with a variety of approaches.  We will consider some of the more successful forms.

Course Objectives:   

To build purpose into and promote safe and engaged activism.

To become acquainted with a tool kit of theatre techniques that can increase the potency of actions.


A note on sources:   I have assembled the readings across a platform of sources:  some are canvas files, some are e-books available through your UW library access.  Others are not live links, but need to be cut and pasted into your browser.  A few of the performances are available as Youtube clips.  If anything is not available, let me know – preferably in advance of the day for discussion! 


Expectations:    This is a read-and-discuss class.  That means you need to arrive prepared to have a conversation on the material of the day.  This can be as simple as bringing in questions or areas of interest, or how each style might be applied.  We will look at a variety of styles for staging social issues and work out collectively which style to use for which issue and why.



Grades and Assignments:   Grading is based on three components, collectively totaling 200 points.  There are three assignments, a final presentation, and the day-to-day participation.  

First Assignment = 20 points

Second Assignment = 30 points

Third Assignment = 40 points

Fourth Assignment = final presentation, 70 points

Participation = 40 points



Week One:  (Jan. 4)

Thursday:  Introduction to the class, expectations.  Small discussion on why theatre?  The short long history of theatre and social change.    Building a theatre vocabulary for reading and staging actions.   Share your most powerful moment of social engagement.  Back-ground on first form:  Verbatim Theatre.

For Tuesday:  1st assignment (20 points):   Write up in 1-2 pages,  1)  Describe what has been your most powerful moment of social engagement.  Then, 2) how would you create or re-create that experience to share it out to a larger audience?   

Or, if you have seen a powerful moment of social change on stage, share your experience. 

Some online resources:    https://howlround.com/tags/social-justice-political-theatre?page=7  


Week Two:       Documentary Theatre, or Verbatim Theatre  (Jan 9-11)

For Tuesday:   1) read and discuss:  Anna Deavere Smith, Twilight, Los Angeles   (file on canvas) or,  http://www.robmacdougall.org/pdfs/4301_23_Twilight.pdf    

This link is an excerpt from the longer play.   A brief excerpt of Anna Smith's performance can be seen here:    https://weta.org/watch/shows/great-performances/twilight-los-angeles   

For Thursday:   2)  Share your experience with the following interview-based prompt.

Exercise in a focused conversation :   choose a prompt question from below.  These are designed to be light conversations.   Remember, your role is not to comfort or correct, to bless or judge, just to listen.   Choose somebody not from the class, someone you are not close to, but not a complete stranger.  Get comfortable enough to ask of them three questions.  They get to choose one or more to answer:  

              What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you?

              What is your oldest memory?  Why was that one remembered? 

              Have you ever had a ‘super-natural’ experience?  Something you could not rationally account for? 


Resources:   https://www.tectonictheaterproject.org/?avada_portfolio=laramie  


Week Three:   Augusto Boal and the Theatre of the Oppressed  (Jan 16-18)

Tuesday:  read from Theatre of the Oppressed.      https://performanceintro3.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/theatre-of-the-oppressed-boal.pdf

For Thursday:      Second Assignment, (30 points):   2 pages.  How might you use Boal’s Invisible theatre?   What is the setting, what is the issue, how would it be ‘staged’?  Super helpful here is the resource guide on Boal and his methods, 'Invisible Theatre' in the canvas files (pdf Invisible Theatre methodologies, pps. 21-28).


Week Four:    Worker’s Theatre and agit-prop  (Jan 23-25)

 Tuesday:    IWW – the size and range of 1930s Workers’ Theatre; first case study:  India.  Read Meerut (1933);  Read ‘Documents and Texts for Workers Theatre Movement.’  (Canvas File, Workers Theatre, pdf.) 

For Thursday:  two one-act plays:  Clifford Odet's Waiting for Lefty,  (Canvas file)

              Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino, read Los Vendidos   (canvas file)


Week Five:    Truth and Reconciliation:  Witness Theatre (Jan 30-Feb 1)

  For Tuesday:  Read from  ‘Spaces of Truth Telling,’ in Shane Graham’s, South African Literature After the Truth Commission, Mapping Loss.  [canvas file] pages 1-17 (23-39)

For Thursday:   read about  Khulumani’s   The Story I am about to tell   (1997)

Take-home Third Assignment (40 points):   Describe these theatre styles and offer examples of what it might look like:  Worker’s Theatre; Invisible Theatre; Verbatim Theatre; and Witness Theatre.   Due by Tuesday's class.


Week six:    Protest goes to Broadway:   Commercial Protest theatre  (Feb 6-8)

For Tuesday:  read Athol Fugard's  Master Harold. . . and the Boys

  https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=c3R1ZGVudC5iY3Nkbnkub3JnfG1yLWFsYmFuby1ob21lcGFnZXxneDozN2Y0YTcwY2IwNjMwZTY2   (cut and paste link)

Or, full text in the Canvas file.

 For Thursday:  Read and discuss Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun  (canvas file) 


Week Seven:   (Feb 13-15)   Interactive Theatre:   The legacy of The Living Theatre and San Francisco Mime Troupe       

For Tuesday:   Watch (as much as you can!) of The Living Theatre's production of Paradise Now  (several Youtube versions).  Note:  some versions contain scenes of actor nudity.    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7t_YE2hGy7M 

 For Thursday:   Community Based activist theatre

Watch the documentary on Cornerstonehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36IvpuHssNY  ]

ACT-UP.   Visit the website for ACT-UP    https://www.actuptheater.org/ 


Week Eight - (Feb 20-22):  Staging Actions, a Dramaturgical Guide 

For Tuesday:  Discussion on staging meaningful actions

For Thursday:  share examples of successful protest actions.


Week Nine:  Guerilla Theatre / Actions / Culture Jamming (Feb 27 - Feb 29)

 For Tuesday, read:  Steven Durman, 'The Guerilla Theatre of Greenpeace'  https://performanceintro3.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/witness-guerilla-theater-of-greenpeace.pdf   .   

ACT UP (AIDS coalition to unleash power) and their staged 'Actions.'   A good summary can be found on their wikipedia page   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ACT_UP 

Thursday:   Visit the Yes Men website ( https://theyesmen.org/) for developing actions and interventions.  Visit Chatham House for a handy 10 point blueprint.   https://www.chathamhouse.org/2020/12/what-makes-successful-protest 


Week Ten:  Presentations  (March 6-8)

              Working in small groups, present on 1: a company, or several companies, whose work you find engaging.  What is their issue, what is their style, how might you measure their success?   Or, option 2: select three different forms of performance that we have studied and describe in some detail how you would design and stage each of the three events.  The range of forms might include everything from 'direct actions,' guerilla theatre, inter-active theatre, community engaged theatre, worker's theatre, agit-prop, commercial theatre, verbatim and witness theatre, to culture jamming events or invisible theatre.  Pay some attention to the particulars of the event, the place, the time, the occasion, the symbolism, gesture and ritual of each.  (70 points)   Part of the challenge of the exercise  is building consensus around your productions and an equitable distribution of tasks.   



Catalog Description: 
Surveys a sampling of the more influential plays ever written and performed, and how they advocated for social and political change. Considers plays that have directly engaged social and political problems, plays that began revolutions, and plays that quietly, persistently pushed the world toward a greater equity.
GE Requirements: 
Arts and Humanities (A&H)
Last updated: 
November 2, 2023 - 9:56pm