Members of The Living Theatre came to Hamilton College campus in Fall 2003 to conduct a 3-day, 15 hour workshop culminating in the public performance of its death-penalty protest piece, “Not in My Name.” The group of about 26 undergraduates consisted of some theatre majors, some with performance experience, and many with no theatre or performance training or experience; half were enrolled in my intermediate acting course and the others in a sophomore seminar on 1960’s political theatre. For most the commitment, discipline and intensity of workshop was completely new. In addition to their anxieties about performing many students were concerned about taking a political position about a controversial subject.
From the first minutes of their meeting through the final performance and dinner, Jerry, Lois and Joan conducted themselves and the workshop in a professional, warm and enlightened manner. They were attentive, supportive, inclusive, efficient and creative---role models as individual performers and as political/artistic collaborators. I was impressed at the structure and sequencing of the exercises and rehearsals and their orchestration or such a large and diverse group or undergraduates; the group worked on each segment, gradually gaining both competence and confidence, until each performer and segment was prepared. In addition to fundamentals of performance and choral singing, the workshop also introduced many to important avant-garde theatre methods and ideas including some from the Living Theatre and Vsevold Meyerhold.
The residency was also able to create an instant theatre company. As one student put it, “I thought that the workshop they gave us was truly unique. ... the experience they gave us forced everyone, even the reluctant, to join forces and take a stand for something that matters. ... It was a great weekend for the class in general. I think that it was an important step for us, before we had to put together our own thing. We got to be more familiar with one another, and our abilities as performers. Even though there was plenty of groaning, that in itself was a unifying force. There are several people from class that I see every so often who have mentioned getting our class together again ... and I think this represents the dynamic we captured by the end. The Living Theatre was part of that.” In the most real and direct way possible the Living Theatre workshop taught students what it takes to make theatre that takes “a stand for something that matters.” Later that semester, in large measure taking lessons from what they learned in the workshop, the 1960’s class created its own anti-war theatre performance.
Hamilton’s performance of the Living Theatre‘s “Not In My Name” had stunning visual and vocal moments and created an unusual, and provocative, campus event. Political conversations over dinner that night continued throughout the semester. Jerry, Lois and Joan encouraged the students to examine and express their own beliefs arid created a place in the performance where each participant contributed a line expressing her/his own point of view. A few students in the workshop continued to follow death penalty cases and have taken the lessons-both theatrical and political -to heart. One particularly thoughtful student evaluated her own learning: “This weekend gave me a lot to think about. I found myself profoundly depressed Sunday night about the current political situation in our country and in the world. I think I agree with the Living Theatre’s ideas about pacifist anarchism. I have always considered my self a pacifist although I had never used that word to identify myself. I guess I had never realized my connection to it until this weekend. After the workshop I found myself wondering why I was in school. I know I am here to get an education so that I can get a job and become a success, but it scares me that I will enter the workforce and become part of the cycle of economic oppression that only serves to damage our society and probably creates a lot of the violence in it. America is so violent, especially in its methods for dealing with other countries, it makes me sick. ... I guess in the end I learned that I am not satisfied with the state of the world. Now I have to think of a way to feel I am working to change it for the better."
The Living Theatre workshop gave me, and my students, an opportunity to think and to act-to examine our beliefs, values and actions and a way to realize those values and empower ourselves artistically and politically. Lois, Joan and Jerry are generous and inspiring teacher/artists.
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