Anthropology and Theater Very Likely Bedfellows
We want students to do international travel. We want students to do community service, service learning, become global citizens…Our universities have wish lists that sound like a pep rally at a car dealership instructional meeting. In addition we receive messages about millennial students who seem to come with their own special guidelines and instructions. Even though the sincerity of our institutions should not be questioned, it is up to us to truly prepare our students for the world that awaits. I believe the ability to identify and analyze cultural situations and to be sensitive to the complexities of people’s lives is one of the most valuable skills we can give our students. Yet analytical skills are not enough.
More and more I have found that our students lack vital people skills. It might be due to their millennial short attention span, instant gratification nature. I don’t want to be derogatory about my students and their supposed “millennial” condition. My students are eager to learn and enthusiastic about engaging people with cultures other than their own. By the time my students go into the field they have been drilled about the not so glorious past of anthropology. They know all about respect, relationships and reciprocity. In fact, time and time again my charges make me proud with their ability to be humble, respectful and sensitive towards the communities they get involved with. Yet to my amazement I have seen them come home from the field and turn on each other with a vengeance. I observed that they reserved their cultural sensitivity to “the other,” but they did not extend that courtesy to those near them.
Obviously, as great and effective as I thought my teaching was, I wasn’t done. The fact that underneath it all my students still operated on a “me vs the other” paradigm, and that they did not acknowledge any cultural difference of those near them, showed that my plight for becoming the sales person of the year was far from over. All joking aside, it brought me back to what skill I wanted my students to have when I eventually send them back into the world. I must preface this by saying that before I went into anthropology I worked as a clinical psychologist. Each time I would start a relationship with a new client I would be humbled by the fact that this stranger was about to entrust me with their story. Ultimately that is what I want my students to have: a respect for the human story, no matter how near or far. It is when students have a basic respect across the board that they will more easily slide into negotiating their own story in relation to somebody else’s. And with some good training they will slide into that negotiation with skill and eventually with confidence and ease, regardless of who they engage with. I determined that this aptitude could not be brought around through mere intellectual exploration however. This required a shift and connection on a deeper level. What to do?
I found my answer in a collaboration with my colleague Kathryn Bentley in the theater department. What started as sharing mutual interests has grown into true interdisciplinary curriculum development. We teach at the university where Katherine Dunham used to teach. A coming together of anthropology and performing arts might have been destiny. Rather than studying each other’s fields however, we have come to use theater to enhance anthropology and to use anthropology to enhance theater.
Anthropology is about delving into the story of people. Theater is about embodying that story. We started with a workshop: Theater and Dance of the African Diaspora. Rather than talking about dance and theater, students danced and acted, all the while learning about the significance of the art forms for people of African descent in the Americas. Following the workshop we developed an interdisciplinary course under the same name. After that course we developed an interdisciplinary field school where anthropology and theater students traveled to Suriname together for a joint learning experience. It is through the course of the development of these workshops and courses that it became clear to us that by sharing each other techniques we could prepare our students better than if we were to teach them on our own.
Theater provides my students with the following assets, and these are not presented in a particular order. (1) Students can explore human relations by moving out of their left brain, to go beyond thinking and intellectualizing about it. (2) Theater creates a safe and fun space to explore ideas and relationships. (3) Theater provides a space to explore feelings without necessarily having to talk about it. In the field when students are dealing with culture shock and are overwhelmed with new feelings this might be especially helpful in helping them process. (4) Students can work on self awareness, bodily awareness, which is an important when relating to people. Students have to learn about the messages they can unwittingly send through body language. (5) Students can work on interpersonal skills through role play. In addition to awareness, students have to develop their skills like voice, body, facial expressions and spatial use for their ability to connect and interact with people. (6) Students can explore coping and conflict resolutions skills. (7) Students can explore difficult human experiences through theater play.
Anthropology provides theater students with the following assets. These are not presented in a particular order. (1) Students learn that theater isn’t just about playing and that thinking and writing are important. (2) It is important and necessary to do good research on your character, the culture or context of a story. (3) Students learn the value of cultural analysis. People’s stories are rich, complex, and diverse. There are many sides to a character’s story that might not be clear from a script, but that should be considered or imagined even to give a full representation of that person or story on stage. (4) Even though students might engage a story through a script that someone wrote you can engage people to get stories. (5) It is important to be diligent, respectful, and sensitive when doing ethnographic fieldwork to learn about people’s stories. (6) There is a sense of respect and responsibility that goes along with telling somebody’s story. (7) Being well-informed makes you a better actor.
We have come to these assets over the course of the two years that we started working together. We have been inspired by the World Economic Forum Global Leadership Fellows Program at Columbia University, where young global leaders are exposed to arts and theater workshops as part of their leadership training. To be good leaders, fellows have to connect with people’s stories and diverse viewpoints through the use of the arts. They also learn about the power of art to change communities.
One example that stands out in our own curriculum development is the treatment of slavery and racism in the interdisciplinary course. The majority of our students know little about the complexity of US slavery and have not been taught to have constructive inter-racial discussions about race. Through theater play we exposed students to the horrors of the Middle Passage, the separation of family, community, the inability to communicate with fellow kinsmen, and the brutality suffered by enslaved Africans. Subsequently we assigned scenes from a theater play written by an ex-slave about slavery, and we had black students play the white characters and white students play the black characters. The sharing and discussion that followed after these two experiences have repeatedly been mentioned by the students as most significant and eye opening. The discussion also confirmed that this theatrical treatment of the material far surpassed any book or video learning they could have done on the subject.
We are now in the process of preparing for our second international summer field school and are expanding our theater skills. We will start in the spring with group building and interpersonal skills. We will more systematically use our theater sessions to help students explore their adjustment issues in the field. Experience taught us that initial bonding was effective but that after the honey moon was over and as people started to adjust to culture shock, they tended to deteriorate in their interpersonal group skills. This is something we want to be proactive about this time around.
As anthropologists we are well versed in exploring the permeability and break down of cultural borders. I challenge us to go as far as breaking down our own barriers and work across the border. We don’t have to be afraid of losing our integrity. If done with care and sensitivity—which is what we are all about—it can only make us stronger.
Aminata Cairo teaches cultural and medical anthropology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She regularly partners with her colleague Kathryn Bentley, a professor in the department of Theater and Dance who specializes in multicultural theater.