Written by Joni Newman, 1st year Theatre for Young Audiences Graduate student at UCF
In 2016, Elizabeth Brendel Horn (Assistant Professor of Theatre and the University of Central Florida) and Emily Freeman (Director of Community Partnerships at Orlando REP) began work on The Justice Project. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the surge of press about police brutality, they decided to create an opportunity for discussion and change using the techniques of Theatre for Social Change. Horn and Freeman worked with a leadership class in a local school where students were all male students of color to share their stories with one another and to create a workshop that area police could attend. This workshop allowed the boys to present their short play and to lead the police through activities where they could share their stories as well. It was an event that left the both groups more empowered to create change.
So, what is Theatre for Social Change and how is it different from other forms of theatre? Horn describes it this way: “Theatre is live storytelling for a live audience; social change (as opposed to policy change) is looking to create change within a person or a group of people – how they interact with one another and how they interact with and see the world around them. That “for” is really important because it’s not enough to have theatre that sheds light on a problem, we’re really looking for theatre that engages people in thinking about that problem and creating dialogue around that problem.”
Over time, The Justice Project has morphed into what is now known as Act Out Justice, and its aims have become much broader. “We’re such a divided nation,” Horn explains. “There are so many hot button topics. So we started exploring – what does that mean for Act Out Justice? Will students be comfortable discussing these topics? Are audiences going to be open to conversation? Are school administrators going to approve it?” At its core, Act Out Justice asks area teenagers to share personal experiences related to social justice concerns, but the Act Out Justice team wanted to ensure that in exploring these issues, students still felt safe and able to participate, regardless of their backgrounds. “We asked – what if we reimagined what it means to come up with your Act Out Justice story? What if instead of focusing on a current event, we’re focusing on something everyone has a relationship to? We all wear clothing, we all eat food, we all have some relationship with housing.” This in mind, the Act Out Justice team asks students to consider these universal experiences through four different social justice lenses: gender, socio-economic status, race, and ability. “As we take these stories and look at them with different lenses, we found that food and clothing and housing are not as simple as they might seem initially,” Horn says.
The goal is a narrow focus that doesn’t water down the potency of the experience for either participants or audience members. To maintain this potency, the relationship between the REP and UCF is critical. “Orlando REP has an amazing reputation in our community for engagement. They have a beautiful facility with tech support,” Horn explains. “UCF students and alums work as teaching artists. I help bring an academic lens to make sure that we are really researching our own work.” This year, students have focused on topics that are extremely close to home. At Evans High School, for instance, performers are preparing to present a piece about the Orlando Housing Crisis. These issues are local, and personal.
Students involved in Act Out Justice meet during or after school hours with Act Out Justice teaching artists where they develop theatre skills, research their social justice issue, and write personal narratives that help inspire their actual performance. Toward the end of the process, the students have the opportunity to attend a leadership summit at the Orlando REP where they get the opportunity to learn more skills and to interact with other participants. For Horn, the summit is a critical part of the Act Out Justice experience. “Last year a student came up to me before we took a group picture and said, ‘You just have to pause and look at all the diverse people in this picture right now.’ She wouldn’t have said that if she hadn’t felt empowered by being in the room at that point.” So many of the issues addressed by Act Out Justice participants reveal how isolated people can feel when they are considered outsiders. The Summit helps to reinforce one of the greatest strengths that participants take away from their experience: that they are not alone either.
Noelle Monroe, the theatre teacher at Colonial High School was able to involve her Advanced Theatre class in Act Out Justice this year for the first time. Teaching Artists from the REP visit her class every Tuesday during their regularly scheduled time. “We’re a Title One school. Being able to have rides to go to Orlando REP or the Shakes. . . it doesn’t really happen. If this wasn’t during class, it wouldn’t happen,” she says. “It’s been so cool to see the kids get really invested in creating new art. I feel really lucky. I love seeing [the students] work together.” Paula Cortes-Weil, one of her students, has also found the program rewarding. “It’s been amazing to create our own piece. You get to feel personally represented. I think it’s awesome how we get to share something that’s ours.”
The future of Act Out Justice is still evolving, but the team has some ideas. They’re interested in creating a model that can be expanded and re-created so that more students can participate both around the Orlando metro-area but also throughout the state and nation.
This year’s performance takes place at the Orlando Repertory Theatre on January 30th at 7:00 PM. The performance is free to the community (though the theatre asks for reservations to know how many people anticipate attending.) Audience members can expect to move throughout the theatre to different locations where the three performances take place. They can also expect to be involved in some way during each presentation. They may be asked to get out of their own seats, to share their experiences, to bring their perspectives. It’s sure to be a thought-provoking, powerful night!
If you would like to attend this year’s performance, please call the Orlando REP Box Office at 407-896-7365.