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College of Arts and Sciences Newsroom

University of Dayton applied theater group uses performance to drive social change

By Ashley Junkunc '21

University of Dayton international student Feifan Ren had seen news coverage of gun violence in the United States, but he was shocked when last summer’s Oregon District shooting brought the issue close to his home at the University.

“It was really sad to hear that,” said Ren, a sophomore theater major from China. “I always heard that this kind of thing happened in the news, but I never thought it would happen really close to me.”

In October, Ren helped honor the tragedy’s victims on its two-month anniversary. As a member of the University’s Common Good Players, an applied performing arts troupe, he dressed in iridescent angel wings and performed spoken word, songs and movement pieces during a gun reform rally outside Kennedy Union. The performance is an example of how this new student and faculty group uses performance to help drive for social change.

Audrey Melton, a sophomore theology major from Rock Falls, Illinois, joined the group as a way to combine her love of performance with her Catholic faith tradition. She said the Oregon District tribute performance allowed her to use applied theater to pay forward.

“It was impactful for me to be a representative of the people who were affected by the tragedy and to be able to hold that presence of spirit and remembrance,” she said. “Tying the performance more personally back into my own faith tradition and experiences was an honor.”

Established in fall 2019 by Michelle Hayford, director of the theatre, dance and performance technology program, the Common Good Players (CGP) provides students of all majors with the opportunity to engage campus and the Dayton community in performance, seminars and trainings that highlight social issues such as diversity and equity.

Currently, the group features six students and two faculty members.

Applied theater focuses on questioning, discussing and addressing social issues through public performance. Participants use techniques such as role-playing, improvisation and other interactive methods to inspire dialogue, foster education and enact change.

“To have the CGP be active in our community is the realization of a dream I've had to put applied theatre into practice at UD,” Hayford said. “These direct performances are much more than entertaining, but also have a purpose and a developmental function to improve our community.”

In February, the group once again donned angel wings and performed at “Six Months On: Gun Violence in Dayton and the U.S.,” an event at the Fitz Center for Leadership in Community that commemorated the victims of the August 2019 shooting and engaged community members in discussion about curbing gun violence at city, state and national levels. The event was co-sponsored by the University of Dayton Human Rights Center and the Center for Social Concern.

“The whole Dayton community was affected, and so to stand up and be a representative of the spirit and heart of that was very impactful for me,” Melton said.

In March, the Common Good Players collaborated with Tim Eatman of Rutgers University to co-facilitate workshops for faculty and administrators about revising tenure and promotion policies. By developing and performing skits and role-play activities that highlighted the inequities of these policies, the Common Good Players set the framework for dialogue about the need for more inclusivity.

Prior to the suspension of in-person classes because of public health concerns related to COVID-19, the group planned to attend the 2020 Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Conference at Loyola University of Chicago, now postponed until May 2021. The conference will include seminars to learn and share performance techniques developed by well-known Theatre of the Oppressed contributors, Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal. The Common Good Players will participate in a training by Boal’s son, Julian Boal, and present their work with gun reform and tenure and promotion policies.

“My hope is that the Common Good Players feel affirmed that their work in applied theater is impactful, and that the arts can serve a critical role at the intersection of arts and community engagement, creating spaces for dialogue through provocative performances that allow the audience and participants to reflect and take action,” Hayford said.

Ren said being part of the group has taught him how to use applied theater to connect with an audience to address difficult topics like gun violence and immigration.

“Common Good Players gives students a good way to expose themselves to new experiences in applied theater,” he said. “I hope more students will get to know more about this type of theater.”

The University’s Theatre, Dance and Performance Technology program was ranked in the top 25 bachelor of arts theater programs in the U.S. for 2018-19 by Onstage Blog, which covers theater arts and theater education on an international level.

For more information, visit the Theatre, Dance and Performance Technology program website.

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