Devising a community in the theatre department

With a few exceptions, Muhlenberg theatre tends to lean towards the more traditional. While recently we have been seeing a departure in the types of productions featured in the theatre department and Muhlenberg Theatre Association’s seasons, there have been limited classes offered on campus that teach students how to create alternative styles of work. In fact, the phrase “devised theatre” is foreign to many Muhlenberg theatre students. Devised theatre is a mode of creating a piece typically involving collaboration and improvisation from an ensemble.

Drs. Leticia Robles-Moreno and Matt Moore, both theatre professors, decided to create a class unlike one that Muhlenberg has ever offered after realizing that their approaches to performance studies and devised theatre were similar and that their differing cultural backgrounds could work in tandem to offer students a different kind of engagement with theatre. The class combines an education in devised theatre, participation in community engagement and culminates in the creation of a piece in the spring semester. The professors were also awarded three grants to fund their research and ultimately that of their students as well.

In order to provide some insight on the creation of this class, I interviewed the collaborators behind Devising Community.

What made you decide to create this class?

LRM: The idea for the class came from a conversation that Matt and I had in an event organized by FCT [the Faculty Center for Teaching]. We realized that we both wanted to teach a class on devising theatre focused on community engagement and to collaborate with people from the Allentown community. In my case, a huge inspiration is the Peruvian theatre group Yuyachkani – these performers and activists have taught me that theatre can go beyond the physical space of a building and can be transformative and relevant in current struggles for social justice.   

MM: I’ve wanted to teach a class that focused on group devising since I came back to Muhlenberg. I think the number one challenge facing students here is how to develop a relationship to the Lehigh Valley. Muhlenberg has always been an isolating environment, despite the great work happening at OCE [the Office of Community Engagement] and in several other classes. I thought it was time to join the push to get students off campus.

How did you choose the overarching topic of the class?

MM: These are my two major convictions: that theatre need not reproduce the hierarchies inherent in our social structures and that theatre is a mode of community making. I wanted to lead students in a process that could reveal the essential truth of these two claims.

Why now?

LRM: One of the oppressive tools of totalitarian regimes is to make you believe that you are alone, that there is no possibility of working together, that you better mind your own business and let someone else … make decisions for you. No way! One of the first lessons you learn in doing theatre is to respect your ensemble members, to listen to different ideas and to be a productive part of a collaborative effort. The world is a crazy place right now and devising theatre is a reminder that there is still a lot to do and that we can work together to speak out and to have an impact (as tiny or as big as it comes) in our community.

MM: Perhaps every moment is right for this work, but now seems especially devoid of hope. Social separations seem especially deep and unbridgeable. Art-making seems more commercially controlled. We wanted to give our students an opportunity to explore a process that privileges discovery, difference, risk-taking and collaboration over the normalized imperatives of aesthetic concerns and box office sales.

How did the department react to your proposal?

LRM: The department of Theatre & Dance supports the class and the spring project! Our department aims to help our students to become artists and thinkers (and doers!), and the core value of the theatre program is collaboration. I think a class like this was just waiting to happen, and Matt and I met at the right moment and the right place to make it happen.

MM: Many of us already make and believe in this work. Now that it’s becoming more popular (and students are asking for such experiences); we are all looking for opportunities to weave it into our curriculum.

What are your hopes for this class?

LRM: I hope that our students leave the class open to collaboration and community engagement. Most of them are going to leave Allentown when they graduate; but wherever they go to work, I hope they have the tools to create their own projects and their own language. Apart from this, my personal goal is to make this class and the project that comes with it sustainable. I hope we can teach different iterations of this class every year so that we create a solid relationship with community partners through theatre and the arts.

MM: I want to send students out into the world full of the feeling that they can make their own work that they need not rely on “the industry” to provide them with opportunities. I also want them to feel like theatre-making matters to people.

What would the ideal end result look like for you?

LRM: I have no idea! This is the scary (and magical) part of devising theatre! But whatever the result looks like, the only thing I am sure of is that it will intertwine different artistic languages, different voices and different perspectives. There is no linear narrative when you work with a large group of people and when what you want is to debunk dominant narratives.

MM: The point of this class is to empower students to find their way toward an outcome. I hope we are providing the necessary tools and key experiences that will inspire and help shape the work, but part of our commitment is to allow the group to make decisions rather than following an authoritative directive. Part of the excitement of this kind of work is allowing it to happen.

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