Few of us are taught how to do civic dialogue. How do we develop and improve our ability to facilitate groups made up of individuals with potentially vastly different life experiences, identities, vested interests, and communication styles? Here’s one answer: Theater. When we want to literally incorporate new skills in our work, we need a body-based practice that can allow us to explore the interplay of subject matter, emotional response, social identity, and physical bodies in a physical space. That is the theater of civic engagement. And the methods of theater are learning tools that can and should be central to the training of public officials and community leaders who shape our interactions in the public sphere.
Drexel University is currently working to ensure that urban planners have the skill set to facilitate civic engagement, and its Masters of Science in Urban Strategy (MSUS) program has drawn on embodied and theater-based methods as a core training methodology. A hallmark of this graduate-level interdisciplinary urbanism program is its focus on civic awareness and community-based learning, exemplified through its course in Civic Engagement and Participatory Methods. Last year, West Philadelphia residents and MSUS students met up in a local church basement for this semester-long class. Through a collaboration between the MSUS program and my business, The Blue Door Group, my colleague and I designed and taught a class session focused on developing facilitation skills for leading public forums.
The class session was built around two premises: 1) Facilitation is a skill of democratic engagement that centers not on content expertise, but group dynamics. It requires the ability to notice whose voice is in the room and whose is not, stand in one’s own identity, and be curious about the ideas and perspectives of others. 2) When we facilitate, we bring our bodies, emotions, and voices to the task. When we want to gain skills in facilitating, we must do the same. Theater-based methodologies, which necessarily center the body and voice, therefore become a clear asset to the curriculum. Here’s an overview of how the public forum skill-building class session used some of these methods as means of engaging MSUS students and community members in developing the skills of public facilitation:
- An introductory pair activity allowed class participants to focus on nonverbal communication by taking turns moving and “freezing” in relation to their partner’s body and position. They were then asked to reflect on the silent conversation that was carried out in this activity. Many pairs noticed significant differences in their interpretations of that conversation and made connections to the challenges of differing perceptions and interpretations in other communicative contexts.
- We introduced a script based on a real-life town hall meeting, in which an urban planner was gathering feedback and attempting to build support from community members for a public-private housing development project. The script was brought to life by volunteers, both community members and Drexel students in the class, playing the roles of town hall meeting participants and with the Drexel instructor enacting the role of the urban planner. Character descriptions were minimal, and students were invited to represent the perspectives of the character without acting any stereotypes related to social identity. Participants acting these characters had the opportunity to embody perspectives and voices possibly different from their own, and similar to ones they might encounter in a real-world community meeting.
- A thought-tracking technique based in forum theater practices invited the audience to suggest ideas, concerns, or feelings that each character might have in this scenario. Thought-tracking encourages participants to reflect on the needs and motivations behind a character’s words and actions. It allows for empathy-building, and also for strategizing responses. Participants expressed interest in the meeting’s “back story” and suggested ways the planner might have better prepared to reach the meeting’s goals.
- Each actor in the scene joined a small group and repeated their original statements from the script. The small groups took on the role of the urban planner and paraphrased the character’s statements back to them. In this way, participants got a chance to delve more deeply into the character’s motivations and needs, and to experiment with how the planner might address them. They wrote down the strategies they could use with the character in order to better meet the meeting goals.
- After sharing strategies, the town hall meeting was replayed with the original actors. A student volunteer replaced the instructor in the role of the urban planner. As the volunteer tried out some strategies, the class clapped spontaneously in recognition of the challenges of addressing multiple group dynamics at the same time. After letting the scene play out, the class reflected on the volunteer’s interventions and what they had achieved. The class was able to process together the dynamics of a public forum in which they had all, either as characters or audience, participated. And they harvested strategies for real world engagement from having all, at some point during the class, stepped into the role of the planner.
Civic dialogue can be taught, as can the skills to facilitate it. It takes getting into our bodies and practicing the gestures of democratic engagement until they become habit. Our classrooms and training rooms can be the studios in which we rehearse for robust civic dialogue that can transform our public sphere. We have the theater-based tools to get us there. Are we getting them into the curriculum?