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Connecting My Academic Studies with Community Practice
On the second floor of the historic Market House in Meadville, Pennsylvania, in a central gathering space for artists and citizens, sits Meadville Council on the Arts. After my first year of college, I joined the council as arts program coordinator, a position I filled as a Bonner leader committed to serving the community across my four years as a student. In this role, I taught a low-cost youth theater class and provided other assistance. This work intersected beautifully with my interests in both theater and community engagement, but it didn’t connect to my academic experience as much as I would have liked. It made me wish foran opportunity to connect my academic studies in theater, writing, and Values, Ethics, and Social Action (VESA) with theatrical practice prioritizing the community.
Following my junior year, I found that opportunity through a summer residency with the Cornerstone Theater Company. In the summer of 2013, I traveled with twenty other students from around the country to Salinas, California, to work as assistant director for Plumas Negras (Black Feathers), a play following three generations of women as they worked in the local farm fields. Over five weeks, I studied the theory of community-based theater in the morning and participated in rehearsals at night. The play was created from story circles that Cornerstone facilitated a year before the production, and most cast members were field workers. I was inspired by Cornerstone’s balance of meaningful community engagement and artistic professionalism.
My experience in Salinas was the perfect preparation for my senior capstone project. When I returned to Meadville, I began working with Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church to conduct research for my own community-based theater production. I chose to partner with Bethel AME because of its significant role in the history of Meadville’s black community. The church was enthusiastic about sharing that history and also wanted to grow its network of community members.
I attended church services for several weeks before facilitating a story circle where congregation members shared personal stories about the Civil Rights movement in Meadville. I also researched the role the church played in the Underground Railroad. The stories I gathered about these two periods became the play’s plot. As a white woman collaborating with a community of color, I spent a lot of time learning from the Bethel AME community to ensure that the play’s representations were accurate.
The play’s rehearsals provided much of the research for my senior project. In theater, the rehearsal room is our lab, serving as a place for us to explore; the performance is an experiment where we present our work to an audience. Thus, I gathered data for my senior project by presenting the play in two locations, immediately followed by facilitated community discussions. In this theatrical process, the production is an icebreaker for meaningful conversation. Audience members may experience a production passively, but then become engaged in an active response.
The first performance, on Allegheny’s campus, was pleasant and somewhat stale; the audience responded warmly, but did not engage much in the post-show discussion. But the second performance, in Bethel, was electric. With a diverse audience that included Allegheny students and faculty, Meadville citizens, and, most importantly, Bethel congregation members, the performance activated the space that was essential to the story.
Concluding my time at Allegheny with a capstone that challenged me academically and artistically was the best preparation for the “real world.” Not only did I make new connections with my community, but I also collaborated on a play that facilitated a difficult conversation. Community-based art is beautiful for this reason. Creating my signature work taught me the value of changing, confronting, reflecting, questioning, and engaging the world as an artist.
This year, I founded Gum-Dip Theatre, a community-based theater that creates plays for, with, and about the people of the Rust Belt. I am using the skills I shaped through my signature work in my entrepreneurial ventures. Since graduating, I have produced two community-based plays in different cities, and received a $10,000 matching arts grant. So far, the opportunity to practice theater through community-based research has had a monumental effect on my life.
Katie Beck is a 2014 graduate of Allegheny College.