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How to Create an Actively Inclusive Theatre Course

We are in a time of upheaval. One of the effects of the George Floyd protests of 2020 was to lay bare how thoroughly white dominance is embedded in our culture and how that pattern must be broken. This led to long-overdue reckonings at many educational institutions that (unwittingly or not) have contributed to racism by mirroring white power structures, holding up Europe as the model for all things, and inherently endorsing the patriarchy in syllabi that have remained little-changed across the decades.

Those in charge are (mostly) not mustache-twirling villains or goose-stepping ideologues, but good people, dedicated educators who thought they were doing the right thing by passing on the same knowledge that had been passed on to them. I know this firsthand, for when I started teaching thirty years ago, my own instinct was to share the readings I had loved best in school; I graded the way my favorite professors graded and very much believed that “the classics” and “the canon” were crucial for a “good” education.

But within a few years, I started to question why I was doing so. When I was a student, I had longed to read work that reflected more of my own life: novels by authors who were Cuban or gay characters in books that weren’t tragic—but, as a teacher, I wasn’t offering my own students that. I began to look more closely at the potent effect of adhering to old norms, how that reinforces harms and fails students. I came to understand that the dominance of whiteness, maleness, and straightness in syllabi and course content sends clear messages about what—and who—is valuable and worthy. When students receive that message (over and over and over), no wonder it filters out into the rest of their worldview, affecting relationships, workspaces, and their sense of national identity.

After I started rewriting my syllabi to include more women and non-white voices, with queer writers and non-American authors appearing more, I heard from some of my students that it mattered, especially to those who had never seen any version of their life experience represented in required reading. Some others didn’t notice at all; the syllabus was just the syllabus. Not everybody loved the new model—one student complained that he didn’t get to read any Hemingway, another groused that the readings were too gay—but not everybody loved all the old texts either. The point wasn’t popularity but vision: I changed the coursework to help all of my students see differently, with a wider lens, whether or not they realized that was what I was doing.

This was a choice and it’s one any educator can (and should) make. It’s the choice to embody active inclusion, by which I mean creating courses that truly take in the world, embracing the gifts of artists, thinkers, and fellow humans as diverse as the planet itself. It means stepping away from familiar modes of teach-these-few-greats-in-this-order, it means remaining humble enough to be a fellow learner, and it means offering course content that allows more students to see themselves not as insiders or outsiders in history, but as active participants in a global conversation happening right how.

Here are eleven steps to make that happen.

It takes time for all of us to expand our reading, broaden our repertoire, and fill our heads with new models, but waiting for perfection to make any progress fails everyone.

1. Start now.

There will be a lot of homework for anyone undertaking this process and it may not all get done at once. But the work shouldn’t be put off until a course is 100 percent where it should be or even till the educator feels comfortable. It takes time for all of us to expand our reading, broaden our repertoire, and fill our heads with new models, but waiting for perfection to make any progress fails everyone.

2. Be humble.

Of course, the biggest stumbling block for so many is not knowing what to replace old content with. Educators who want to do right by their kids may simply not be well versed in work by non-dominant authors. That’s a humbling thing for someone who has literally earned a degree in telling others how much they know, but humility is key in doing this work. If we reframe ourselves not as experts but as learners, we’re ready for the hard work of reading new things, researching what others are doing/teaching, and going beyond ourselves to seek outside help. We must not be afraid to include content in which we are not deeply proficient. We just need to let our students know our limits: yes, we do have some expertise but we don’t know it all, and the course, like life itself, is an investigation of ideas, not a revelation of unquestioned wisdom.

3. Break the spell of gatekeepers.

One of the most common excuses I hear for not changing up a course is that adding new material means cutting out the classics; the fear is that students will miss out if they don’t learn a few works that have long been considered titanic in importance. But where did that importance come from? Most things in the canon were acclaimed by gatekeepers (scholars, critics, directors, heads of institutions) who were very much like their creators. The people with the power to promote work championed the work that was most familiar to their culture and reflective of their taste. It’s time to acknowledge how that narrowed the pool of “important” work and to demystify what counts as great.

When we bring in other work that may not be as famous as, say, Hamlet, we are still bringing work of value from which we may teach specific skills and ideas, which is the actual goal. The larger culture will still provide our students with ample exposure to Hamlet, whereas a class might be the only place they’ve heard of a newer writer. We must be our own gatekeepers, shepherding more inclusive content into the fold, or tear down the gate altogether and let students suggest work to include.

4. Think about and beyond race.

In North America, race must be considered when constructing syllabi; racism is so influential and so corrosive in our culture that not factoring this in counts as a moral failing. There’s no hiding behind “I just chose ‘the best things’” or “I don’t even see color,” the first sentiment suggesting an omnipotence no one possesses and the other revealing a very self-serving delusion that literally makes no sense. So yes, race and ethnicity do need to be considered (along with their mutual friend colorism) when thinking about the creators being privileged in courses. But we can’t stop there.

Gender, too, needs to be looked at. How many women are on the syllabus and are their contributions treated with equal depth and seriousness? Is the focus entirely heteronormative or are there authors offering a queer perspective? Race, ethnicity, gender, and orientation are perhaps the most common baseline elements for inclusion, but there are myriad other points of entry, including indigeneity, gender identity, physical ability, religious practice, and mental health.

If we want to show how comedy has always poked fun at authority figures, we can swap out Shakespeare for the Sanskrit play The Saint-Courtesan (the original Freaky Friday); if we need to demonstrate a Restoration comedy, we could sub in Aphra Behn for John Dryden.

5. Blow past bean counting.

I’ve heard too many teachers grouse about “bean counting,” by which they mean having to add one of this, one of that, one of the other to their existing very white, very male syllabi. I have two reactions to this: First, it’s only bean counting if you resent being asked to do it; educationally, the actual function of these changes is to deepen the course. Second, “bean counting” falls far short of what really needs to be done, which is to change the syllabi so much that work by non-white and non-male artists is dominant, not just added on.

To me, that would achieve not mere equality but equity. Equality means tailoring offerings to mirror the current demographics (a step that would, in fact, be a vast improvement for many teachers). Equity means tipping the balance of offerings so that those who have been underrepresented in course content have a chance to make as big an impression on students as those who have dominated curricula for so long. For non-dominant identities (for instance, Indigenous or gender nonconforming artists) to achieve the same amount of visibility as dominant identity groups, they may require greater real estate on the syllabus than their relative percentage of the population merits. Providing that amplification is good for the course—which becomes rounder—and for students, whose vision will be expanded.

Several actors wearing vintage work clothing and standing in stage boats in pairs or groups of three.

The images students see are as vital as the texts they read. Shown here is the cast of Men on Boats at Speakeasy Stage in Boston directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Photo by Nile Scott Studios. Scenic design by Jenna McFarland Lord. Lighting design by Daisy Long. Costume design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt. Sound design by Elizabeth Cahill.

6. Emphasize concepts, not individuals.

One thing that hamstrings people is that they are taught to focus on “masters” (a term with its own built-in issues) like Ibsen or O’Neill, using them as the exemplars of specific modes or periods. As educators, we can start unraveling that by reversing the equation: focus instead on the ideas we wish to teach and then seek content that aligns, with an eye toward less-heralded creators. If we want to show how comedy has always poked fun at authority figures, we can swap out Shakespeare for the Sanskrit play The Saint-Courtesan (the original Freaky Friday); if we need to demonstrate a Restoration comedy, we could sub in Aphra Behn for John Dryden. Cutting back on the greatest hits in no way compromises our delivery of concepts our students need.

7. Rethink the starting point.

The misinformed belief that theatre originated in Greece and that its significant developments were found mostly in Europe is strangely pervasive. The world has been making theatre for a very long time, so it’s high time we let go of the model that suggests “the Greeks did X and all else followed.” Egypt and India both had scripted drama before the Greeks, but there were also masquerades across Africa. Focusing only on the so-called “West” ignores all kinds of theatre—from the festival plays of the Maya to Japan’s Noh tradition.

Breaking free of adherence to the timeline of theatre in the so-called “West” allows us to focus instead on genres, modes, devices, and traditions. For subjects like musical theatre, the tradition may be younger, but it’s still older than Broadway, starting with the zarzuelas that spread from Spain to Cuba and the Philippines, and it has successes far outside North America (such as the anime-based musicals of contemporary Japan). Even if a course subject does require organization by era, educators can look at what was happening globally and create a conversation across cultures, examining the ways traditions were and weren’t speaking to each other.

If hypotheticals are created, common Anglo names should not always be used as model names; a Lopez can replace a Smith, an Akiko can sub in for a Jane.

8. Change what students see.

If a course involves visuals—photographs, videos, graphics—then we need to make sure our inclusive strategies extend to these images. There is a comparative dearth of inclusive representation in textbook illustrations and educational materials of all kinds, which trains students to see theatre as homogenous when it’s not. That’s why the videos in my Script Analysis course are majority women and every single one features BIPOC artists; the photos too feature BIPOC, queer, gender nonconforming, disabled, and international performers, often playing against “expected” type (a trans Stella in Streetcar, a female Hamlet, a Black Angel from Angels in America, Egyptian students doing Brecht). Even the cartoons are inclusive.

While I have spent a lot of time finding the right visuals for my course, my students wouldn’t know that and I never draw attention to this detail. I want the inclusion to be so organic they simply couldn’t imagine it any other way.

9. Seek inclusion in the details.

Everything I said about visuals can be applied in other ways across courses. Do students also have to read essays or reviews throughout the term? Educators can actively choose a balance that amplifies non-dominant voices. Are examples used to prove points in class? Educators can plan ahead so they are not defaulting to all-white, all-male, or all-American proofs. If hypotheticals are created, common Anglo names should not always be used as model names; a Lopez can replace a Smith, an Akiko can sub in for a Jane.

10. Never target non-dominant students.

If we do all this great work to yield better content, our efforts must not be undone by then targeting students of particular subcultures when covering work that we think might speak to them. Singling out a student for their firsthand experience of being Black or gender nonconforming or Buddhist (and so on, ad infinitum) sends a raft of terrible messages: first, that they are defined only by one thing; second, that they somehow speak for a whole culture; third, that they must do so on demand; and lastly, that some authors or works in the curriculum are valuable only to them.

Targeting only certain students for attention fetishizes them, which is the inverse of actual inclusion. Everyone in the class needs greater exposure to a wider world and everybody should be investigating what these works can mean for their lives.

11. Don’t stop.

Even after years of designing actively inclusive syllabi, I’m still translating gaps in my own knowledge into opportunities to enrich the content: I just added an Indigenous playwright to a unit on comedy and a trans playwright to demonstrate the use of heightened naturalism. I know there will always be more to do and that not every choice I make will land as I hoped, but I’m okay with that. As educators, we must make peace with our shortcomings as we aim higher. If we accept that we must keep learning, we become partners on the journey of discovery with our students.

Making education more actively inclusive isn’t a one-and-done thing or fad that will pass; it’s a dire need of the present that should become the norm of the future.

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