Responding to LGBT Homelessness in Emilio Rodriguez’s Swimming While Drowning
Pedagogy Notebook is a recurring blog series that serves as a pedagogical resource for educators and scholars looking to incorporate Latinx theatre into the classroom. In Pedagogy Notebook, artists, educators, and scholars share their process and work in the classroom, plus overall reflections on their pedagogy. This series offers a glimpse into different methods of engaging with and teaching Latinx theatre at the university level.
In this blog, I discuss how I used Emilio Rodriguez’s play Swimming While Drowning in my “Introduction to LGBT Studies” course at the University of Houston to engage with students in discussions of LGBTQ homelessness, the issues queer teens face, and theories of intersectionality and privilege. After volunteering at an LGBT homeless shelter and interviewing several people who had lived in them about their experiences, Rodriguez wrote Swimming While Drowning, a one-act play about queer youth feeling like they must lie about their lives in order to stay at a shelter, which seldom have space and are oftentimes underfunded. Swimming While Drowning focuses on two gay Latino teens living at a shelter in Los Angeles. Angelo Mendez leaves his home out of the fear of not living up to his homophobic father’s expectations. At the shelter, his roommate is Mila helps him find his authentic voice. In the end, Angelo learns how to cope with heartbreak through writing and performance.
With me simply asking a series of questions, students led themselves through an in-depth discussion, pushing each other further, challenging each other, and ultimately learning from their peers. They discussed intersectionality, internalized homophobia, privilege, and other issues facing queer youth.
I was introduced to the play at the Latinx Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Latina/o Work at the DePaul School of Theatre in 2015. I immediately knew that this was a play that I wanted to bring to my students (For more about Swimming While Drowning’s development, see Cafecito).
I chose to teach the play for several reasons. First, my students are not theatre majors nor are they accustomed to reading plays, so I wanted them to read an accessible play; as a two-hander about teens, the play is written in a language they speak. Only having to focus on two characters allowed them to fully understand each boy’s character arc as well as the world of the play. Second, I wanted them to be able to engage with an emerging artist who is not so far removed from being an undergraduate student. I wanted my students to see where they could be in a few years. Finally, I chose this play so that students would have a window into the new play development process; students were excited to engage with a play that hadn’t even received its world premiere (Swimming premiered at Milagro in February 2017). Choosing a play still in the development process enabled the students to buy-in in such a way that might not be possible with an older text. I had them write short reviews of the play that I shared with Rodriguez (upon his request) to give him insight into what a sample group of college students thought about the work—the things they liked, the things that weren’t entirely clear, and questions about the script and story. That my students were so interested in homelessness among queer youth was an added bonus.
Ask anyone who teaches (at any level) and they will tell you how difficult it is to get students to do the assigned readings. While I can’t offer a fool-proof plan, I adapted Teresa Marrero’s idea of a “Crit Sheet” and found it quite successful. Students had to turn in the Crit Sheet at the beginning of class: author, cultural identity, characters, plot, structure, character analysis, which character did they most connect with and why, which line from the play spoke to them most and why, etc. They also had to form at least two questions that they would like to ask Rodriguez to prepare for his cyber visit. I also had students read Emilio Rodriguez’s interview from the 50 Playwrights Project and “Cafecito: Emilio Rodriguez” by Maria Enriquez so that they could know more about the playwright’s background.
I used two class periods to teach Swimming. On the first class, I directed the students in a table reading of the play. I was not keen on using an entire class period to do a reading of the play, but it was important for me to ensure these non-theatre students heard the play and experienced a table-reading. The reading also helped build community among my students. When I cast the show by pulling names of volunteers from a hat, the class cheered as I called out each actor’s role. To allow further engagement among the class and with Rodriguez, I created the hashtag #SwimmingUH, gave them Rodriguez’s Twitter handle, and encouraged students to not only tweet while they read the play at home, but also to live-tweet our in-class reading.
To my surprise, students who had never spoken in class wanted to be cast. Admittedly, this made me a little nervous that the students would be so dry in their reading as to lose audience interest in the project. I couldn’t have been more wrong! These students came out of their shells and read their parts with emotion, inflection, and understanding of Rodriguez’s characters. For several students, it was the first time that I not only heard their voices in class, but also the first time I saw their personalities shine through. My students were engaged throughout the day in a way I had not seen in the previous six weeks.
During the second class period, Rodriguez skyped into our class to discuss the work and answer student questions about being a playwright, his process in writing the play, and how he has negotiated the intersections of his identity. To create an archive of Rodriguez’s work with my students, I published his responses to the top student questions in FAQs: Swimming While Drowning on the 50 Playwrights Project. I anticipate this FAQs post being a valuable resource for future educators who adopt Swimming into the curriculum.
The remainder of class was devoted to discussion using the “Fish Bowl” method as detailed in Brian Eugenio Herrera’s A Narrative Report. With me simply asking a series of questions, students led themselves through an in-depth discussion, pushing each other further, challenging each other, and ultimately learning from their peers. They discussed intersectionality, internalized homophobia, privilege, and other issues facing queer youth. One thing was clear—the majority of my students had never considered LGBTQ homelessness an issue before engaging with Rodriguez’s play. Several mentioned how they didn’t even know that LGBTQ homeless shelters existed.
In the end, I found Swimming While Drowning to be an effective way to engage my students in a multi-layered conversation about the issues facing LGBTQ youth such as coming out, physical and verbal abuse, homelessness, and representation. While my course was not a theatre course per se, theatre allowed me to engage the students in a way that is not possible with other forms of cultural expression. Having my students perform a reading of the play motivated them to become invested at a level I had not previously seen before during the semester. My students left the course with added tools to become advocates for LGBTQ equality on campus and in their home communities.