Art motivates campus social change

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Photo: Evan Walsh

With their bodies sprawled across the floor, eight Emerson students climb over one another, desperately struggling to follow each other’s lead. The rule of the game is to keep the follower’s head constantly five or six inches from the leader’s hand, no matter how it contorts the imitator’s body. This may seem like just another theater exercise, but Emerson Peace and Social Justice showed that it facilitates social change.

This Theater of the Oppressed Workshop, led by performing arts professor Christina Marin, was the final event of Arts for Social Change Week, which was coordinated by EPSJ and other Emerson organizations, including the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Emerson Poetry Project, and Rareworks Theatre Company.

The week’s events, which attracted about 300 attendees, began on Nov. 4 with a Paint-a-thon for the charity Cradles To Crayons, which gives high-quality goods to schoolchildren to give them a better educational experience.

Sophomore performing arts major Becky Brinkerhoff, the social media and marketing chair of EPSJ, was vital in coordinating the week’s events.

“At the door, we took donations,” she said. “People could paint for as long as they wanted.”

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This painting session was the first of many events that paired a good cause with an art form. The next, on Tuesday, Nov. 5, was a discussion led by Polly Carl, director and editor of the online journal Howlround, which promotes activism by using a theater as a medium for change. The discussion was followed by Emerson female playwrights reading their personal work.

Due to space constraints, there was no event on Wednesday. However, on Thursday, there were two. The first, planned by EPSJ in conjunction with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, was a gallery exhibition of seven Colombian artists’ work. According to Brinkerhoff, students and faculty packed the 10th floor of the Walker Building to see the various displays.

The second event that day was arranged with Emerson Poetry Project, which Brinkerhoff described as an intimate gathering where 15 students listened to their peers’ personal work. Passionate poets from multiple majors spoke about body image, mental health stigma, sexual assault, and partisan politics.

On Friday and Saturday, EPSJ partnered with performing arts groups on campus to connect the humanities and social change. The first performance on Friday was a staged reading of Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel’s Hot And Throbbing by Rareworks Theatre Company, a play depicting domestic violence.

Saturday’s first event was a master class presented by Emerson Dance Company, which was followed by the last event of the week, the Theater of the Oppressed Workshop.

Emerson professor Christina Marin’s workshop took the group of eight through awkward butt gyrations, follow-the-leader-themed game “Colombian Hypnosis,” a compassionate listening exchange, an Emerson student motion study, and image theater. These activities questioned the role of the individual in society and, as Marin asserted, challenged Emerson students’ adherence to the status quo.

“Once the Emerson student reaches stasis, [he or she] will stop,” Marin argued, as six of seven students stood frozen in the Paramount studio. “With Emerson students, status quo is achieved and then maintained.”

Among the students present, sophomore journalism major Bianca Padro said she was amazed by the discussion the workshop incited.

“What surprised me the most was that I didn’t know that I would have to look at myself [through others’ eyes],” she said. “The other exercises caused us to think about the group and how we affected other people.”

Sophomore performing arts major Angelina Morales agreed.

“Normally, Emerson acting classes are all about looking at yourself,” said Morales. “This workshop makes me look away from [that].”

Padro and Morales were not the only students who were inspired by Arts for Social Change Week. Brinkerhoff said she was excited to see that throughout the whole week, despite most of the events being theater-focused, people from majors other than performing arts were excited to partake.

“It’s like I’m sharing a part of my world,” she said. “And at the same time, I’m garnering pieces of their world as well.”

Other than connecting with students in different majors, this collection of events has facilitated relationships between EPSJ and other groups on campus. Brinkerhoff said she was excited about the possibility of EPSJ coordinating more with other organizations in the future.

 “Most of the time, they said yes every time, which was surprising,” Brinkerhoff said on the topic of connecting outside the normal EPSJ circle. “[We are] now looking for collaborations you wouldn’t normally think of off the top of your head, not being afraid to ask people who you think would be too busy to work with our organization.”

EPSJ and Brinkerhoff stressed that social change comes not only through language and discussion, but also through the physical experience of the arts.

In her workshop, Marin echoed this concept.

“Corporeal expression helps us live [social change], and not just talk about it,” she said. “It gives us the opportunity to allow ourselves to live in metaphorical moments, which imbue in us life lessons. We must not settle for simply talking about it, we must live it.”

Thea Byrd, assistant Lifestyle editor, contributed reporting.