The region’s latest top news makers — you know who you are — could make even the most buoyant Scrantonians disown residence. But in that alternate universe where NEPA is known for its triumphs as much as its embarrassments, two University of Scranton professors and their students are conducting an experiment in civic theater with the potential to make us proud.
Designed to propel University of Scranton honors students outside their comfort zone, The City as Theater is a course created by Dr. Sharon Meagher of the philosophy department and assistant professor of theater Dr. Hank Willenbrink. Most of the nine students enrolled in the seminar are science and/or pre-med majors, and on Friday they will present Performing the City on Founder’s Green in front of the McDade Center for the Performing Arts from 4 p.m. until approximately 7 p.m. It should only take about an hour to see all nine of the program’s independent, but integrated performances, and audience members are welcome to come and go as they please. In the event of rain, the event will be moved to The Mall at Steamtown, in stewardship of interaction with the general (i.e. beyond the immediate University community) public.
It’s easy to argue that our concept of democracy and what it means to participate in one has become dangerously distorted in the 21st century. Further complicating progress is a tendency to confuse the quantity of information at our fingertips with a quality of creative and critical thought. Meagher and Willenbrink’s civic theater project has challenged students with deceptively simple questions like “What is a city?” and “What is citizenship (or what makes for a good citizen?)” while exploring issues of urban identity and diversity through both philosophical essays and theatrical texts.
“There has always been this tension between philosophy and the arts in terms of who has authority about how we understand cities and citizenship, that goes all the way back to the Greeks but persists today, for example, in debates around censorship,” Meagher explained last week at a meeting in Willenbrink’s office.
Playing on these tensions, the course began with readings and evolved into research of street theater and community-interactive performance art, easing the students slowly toward Friday’s cumulative performance. Readings of essays collected in a book edited by Meagher titled Philosophy and the City were interspersed with theatrical texts from classical Greek works like Lysistrata, The Clouds, and Antigone to 20th century works including Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and even recent works like Naomi Ikuka’s At the Vanishing Point and Will Eno’s 2010 response to Our Town, titled Middletown. The issue of civic unrest in Los Angeles following the 1991 beating of Rodney King was discussed in light of Anna Deveare Smith’s landmark show Twilight: Los Angeles and with the provocation of essays by Cornell West and other African-American contemporary philosophers “who are trying to provide alternative readings, particularly counter to mainstream journalistic accounts,” Meagher said.
“Why would people destroy their cities? Maybe there’s something going on about citizenship and people feeling if they can’t count on the justice system that they don’t feel like they’re citizens,” she posed.
Minds full of this research, the students chose at what point they wanted to “interrogate the idea of the city,” and then developed an independent performance piece. You’re not likely to perceive the entire “cast” with one glance although with some time it will be clear who all of the performers are. One student is doing a performance based on the local dialect of “Heynabonics” that is incorporated into a sort of welcome center for the city, while another has chosen a lemonade as a launching off point. One will portray a statue of Pericles, as the “Greek ideal of democracy,” come to life while another will disrupt the city “by walking through it aimlessly.” There will be a gated community, a questioning of hegemonic space, a homeless teen who is not a part of the city on purpose, and a student who will pick up the trash. Yet another student will portray a historic reinactor of Dr. Matthew J. Shields of Jermyn who developed First Aid in the late 19th century so mine workers could help themselves.
“We’re basically doing what Plato calls building a city in speech — we’re creating this artificial city which we call Our City,” said Meagher.
“Except we’re sticking it to Plato by having artists create a city,” Willenbrink joked.
Guest artist Aaron Landesman (www.thinaar.com) was brought in with the help of a grant in to assist students in this daunting task. Known for works such as Appointment, an ongoing series of micro-theater performances often presented in working offices, Landesman is currently in residence at HERE art center where he’s been working on a multi-media work titled City Council Meeting (www.citycouncilmeeting.org), “an experiment in participatory democracy.”
“Part of the work of something like this from both the teacher and a theater person’s standpoint is to give shape to the overall experience while having each individual piece take its own shape, so we’re kind of creating a structure as we go along. And now that Aaron’s in town, one of the things we’ve been thinking about is, how can we create audience interaction in a way that’s very subtle,” Willenbrink said.
“We tend to think of the arts as detached from civic life or as an extra, but theatre is at its very basis the creation of community … And so in this case we are expanding that idea to include the company of audience along with the company of actors to challenge these false divisions we create between philosophy and art or civic life and art and critical thought. We’re trying to slowly breakdown the barriers by actually showing places where they work really naturally together.”
The two professors are further collaborating on a book tentatively titled Performing Citizenship: Philosophy, Theater, and Public Life, which they plan to publish for a general audience while also hopefully developing workshops for elementary, secondary and college-level teachers nationwide based on their experience teaching The City as Theater.