Inside Mizzou: Theatre Off Stage

Tiger theatre masks in front of stage

May 14, 2019

As an institution that takes great pride in the arts, our performing arts community never ceases to amaze us. They continue to push boundaries and forge new and exciting collaborations inside and outside the classroom — through multidisciplinary partnerships, innovative teaching and community engagement. Join Chancellor Cartwright for the last Inside Mizzou podcast of our 2018-19 season where he talks with three members of our Department of Theatre to explore the many ways that theatre and creativity go beyond the stage.

Dr. Suzanne Burgoyne is a Curators Distinguished Teaching Professor and the director of the Center for Applied Theatre and Drama Research. Xiomara Cornejo is a doctoral student and an associate director of the Center. And Zahria Moore is a senior McNair Scholar majoring in theatre and English, who is also a member of the Center’s Interactive Theatre Troupe.

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[00:00:10] From the classroom to the cornfield, journalism to SEC athletics, the University of Missouri works 52 weeks a year, every year. This is Inside Mizzou — real stories, real discoveries and real impact of the Mizzou community.

Moderator: [00:00:28] Today’s episode is called “Theater Off Stage.” The origins of theater can be traced back 2,500 years — to ancient Rome and Greece. That’s older than the Scientific Revolution, and even before people understood that the sun is the center of the Solar System. In fact, theater is as old as our most elemental understanding of the world: It was about 2,500 years ago that a Greek philosopher first developed the theory of the atom. With thousands of years of history and knowledge, theater clearly transcends the stage. Joining Chancellor Cartwright to talk more about this are: Dr. Suzanne Burgoyne, Curators Distinguished Teaching Professor of Theater and the director of the Center for Applied Theatre and Drama Research; Xiomara Cornejo, a PhD student in theater and associate director of the Center for Applied Theatre and Drama Research; and Zaria Moore, a senior McNair scholar majoring in English and theater, who is also a member of the Center’s Interactive Theatre Troupe. Thank you all for being here.

Everyone: [00:01:24] Thank you for having us.

Moderator: [00:01:25] So, Dr. Burgoyne, I want to talk more about this idea of applied theater. You have done a lot with integrating creativity into non-arts classes — in majors from bioengineering to journalism. And you’re currently participating in a three-year National Science Foundation-funded program that focuses on science communication. Why do you think theater is such an effective teaching and communication tool for many disciplines?

Dr. Suzanne Burgoyne: [00:01:51] I did not invent the term applied theater; I want to make that clear. It’s a fairly recent term that’s an umbrella word used to apply to theater techniques used as pedagogy for a whole bunch of different disciplines, and not just for communication, although theater training is actually very good for communication training. But one of the main things about theater — and by no means the only one — is it’s a form of active learning. Now, active learning according to education research is the most effective form of teaching and learning. It’s miles ahead of lecture and reading. So, when Jack Schultz, who was then at the time director of the Bond Life Sciences Center, invited me to be part of his team for communicating science, I told him about theater and active learning and how important active learning is, and he said, “Well, I’m a scientist. I’ll have to look and see what the research says.” So, he did so, and then he came back to me and kind of said sheepishly, “You’re right, it is the most effective form of learning.” And then he told everybody on the team to use active learning. Jack is a great guy to work with. I enjoyed that a lot. So, I’ve been interested in theater for multidisciplinary pedagogy since at least 1980, when I realized that by teaching theater I was already teaching creativity. And I’ve been part of two national interdisciplinary fellowship programs: a Kellogg National Fellow for leadership training and interdisciplinary research in the early 1980s and a Carnegie Scholar with a scholarship of teaching and learning in 2000-2001. And both of those organizations were at least partly about “Hey, we’re living in a world that is quickly moving into an over-specialized society. We need leaders who can see at least part of the whole picture. And we also need people who can communicate across disciplinary boundaries.” Plus, the Carnegie Foundation wanted more attention to be paid to education. I mean, after all, universities are here to teach, not just to do research but to teach the future leaders, the future workers of tomorrow and the future artists of tomorrow. So, you know, we want to teach them well, we want to teach in the best way we can. By the way, I just wanted to mention my engineering team and I were just awarded a three-year NSF grant to teach other MU engineering professors how to teach creativity in their classes so they don’t have to wait until their capstone course to learn how to think creatively. Just a couple more things, and we may want to talk about some of them later: One of my favorite quotes from Richard Hornby, a theater scholar, is: “Theater is a laboratory of human identity.” And that goes back to those thousands and thousands of years and how theater was used partly for rituals of transformation in early days. Well, what is education but a ritual of transformation? Also, one of my students in the first class I taught, the first Honors College class I taught of creativity, said in her journal, “This is the first class in which I’ve been asked to explore myself.” And Dr. Nancy West, who was at the time the director of the Honors College, came in and observed a class and listened to the students talking about what they learned. And she turned to me and said, “Suzanne, this isn’t just a class. This is their lives.”

Moderator: [00:05:49] What about you, Xiomara and Zahria. What are some other applications for theater people might be surprised to know about?

Xiomara Cornejo: [00:05:57] Yeah, I think, I mean there’s — we could spend many hours talking about different options — but I think I will talk about the use of integrating theater in community work and relationship building. And this stems from several of us in the Center for Applied Theatre and Drama Research as well as some of our MU theater faculty come from backgrounds where we’ve worked with community, have done work for social justice, so we’re bringing in these tools and in a sense pull from theater to become better organizers, and then vice versa, you know, in return. So, I think a lot of people don’t think about that, about utilizing theater to build community, to work with groups — with people collectively — and relationship building, which is really important. Because in that sense — when we are working with individuals who come from different backgrounds, who have different experiences, who think differently about political ideologies, a sense of life, etc. — you know, how do we work together when we have to work together, right? We may not understand or have the same values, but “Yeah, I get you,” or “I understand where you’re coming from.” And so, with applying theater — applied theater, theater icebreakers, improvisation, theater for social justice, just performance in general — into collective work, building a foundation first before you do work, getting to know each other, getting to respect and tolerate our differences, I think theater is magic when it comes to that kind of work. And I think that’s why, when students take our courses, you know, they can take these tools and skills that they learn in theater and then apply it everywhere. It’s like magic dust, you know, they can spread it in all their lives and everything that they do — in their relationships with themselves, with other people, in their work with each other. So, I think theater is an asset to community work and community building when we’re trying to find a common ground, which is something that I think the world needs now. You know, it’s useful.

Moderator: [00:08:05] How about you, Zahria?

Zahria Moore: [00:08:07] I was just thinking of a specific example like with our work with the Interactive Theatre Troupe or I.T.T. Specifically, like we have done work with different departments across disciplines across MU. So, for instance, we have a script called “Girl Scout White Out” or “Boy Scout White Out,” which I actually had the privilege of actually being a part of the table work for that, and it talks about, you know, racial discrimination within medicine, and we present that to the School of Nursing. It’s interesting for me because I have a friend who is a nursing major, and she always enjoys it. She’s a black nursing major. And every time this particular performance comes to the nursing school every year, it brings to light issues that, you know, she wants to talk about in her classes — I think that she wants talk about her classes — but doesn’t always have the space to do. I feel like with applied theater, you know, we are opening up some of those doors and we are creating some of those conversations, specifically with “Girl Scout White Out,” of bringing the two disciplines together and saying, you know, we can help inform this issue that’s going on in our community in a way that’s not just us having a conversation or us having like a “Oh, like you need to do better.” Of just saying like, you know, this is the issue; we’re going to present it in this way. So, this way you could see yourself in this person’s shoes, and you can have a better understanding of that person, if I’m making sense.

Moderator: [00:09:32] It definitely makes sense.

Dr. Suzanne Burgoyne: [00:09:34] If I can throw in a quick thing here: This Mizzou Interactive Theatre Troupe was founded in 2003 and was a part of a number of major MU grants we were part of. Oh gee, now I’m trying to remember… Ford Foundation Difficult Dialogues Grant. Primarily, pieces on diversity. And we continue to do a number of those pieces, but we also were part of an NSF ADVANCE grant for the advancement of female faculty in the sciences in STEM. And we are now funded by Dr. Kevin McDonald to continue to do the diversity work and to perform in classes and for other on-campus events. And we’ve often been invited to take these performances elsewhere.

Xiomara Cornejo: [00:10:22] Zahria is actually one of our actors in the Interactive Theatre Troupe, and several of the associate directors are graduate students. We facilitate, direct and perform as well. So, everyone’s really involved in these kind of 10-minute skits, plays that are part of the difficult dialogue. So, they address like some of the things that Zahria mentioned, as well as sexual orientation, race, religious identification, things like that so that we can, like you mentioned, create an opportunity to talk about these difficult dialogues which are difficult when we have different points of views. So, using theater as a vehicle, right, to have, like you mentioned, an opening to have those conversations, has been really, really wonderful on campus. And students, whether they’re in theater or not, they tend to respond. At first they’re afraid because they’re like, “Oh, you’re gonna make me perform; I don’t want to get up there,” and then they get really involved and then they have questions and they interact with the actors on stage as their characters. So, they’re interacting with these characters on stage, and I’m sure that they identify with some of those folks. They see themselves through these characters and to have a conversation with people when you are butting heads? We never get to do that. We never get to ask because we’re so invested in our emotions because we’re so passionate about our beliefs that when we are butting heads we don’t stop and ask, “Can you tell me why you feel that way? Where does that come from? Why do you speak that way? Why do you think that way? Why do you feel that way?” And if we did, if we had time to do that and we have these conversations, you know, there’d be — I don’t know, there’d be more understanding, I think.

Moderator: [00:12:02] It sounds like you all are using your platform in a very moving way to really make change. So, Chancellor Cartwright, I’m interested in your perspective as an engineer. How do you see the arts as crossing that bridge and bringing value to the STEM fields?

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:12:16] Well, I mean I think Dr. Burgoyne and Xiomara and Zahria did a great job of explaining how this actually works. And I think what we look at is each discipline, actually, within a university has sort of its own microculture. It’s a small little culture in itself: It has its language, it has its content, and how do you cross those boundaries? It’s not as easy as people think it is. You know, when I was early on in my career and starting to work with people in biology and medicine as an engineer, it was quite a contrast in viewpoints and how we would approach problems. And I think Xiomara said it very well: You know, it’s how do you start asking those questions. Why do you think that way? Why would you approach the problem that way? And then you start to get an appreciation for how you do things differently. In terms of the arts and science and STEM in general, you know, it’s fascinating that we never stop to think about the fact that all of the images that we use, the diagrams we use in the STEM fields… it’s art. And it was a choice that was made as to how we display the concept that we’re thinking about. And I think having a conversation with someone who is an art historian or someone who understands where that came from is very enlightening to you, because it helps you to then think about how you might look at your science, your STEM, whatever you’re doing in your research, a little bit differently. So, I think it really opens up a lot of opportunity for us to think outside the box and to think about how we might do things differently. A great appreciation for what others are doing and their viewpoints also comes through.

Moderator: [00:14:11] So, why is multidisciplinary collaboration so important to what we do here at Mizzou specifically and how Mizzou impacts communities around the world?

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:14:20] You know, I think we’ve made a lot of progress in a lot of our disciplines individually, but what we’re starting to realize now is that the future is really at the boundaries. It’s at the boundaries of science and arts and within the sciences. All of these intersections where there’s so many unexplored regions. It really is like a big map, right, and that we know this island, that island, but we need to now start understanding how they connect and where there’s opportunities to do things differently. How can we, you know, maybe bring something from chemistry to engineering, from the arts — from theater — to STEM fields? I think you’re seeing that, you’re seeing here the work that Dr. Burgoyne has been doing is having a lasting effect on what’s happening at Mizzou. I don’t know of many places where you’re seeing the NSF grant that she has. We’re looking at, you know, what is theater and applied learning, and I’m 100 percent behind you on the applied learning. I think that is the way you learn. And then how do you then use that in engineering, for example? And I think there’s great benefit for all of us. And so, the more we learn, the more we appreciate other disciplines and what people are doing, the better it is for all of us to move society forward.

Moderator: [00:15:53] So, Dr. Burgoyne, you spoke a lot about how you’ve kind of been across campus working. So, given that you’ve worked with so many different students across many different fields, what has surprised you the most in these non-theatrical settings?

Dr. Suzanne Burgoyne: [00:16:10] Well, my answer to this is really quite short. I’ve been surprised at how many of these people — professors and students in multiple fields — have had experience as actors. Maybe in high school, but that they did theater and loved it. Not everyone, of course. Some are scared of acting. But it’s heartening to me to see that amongst the people I’m working with a number of them value theater already.

Moderator: [00:16:42] Oh, that’s great.

Dr. Suzanne Burgoyne: [00:16:44] And some of them have to be convinced.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:16:46] I’ll put up my hand as the one that’s terrified.

Dr. Suzanne Burgoyne: [00:16:51] But that’s part of what we do in teaching science communication and also in teaching creativity, is how people get past their fear. Because the fear is a huge block to communication, of course, but also to creativity. The worst thing is for you to be afraid of being wrong, because if you want to be creative you have to be willing to take risks.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:17:13] I agree.

Dr. Suzanne Burgoyne: [00:17:14] And if you can’t take risks, if you can’t try something new, you’re never going to come up with anything creative.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:17:21] I totally agree with that. Talking about taking those risks — you know, it’s interesting because I don’t think people realize how much in the sciences and the STEM fields, you know, a lot of the way that we communicate is through presentations or lectures and a lot of that is actually acting. I mean you have to learn how to…

Dr. Suzanne Burgoyne: [00:17:43] Yes, it is. It is indeed.

Xiomara Cornejo: [00:17:45] We’re performing right now.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:17:45] Yes, exactly. Exactly. But it’s how you do it, and you can learn a lot. And the more you do it, the better you get at it, because you get more comfortable and you become much more aware that the audience all have different perspectives, and you have to think of how you can communicate what you want to get across in a way that as many of them understand the message as possible. And I think that’s what you’re doing in your applied theater.

Dr. Suzanne Burgoyne: [00:18:14] Thank you.

Moderator: [00:18:16] What do each of you think are the most important aspects of theater and performance that anyone working in any field can benefit from?

Zahria Moore: [00:18:25] Well, I definitely think that one aspect that’s really important is table work, or what we call here in the arts “table work.” What table work means for me is researching your role or whatever play or whatever — or even like, in terms of the sciences, like doing your research, learning your theory, learning your discipline, paying attention to the language of that discipline and also like making conscious choices. And I think that that’s something that anybody in any field can take with you. Because that’s one thing that I’ve learned, being a student and also being in the McNair Scholars Program: That in everything that I do, you have to make a choice. You have to make a choice in what you research, you have to make a choice in like what type of research you want to conduct, but you also have to make a choice in how you present that research and how you present yourself and your findings. And in that, I also think it’s important that in whatever you do, you need to be passionate about it. Because if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, about what you’re researching, about what you’re presenting, then I’m not going to be passionate about it, and I have no idea what you could even be talking about. And so, I think that that’s where kind of like, for me, like being in the McNair Scholars Program — being a part of an organization or being a part of a program that’s really STEM or is based in STEM or based in psychology and sociology and social sciences — I’ve had to learn in these conversations that I’m having with people of letting people know that, you know, I do do research. I do have to read books and present this theory in a way that people may not understand the language, but I have to show you how to understand the language. I have to show you how to be interested in what I’m talking about. I think that that’s something that in any discipline you’re going to need to know.

Xiomara Cornejo: [00:20:23] I mean, I’m going to go back to compassion. I think it’s so important — and I feel like this is something that transcends all fields — is theater really reawakens our sense of humanity. It connects us with human beings, especially folks that we may not have encountered before. When you watch performance or theater or even participating in theater, it’s transformative. It’s healing, right? It helps us process feelings and ideas, concepts, histories. And obviously, you’re speaking to folks who have dedicated or are dedicating their lives to theater, so we’re a little biased here. We’re living proof that, you know — like even when talking about theater, when I was thinking about this, like my heart is just beating really fast — because I know that all three of us — and I hope everyone else who has encountered theater — have been impacted by performance work. When I think about our students and the classes that we teach — and they don’t have to be acting courses (you know, we teach all different types of courses, too) — and when I see the way that they transform, from the beginning of the semester to the end, and how they’ve built relationships with each other and opened up to one another and have been vulnerable in a classroom where people are used to just coming and taking notes, heading home, going back to their lives and doing their own thing, but here you’re a community. You’re working together, you’re trying to understand these differences. So, I feel that theater really, yeah, it reawakens our sense of humanity and brings us back to what is important: connecting with people.

Dr. Suzanne Burgoyne: [00:21:57] And I agree with that wholeheartedly.

Moderator: [00:22:00] Well, we’ve talked a lot about how creativity is important to so many disciplines, and Xiomara, you even just spoke about how it’s transformative, especially within many people’s lives outside of theater. So, what do you think is the broader significance of this — creativity and how it’s important in disciplines?

Dr. Suzanne Burgoyne: [00:22:18] I’ve thought a lot about this. I’ve done a lot of my own research and reading and talking to people. I edited a book requested by somebody who’s a series editor. This book is on creativity in theater, and it’s the first book of its kind that talks about how theater enhances people’s creativity. Because a lot of people don’t realize that. A lot of people go, “Oh, theater actors — they’re just interpreting what the playwright wrote.” That’s not true. An actor creates a character based on a skeleton that the playwright gave, right? But then builds the whole character. So, now in the 21st century creativity is even more important than it’s ever been before. And people are recognizing that. For instance, creativity is now featured in the list of 21st-century skills. In 2001, creativity replaced evaluation at the top of the pyramid of Bloom’s taxonomy. IBM’s 2010 survey of 1500 CEOs worldwide identified creative thinking as the most desirable leadership ability for successfully navigating an increasingly complex world.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:23:31] Yes.

Dr. Suzanne Burgoyne: [00:23:33] So, creativity marks a call for educational transformation. You know, if you can’t be wrong and if you can only answer questions for which there’s only one right answer, then you can’t be creative. And we have so many problems arising for which there’s one more than one right answer. We don’t know what the answer is. So, our schools need to train people to think creatively so that we can live in and address what’s coming in this new century, in this new age that is going faster and faster and faster. We need to nurture the creativity in everyone as an essential aspect of education.

Moderator: [00:24:12] Thank you all again for being here today and for being a part of our last episode of this season of Inside Mizzou.

Xiomara Cornejo: [00:24:19] Yeah! Ending with theater!

Dr. Suzanne Burgoyne and Zahria Moore: [00:24:20] Yay!

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:24:23] It’s really been such a great season, and we can’t wait to come back at the beginning of the Fall 2019 semester for season two. Kelsie, I have to tell you that you’ve been amazing. You are amazing, and we are so lucky to have you be part of this.

Everyone: [00:24:41] (applause)

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:24:41] And we wish you good luck as you move on to your future endeavors.

Moderator: [00:24:44] Thanks so much, Chancellor! That’s awesome. We hope you will join us then for even more extraordinary stories from our extraordinary community. Now, there’s just one more thing to do before we leave: Why don’t ants get sick?

Dr. Suzanne Burgoyne: [00:25:02] Why don’t ants get sick?

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:25:03] No idea.

Moderator: [00:25:09] Because they have anty-bodies!

Everyone: [00:25:26] (laughing) Wah-wah!

[00:25:27] Our audio engineer is Aaron Hay. Our featured music is “Forest Park Rhapsody,” composed by MU undergraduate and music composition major, Ben Colagiovanni. You can find more information about Ben and his piece on the Inside Mizzou webpage. Make sure to join us next time, and keep an eye out for the chancellor’s newsletter to stay on top of what’s happening at Mizzou. Thanks for joining us on this episode of Inside Mizzou. See you around the columns!