MECHANICSBURG, Pa. — In The Real Thing: a Play, Czechoslovakian producer and writer Tom Stoppard wrote, “Words are sacred. . . . If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”
Nudging the world toward social change has been the goal of Messiah College’s Theatre and Social Change course since its introduction to the theater curriculum in 2002.
The impetus behind TASC came after Messiah professor Valerie Rae Smith facilitated the student-writing of an original production, E.D. & Ana, which studied eating disorders among college students.
“Students were so responsive to the play and the conversations surrounding E.D. & Ana that a general education course was created,” she said. “By 2002 Theatre and Social Change was a term students used across campus, in the residence halls and in the classrooms.”
Creative outlets like theater are typically considered pure entertainment, but TASC poses a novel question: What if theater could shine the spotlight on stories that illuminate social issues?
Through TASC, Smith hopes “to disturb our notion of what theater is, what it can be and how much potential theater has to join our desires to heal a world in pain. . . . At its best, TASC can be a part of God’s ongoing work of reconciliation.”
In selecting topics for class discussion and dramatization, Smith chooses social justice issues that students consider taboo or problematic, such as minimum wage reform, the death penalty, cancer, organ donation, medical ethics and human trafficking.
“This is a different kind of theater that discusses serious issues and helps me to understand a bit better the struggles people go through that I have not experienced,” said sophomore Courtney Chase.
In class, students begin the semester studying parables, learning the power of words to “nudge the world” from the greatest storyteller of all time, Jesus. Students then study writings from 20th-century authors and activists who applied Christian liberation theology to their theoretical development, such as Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed.
Senior theater major Christie Heimbach learned in last spring’s TASC course that an effective way to touch the audience is to inspire questioning.
“I’ve always been extremely passionate about resolving injustices, and it’s exciting to think that you can create awareness with art,” she said.
This fall, Heimbach produced her senior show, Beyond the Rain, drawing from experiences of social injustice she saw while doing mission work in Africa. The show premiered in the Black Box theater in the college’s new, state-of-the-art Calvin and Janet High Center for Worship and Performing Arts, a facility for theater, dance, worship and music. Heimbach’s show will next be performed in Scotland at the Edinburg Fringe Festival in August.
TASC ultimately uses theater as a venue for raising social consciousness and creating civic dialogue.
“TASC invites us to live in the tension, a place of both energy and, yes, enervation,” Smith said. “When we give ourselves to the work, we move from ignorance to knowledge, from defensiveness to vulnerability, from the despair that comes with the nightly news to the hope that comes in the morning when we dare to hope that we can change ourselves and our world for the better.”