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Positive theater illuminates negative stereotypes

Photos and Story by

Elisabeth Davidson

Elisabeth Davidson

Elisabeth Davidson had never seen anything like it. But she knew instantly she wanted to be a part of the Illumination Project.

"I went to a play in the spring of 2005 and instantly felt like I wanted to be a part of this and do it," Davidson said.

Now, after serving as a student educator for the project, Davidson is the assistant program coordinator. The Illumination Project is the college’s innovative student leadership and education program designed to foster a climate of equality, compassion, justice, and respect for all people in the community. The project uses interactive social justice theater as a venue for student educators and audience members to join together to rehearse ways of solving problems. It’s been so successful that the Ford Foundation awarded the project a $100,000 grant to promote constructive dialogue at the college.

For a look at this term’s performance dates, visit the Illumination Project’s performance calendar.

Davidson said that interactive theater, with its capacity to engage diverse learning styles and members of a community, is an ideal way to challenge racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other forms of oppression. In performances audience members enter a scene and dynamically change its outcome. In this way, the Illumination Project challenges the viewpoints of both the audience and the student educators in a performance.

"If you have ever been to a movie where it leaves you silent, but thinking, ‘oh wow that was great,’ that’s what the Illumination Project tries to do," she said. "We want the audience to think it through and have that feeling when they leave. Some leave sad, but many leave thinking, ‘What would I do?’"

Davidson, who is working towards her transfer degree at PCC and plans to get her master’s degree in ESOL to help immigrant and refugee communities, knows what it’s like to deal with stereotypes. She grew up in Stayton and her family was one of the only Hispanic families in the town.

She is leading a group of 20 student educators as they learn about their subject matter. Each student reads about different aspects of oppression and the new vocabulary used to talk about it. They then form plays based on the subject matter, typically a stereotype or an incident of oppression.

"The student educators do some soul searching on how to fit the material into their life," Davidson said. "They break into committees to handle all aspects of production. Mine is playwriting. We write plays based on the essays and stories of other people in the class on scenarios we’ll use in the plays."

After about six weeks, when the plays are polished, the students make programs, posters, education booklets, and identify resources. Once that is completed the students can start their performance, which reaches PCC classes, campuses, local high schools and churches. In total, the Illumination Project puts on 15 plays a term that last five to ten minutes.

"It’s an anti-model," Davidson said. "The oppressed get oppressed in the plays. Nobody except for the person who plays the oppressor is effective in their role. Then we perform the same play a second time and somebody from the audience will say ‘Stop!’ when they see something wrong. They then take their place and intervene to challenge the oppressor and make a positive change."

The formula has worked. With those concerns out of the way, their biggest problem is finding somebody in their group to play the bad guy.

"Nobody wants to play the oppressor," Davidson said. "Somebody has to do it. It generally takes a really strong actor to play that part. But it is all intended to be a practice for the future. We’ve all been in these situations and the plays help you get a little practice in advance."

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »

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