Theatre lives and breathes, and so too should the works that we use in the classroom. As we assign works that have something to say about the human experience or do something interesting with the stage as canon, it is impossible to deny that pieces created by white cis straight men are overwhelmingly upheld as the only texts worth teaching. As Freehold continues to explore its own internal biases and works to decouple itself from whiteness, we have been made aware of the ways in which our texts (some of which have not been updated since the early 2000s) do not fully encapsulate the world we live in. In an effort to present a wealth of identities and experiences to our students, Annette Toutonghi, Carter Rodriquez, and Elena Flory-Barnes have spearheaded a revision of the texts that are taught in our Core Curriculum scene study classes (Acting Step II and III).
The Core Curriculum at Freehold Theatre Lab/Studio is a three-class program that instills new and experienced actors with the foundations they need to breathe life into a scene and characters. Step I involves developing basic tools and foundations for the craft while Steps II and III rely heavily on text work; in fact, Step III spends the majority of the class working on bringing to life difficult scenes. These scenes are chosen from a set packet that teachers draw from each quarter, typically based on class composition and appropriate theme, to aid students in challenging themselves. With students coming from all walks of life, the need for these texts to speak to varied life experiences is essential. To understand what the process was for selecting texts, the progress they were making, and what they hoped students would gain from reading varied works, Annette, Carter, and Elena sat down with us. New selections will be seen in classes this quarter.
Freehold Theatre: So you guys have been working on the Core Curriculum for a few months now. What has the process been like for choosing plays?
Annette: With the previous packet as a starting point, we wanted to create a packet that reflects the wide range of experiences that exist. The scenes are picked based on acting challenges for the level, but the old scenes haven’t been looked at in a long time, since before I joined Freehold. Most of them were almost entirely written by white men. Some of the scenes are still great, but some just haven’t survived the test of time.
We have a master list going and take suggestions from anyone that wants to contribute. We have also reached out to teachers at Cornish and drawn from online alternative lists for plays to teach in the classroom. It’s hard to set aside the time to read plays, but this project forces that and we’ve read some really good ones!
Elena: Yeah just to go into that a little more, we need a list of scenes that is a go-to for the Core Curriculum. It’s important that we looked at who was reflected and represented and made it a goal to change that to be more representative of both ourselves and our students. Since we have a wide range of students, we want the scenes to reflect different identities and experiences. Many students are diving into texts and doing scene study with us for the first time, and it’s important for them to have a positive experience.
Some of the criteria that we have to consider are: who are these playwrights, who are these characters, what does diversity look like in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and how can we mix it up? We wanted to make sure that everyone can have the opportunity to do identity-based work. Some of the roles we’ve seen as we’ve revised the list have identities that inform the story and in some that don’t, say in a middle-class experience that isn’t race-based, anyone can play that role.
Carter: We read through all of the old scenes to see if they were tone-deaf, offensive, or triggering, and voted on if they were worth keeping. For the new plays, we would overlap our reading to cover more territory. So two of us would read a certain number of the same plays over the course of a week and the third wouldn’t. We’d cut what we thought didn’t work but there have been multiple times where we came up with the same scenes completely independently.
We’re just having a good time doing it, and it’s a lot of fun even if it’s a lot of work. But we all wanted to read more plays generally and who better to do it with than these guys?
FT: How do you decide when you’ve added enough texts? And from what I understand the goal is to get at least 40% of the texts to be written by marginalized playwrights. How is that going?
Annette: Well we just recently stopped working on Step II, not because we’re finished but because we have to continue to Step III. It’s an open-ended process, and it’ll definitely continue to be worked on and added to. Right now, the new masterlist has 43 approved scenes, and we usually go through about 4-6 scenes per class. We want to have 60 eventually, it just feels like a good number. We’ve removed about 5-7 scenes for Step II and replaced them with 15-20 scenes from plays like Intimate Apparel and Boleros for the Disenchanted, choosing 3-4 scenes per play. None of the new plays were written by someone white. We’ve definitely gotten much better, but it’s still not finished; it can and should be added to.
Elena: If someone from the community suggests a play even after we’ve “finished”, we would definitely put it on the master list. Right now, we’re excited to use the texts that we do have so that we can become familiar with teaching them. Once we’ve gotten some more experience and taught the scenes in the classroom, they can become go-tos and we can continue to add more.
Carter: It remains a living document and something that we can keep in the back of our minds as we go out and encounter new scenes and art. We’ll always have to go through the review process, but we would love to keep doing it. I took my first Step I class 20 years ago and I recognize the teacher’s handwriting from the scenes I received (laughter). We don’t want these to sit for that long. Our classes usually have a lot of POC, international students, and those from other cultures. I always say this, but this conversation about nontraditional casting has ramped up in the past 2-3 years, but Robin has been thinking this way the whole time, since 20 years ago. I’m grateful that this has been in her mind for so long and that I was able to train in a place where that was available.
FT: Some people might argue that certain texts are universal and can teach anyone anything; how does choosing texts based on marginalized identity help students/affect one’s craft?
Annette: I can’t think of an instance where identity specific issues aren’t universal underneath. Anyone who has grown up as a not white man has grown up having to see themselves in a protagonist that doesn’t look like them. Everyone deserves the chance to be able to see our identities reflected back at us in stories as well as to learn from the stories of those different from our own. Right now, that just hasn’t been happening.
Elena: Good writing is good writing. We can’t rest in the idea that great white playwrights are the only ones who can write about the human experience. The obstacles within a narrative are universal, but identity is specific and adds depth. A universal story is great, but there are certain things that require specificity.
In a classroom setting, it’s important for students to be able to go out into the real world with the tools necessary to tell a variety of stories. We have a lot of East Asian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern students; colorblind casting is cool in theory, but they should also be encountering roles that they may be realistically cast in.
Carter: The more that underrepresented cultures can see their stories being told, the more they can feel safe coming forward and exploring the works of writers and performers that they share something cultural with. You don’t want to get locked into telling the same stories over and over again, and it starts with us as instructors and teachers to get people to see rich nuanced stories with different experiences.
FT: And to close us out, what are some of your favorite works that you’ve added thus far?
Group: Fences by August Wilson, Boleros for the Disenchanted by Jose Rivera, Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage