New to Aquinas' Fine Arts Program this spring is a new major, Theatre for Social Change. This makes Aquinas one of only a few colleges in the region to offer this unique major.
The Theatre for Social Change curriculum is intended to help graduates discover and bridge empathy gaps that exist within communities. Theatre members become activists of sorts as they work with a community to find lively and dynamic ways to help the disenfranchised tell their stories.
Productions may include little-understood or divisive topics, such as mental health issues, gender differences, addiction or sexual assault. Theatre thus becomes the platform for the personalized telling of stories among specific demographics that rarely have their perspectives defined in mainstream theatre.
In 2003, Aquinas College came together with Circle Theatre and League of Catholic High Schools to make the Aquinas College Performing Arts Center come to life, allowing for a variety of performance, teaching and technical training opportunities. During that time, Theatre for Social Change started to take root.
"This kind of collaborative forethought is singular in the nation," said Randy Wyatt, theatre program director and associate professor of theatre, whose career includes directing more than 60 productions and work that has been published and produced around the world. "There are other schools in the Midwest with a Theatre for Social Change major, but Aquinas' program is the first of its kind because of its collaborative community structure.
"Theatre for social change offers a vibrant future for small collegiate programs," Wyatt continued. "There's a lot of buzz in academic circles for this...but Aquinas has been ahead of the game when it comes to theatre for social change, as we began integrating it into the program's curriculum in the early 2000s."
A.Q.'s theatre program brings together high school and college students to work in a world-class facility, side-by-side with theatre professionals from the community.
"This is how we give back to the community—it's circular," Wyatt said. "Theatre for Social Change is part of the Aquinas theatre program's evolution."
With a passion for mentoring kids, Wyatt believes that college is the time where each student discovers what's going to motivate them individually.
"I love being part of [students’] lives when they figure out what they want to do, and how they can change the world that's specifically suited for them," said Wyatt. "By the time students leave, they're thinking about how to create theatrical art that impacts the world they are living in."
Zoe Gipson '16, a senior, double majoring in English and communication with a theatre emphasis, just missed the new social change major. However, because Wyatt has woven theatre for social change throughout his teachings, Gipson feels she's already received an excellent education in the subject, as well as a great deal of experience.
"It's exciting to see this major come to Aquinas," Gipson said. "The level of theatre we're doing here is much higher than at most schools, and even at many community theatres in many cities. You don't have to go to Broadway, Hollywood or Chicago to get the kind of experience that's available right here at A.Q.."
The Theatre for Social Change (T.F.S.C.) major at Aquinas College is one of only a handful nationwide. This hybrid major is comprised of coursework from Theatre, Sociology, and Community Leadership. The Bachelor’s degree in T.F.S.C. is rooted in theory (Augusto Boal, Keith Johnstone), history and studio practice of performance alongside hours of hands-on service learning with community partners, the study of non-profit leadership skills including grant writing and intercultural communication, and the devising of an original capstone project. Students apply their aesthetic and storytelling talents to current social justice issues, declaring the truth of problems and exploring new approaches towards solutions--in real life situations, not just in the classroom. Students will be prepared for a myriad of real-world opportunities in performance, or to pursue further study in tangent fields such as clinical therapy, public administration, social work, education or performance studies.
This major is particularly suited to A.Q.’s mission and strengths as an institution. It directly involves two of A.Q.’s foundational charisms--service and community. Students will be heavily engaged through service learning by researching and then connecting with local community groups--ethnic, service, institutional, civic, social work, etc--identifying stories or challenges from within that community and then devising work for that audience or a general audience based on their first-hand primary research.