CU Boulder class wanted to depict the feeling of a cacophony of chaos, echoing their feelings from this past year
Reeling from the pandemic and other extraordinary events of the past year, students at a University of Colorado Boulder theatre class agreed to stage a performance that reflected and distilled this chaotic time.
The result was a theatrical performance called “C(U)VID19,” which was broadcast via Zoom early this month.
The performance grew out of a “Theatre and Society” class taught by Sarah Fahmy, who is pursuing her PhD in theatre and performance studies here and is writing a dissertation on how Egyptian women may utilize applied theatre to engage with their cultural heritage to manifest their own decolonial identities.
Fahmy recently answered five questions about her class, its theatrical production and her doctoral dissertation. Those questions and her answers follow:
Question: Students in your THTR 1009: Theatre and Society class proposed the idea for the C(U)VID19 performance in the final weeks of the semester and then produced it. Can you share a bit about the class discussions that led them to make this choice?
Answer: “From the very first day of the semester, I stressed the importance of leading with humanity. I knew that the majority of the students in the class were either freshmen or seniors, so Zoom classes and the isolation would be really tough.
“We cultivated a classroom environment where students felt safe to express themselves, listen to each other, and support one another, both in regard to class content as well as personal lives. There were numerous days where the majority of students and I would stay in the Zoom meeting after class to chat, share jokes and get to know each other. This emphasis on community allowed us to devise a production in under two weeks.
“Following the Boulder shooting, I told the class that the semester cannot continue as ‘business as usual,’ and that I would hold space to process emotions for the rest of the semester. I started sharing an emotion wheel diagram every class (this was shared during the performance too), where students could use the anonymous stamp feature on Zoom to indicate how they are feeling that day. This helped give us an indicator of the range of emotions shared and what each person may be going through.
“Initially, students were supposed to work in groups of four to create their final projects reflecting on class content. We spent the entire semester focusing on authorship, storytelling and how narratives are cultivated to reflect on a community. So I proposed the idea of a whole class project to help us process the Boulder shooting and the rest of the year.
“Students eagerly agreed. We wanted to highlight the sense of community that we had developed within our class the entire semester and play to the strengths of our class members’ talents, including music composition, performance, script writing, poetry, dance and video-editing skills. We spent several classes discussing themes and ideas to reflect on what we had experienced individually and collectively since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020. We created a Google Drive folder where students could indicate what they were interested in working on, shared ideas, images and notes.
“Some of the working sessions involved whole class conversations, at other times we worked in breakout groups. In the final week before the performance, we created a Slack channel for faster communication. Several students wore multiple hats as the project continued to evolve and change. We cut several ideas due to limited rehearsal time, and we modified original plans. Overall, this was a lecture-based class, and my students were very ambitious, so I’m very proud of the final product, and the ways in which they continued to show up for each other this entire semester. It was stressful, but also a very enjoyable devising process!”
Q: Watching the performance itself felt a bit like a roller-coaster ride of alternating perspectives, political opinions, periodic confusion and gradations of despair and hope, but ending with hope. Is that what the class hoped to achieve?
A: “Yes! Several times during our devising process, the students expressed that they wanted to depict the feeling of a cacophony of chaos, to echo their feelings from this past year. We started and ended with the collective poem authored and arranged by the students. The first poem depicted the sense of helplessness, isolation and fear. The concluding poem depicted perseverance, resilience and hope to reflect on the support we had cultivated within our class, and our hopes for the future of our community.
“We had limited design features, but they dressed in black for the first poem and in bright colors for the final one. The music was composed by one student, and performed by several members of the class, as well as two friends that they invited! Another student then choreographed a dance to go with it. The scene is inspired by an applied theatre technique called ‘newspaper theatre.’ Each of the characters had a distinct personality to mirror the political divisiveness of the United States, as well as the various events we encountered this year.
“The characters’ lines were direct quotes from contrasting news sources, and Twitter posts. It was intentionally created to not make sense in some sections and highlight that these characters are not listening to each other. We also wanted it to have some humor, since that was a useful coping mechanism for our class and showcase our class personality. For instance, the bear puns and jokes, or Noah-Michael yelling ‘I can ruin that!’ were all unique aspects of our daily classes.
From the very first day of the semester, I stressed the importance of leading with humanity."
Q: THTR 1009 is geared toward students who are not majoring in theatre; can you tell us something about what non-majors take away from the course?
A: “The THTR 1009: Theatre and Society course focuses on the interaction between theatre and society. Since this is a wide scope, each instructor emphasizes different things each semester. I focused on work authored by Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and international theatre makers in an effort to dismantle the Western theatre canon, and critically examine representation and misrepresentation of BIPOC voices within theatre, both historic and contemporary.
“Students taking the THTR 1009 class will gain skills to (1) identify how theatre and performance reflect or challenge their particular historical contexts and societies; (2) Develop language to comfortably discuss issues of race, identity, gender, sexuality and religion in relation to theatre and society; (3) Critically reflect on historical representation, and absence within the theatre canon; (4) Develop learning, communication and critical thinking skills that support their future academic and professional pursuits; and (5) craft their own supported argument about a play’s themes, design and performance.”
Q: Those of us who are neither students nor instructors wonder how students have fared, both academically and psychologically, during the pandemic; what is your perspective on how they are doing?
A: “It has been an immensely challenging year for students and instructors. I often describe it as the feeling of hanging off a fraying rope off the edge of a cliff, while continuing to have more weight thrown down to you. We’ve experienced numerous traumas this year, and very little time, if any, to process it.
“It is very challenging to tell what students are individually going through, since people respond to hardships differently. They are carrying a lot in their personal lives beyond simply trying to succeed academically. I think it’s really important to keep this in mind as we conduct our classes, as their struggles are not always apparent in a class setting, and we must exercise compassion.
It is very challenging to tell what students are individually going through, since people respond to hardships differently."
“Students learn in a variety of ways, meaning that some students have flourished in online settings, while others have seriously struggled. Being on Zoom has helped me in some ways engage students who may not always speak up in an in-person setting, I ask them to comment in the chat, or use the reaction buttons even if their cameras and microphones are off.”
Q: You are working on your PhD, and you have done interesting work in Egypt; what would you like to share about your scholarly work?
A: “I am finishing off details regarding my summer 2021 fieldwork trip to Egypt as we speak! Navigating international fieldwork with minors during a pandemic is no walk in the park, but I’m very excited to get the chance to do this work! My dissertation research investigates how young Egyptian women may utilize applied theatre to engage with their cultural heritage to author their own decolonial identities.
“I am designing a 16-session curriculum to facilitate in Aswan, Egypt, in June 2021, and utilizing Youth Participatory Action Research methods to engage participants in the creation and analysis of the program. This work is also interdisciplinary, combining theatre and speech and language hearing sciences, so I will be assessing qualitative as well as quantitative data on participants language use and their self-perceptions of their voice.
“This work builds off the research I did for my master’s in theatre and performance studies at CU, where I facilitated a young women’s vocal empowerment program with 55 participants in Alexandria and Aswan. It was recognized by the minister of expatriate affairs and the governor of Aswan, and I was invited back to continue the work.
“I’m excited to implement this program, as although applied theatre workshops have been facilitated nationwide, the art form itself is relatively unfamiliar. To my best knowledge, no studies have documented measurable outcomes of applied theatre for young women’s vocal empowerment in Egypt. Previous studies or initiatives pursuing women’s empowerment in Egypt have not indicated, or actively pursued the impact of embodied engagement on participants. Nor have they explored the value of engaging cultural heritage for identity formation.
“In addition, no studies have evaluated the impact of applied theatre in a qualitative and quantitative manner or assessed the long-term impact on participants beyond my previous research. There is very limited scholarship on applied theatre in the Middle East-North Africa region at large, so I’m excited to address this gap in knowledge.”