At the end of every rehearsal, the ensemble of Interactive Theatre Carolina links arms and “circles up.” They finish with the phrase “I will never let you go,” six words that create a bond not easily broken. This tradition is an important way for ITC to end a rehearsal during which they deal with powerful topics, such as depression and suicide, sexual assault, body image issues, drugs and alcohol. Being in the circle gives each actor the opportunity to say what is on his or her mind.
“I’m really attached to the other people in the ensemble,” junior Markisha Richmond says about her experience with ITC. In high school, Richmond participated in speech and debate, a form of performance that has a clear winning team. She is thankful that, for the first time, she has found a group that is not about the competition, but about changing ideals. “It is the most rewarding type of community service I think I’ve ever done.”
Based on the Theatre of the Oppressed, a type of theater in which the audience becomes an active part of the performance, ITC, with an ensemble of about 20 actors, was established at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2007, after a similar group was successful at the University of Colorado at Boulder. At its core, ITC is a theater for social change. The actors use health, wellness and social justice to make their audiences question what they believe about these topics and why they have these beliefs.
Using these basic values, ITC creates performances for different groups in the UNC-CH community, although they have also attended conferences outside of Chapel Hill.
“It’s not just a public service announcement that has a moral,” says junior Andrew Heil about ITC’s mission. “We get to rehearse for life and see how we would respond to particular situations and how we should respond.”
The interactive part of ITC is important because people see themselves or their friends in it, and it becomes personal, not just a theoretical discussion about social justice and wellness issues.
Heil became interested in ITC when he saw the ensemble perform at CTOPS, and he auditioned as a freshman. After participating in theater in high school, he was excited about joining a group that did more than just put on plays.
“It’s theater, but it’s theater with a purpose and art with an edge and a goal,” Heil says. “A good goal.”
Members of ITC say that it is important for them to have a dialogue with their audience, not just to lecture them or tell them about social justice questions. Ensemble members say they want to examine issues like “how do we teach one another and create an environment that is inclusive” and “how do we examine our own beliefs.” Their performances make this possible.
The ensemble works to prepare three different types of performances. The first is Image Theater, a type of workshop where the audience creates drawn images, which the ITC ensemble uses to talk about all types of issues, ranging from body issues to racism, sexism and homophobia.
“An image tells one thousand words,” says director Amy Burtaine, who was trained in theater for social change, specifically in the techniques of the Theatre of the Oppressed. “We want them to see what these images are telling us, what do we see, why do we see what we see, how does that relate to our socialization, beliefs and thoughts.”
The other two techniques, hot seating and forum theatre, involve actual performances by the actors. Hot seating is the most common performance that the ensemble puts on. The characters perform a scene and then return to the stage, remaining in character, to allow the audience to ask them questions about their behavior or feelings in the scenario.
“Audiences are curious about people’s motivations, especially if they say things that are problematic,” Burtaine says about the hot seat technique. “If you create a scene that is interesting enough and dramatically engaging, people want to talk to the characters and dig into their behaviors and ask questions.”
Forum theatre is a performance in which the ensemble puts on a scene and then members of the audience replace the actors, creating a “what would you do” scenario in which the direct participation of the audience allows them to see how they may react to a particular situation.
Burtaine strongly believes in this type of theater. “I think that it is empowering for the audience to get really engaged.”
Because ITC touches on topics that can be sensitive to talk about, the performances are always monitored by Burtaine, who sets down ground rules for the audience: to respect yourself and others, give people the benefit of the doubt regarding the things they say and use “I” statements when offering your perspective on a subject to avoid offending anyone. She tries to maintain a respectful and safe space so people can express their questions, concerns and ideas and so that no one feels attacked or targeted.
“People speak from places where they don’t really understand, and you have to forgive and share your stories. That is how we learn,” Richmond says about the process. It is important to her that there is always a safe space for people to be honest and trust each other.
For heavier performance topics, such as oppression and eating disorders, ITC also brings in trained professionals who are available after the scenes end. The scenarios often move audience members to make personal testimonials of their experiences, so ITC makes their audience aware of the resources available on campus, such as Counseling and Wellness of which ITC is a part.
“None of the giant issues can be dealt with in an hour or hour and a half,” Burtaine says, “and there is no magic solution to the situations we deal with. There are lots of ways to get support and that is something we want to connect people with.”
A lot of work and research goes into the character roles before they are presented to an audience, because the ensemble wants their characters to be portrayed as accurately as possible. In order to do this, ITC has focus groups come to their practices, where they have the opportunity to talk with people who have experienced issues from different angles and who share their feelings and how they were affected by what happened to them. The ensemble also has social justice training to prepare for questions that the audience may ask, and they work hard not to make a character a stereotype.
“People exist in how I create them,” Richmond says, “so, in relation to what is going on in the scene I put together a back story about the person. They are real people and don’t know everything themselves, so it’s okay to say that you don’t have an answer or that you haven’t thought about it.”
“It’s not library research, but ‘up on its feet’ practice, particularly with the question and answer session because we never know what the audience is going to ask,” Heil adds about his method of creating a character. “You have to know your character well enough to be true.”
ITC has about 15 scripts available on different issues and is working on building its repertoire. Burtaine writes a lot of the scripts, but some of the ensemble members have also contributed to the writing. They collaborate and rewrite the scripts until the actors and the rest of the ensemble feel like they work.
Richmond believes that if the scripts and the actors can convince the audience to take a second look at something that they thought they had figured out, then that is success.
ITC is a young organization that is steadily growing and becoming a staple of the University’s campus life, something that is important to its members and the audience that the group influences.
“There is a deep network of support,” Heil says about his ITC family. “It’s heavy and important issues that touch a lot of people’s hearts, and to be able to talk about that you have to have that safe space. But we don’t just talk, we also do. We engage.”