Imagine it: You’re at work when an incidence of misunderstanding between a white colleague and a colleague of color arises. You’re stuck in the middle and you have no idea what to do to help in this situation.
It’s a scene and a feeling that many people can relate to. It’s even something that people go out of their way to avoid.
Not the Interactive Theatre Troupe at Texas Woman’s University. This group of actors doesn't avoid these situations — instead, they run headlong into them, and invite their audiences to do the same.
Interactive theater is kind of like a sociological experiment. The troupe, made up of 21 diverse actors, performs scenes surrounding difficult topics. Their repertoire includes three scenes: two involving discussions of sexual assault and one about diversity in the classroom. Each scene plays out like an uncomfortable incident you’d come across in real life. After the scene is finished, the audience is then given an opportunity to interview the characters to ask why they acted they way they did. Once the audience has an understanding of the characters and the motivations, the scene is played once more, but this time the audience is invited to put themselves into the scene to see how they can change the outcome, by diffusing tension or facilitating greater communication.
“I like to describe it as presenting an impossible puzzle to the audience which they are then invited to come and try to fix,” said Talia Gritzmacher, the assistant director for the Interactive Theatre Troupe at TWU. “What they find out, though, is it’s not about fixing — it’s about trying to learn as much as possible about a very complicated subject.”
All of the actors in the troupe are trained to improvise in the scene, depending on how the audience wants to try and change the outcome. Because of the interactive nature, people feel more involved and the messages sink in far more than if you were to just watch a training video.
“I think one of the really great things about theater is that it’s alive, and you can have an immediate response from the actors, from the audience members,” Gritzmacher said. “It feels so much more tangible than if you just watch a video or read about something.”
Over the past year, the troupe has been working on a new script involving nurse/patient interaction in which the situation quickly gets out of hand. The troupe will be premiering the new scene with TWU’s nursing school soon.
But the troupe doesn’t just perform for TWU. Other organizations have booked the group as a diversity training tool. Two years ago, they performed at SMU for an event called Cultivate Safe College Campuses. In October, they will perform for a law conference to talk about diversity.
And, in light of a summer filled with tough discussions about race and diversity, the troupe will be able to contribute something meaningful to the national conversation.
“This is a tool for helping people understand,” Gritzmacher said. “Especially related to stuff that’s happened this summer and this past year, it’s showing just how complex things are and how emotionally tied to them things are…even the most socially conscious people are going to make mistakes and have biases. I think ITT is a safe space to practice.”