On Teaching Difficult Material | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: Welcome to Teaching Theatre, a podcast about the practice and pedagogy of theatre education, produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, playwright and theatre professor Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder.

Welcome back to Teaching Theatre. On this episode, we’ll be talking about how we teach difficult material in the classroom. I’m excited to welcome two of the smartest and maybe funniest people I know, Darren Canady and Megan Gogerty. Darren Canady’s work has been seen at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, the Alliance Theatre, the Horizon Theatre, American Conservatory Theater, the Aurora Theatre, Chicago’s Congo Square premier Stages, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and London’s Old Vic. He’s an alum of Carnegie Mellon University, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and the Juilliard School. He’s currently an ensemble member of American Blues Theater, a core writer at the Playwright Center, and teaches playwriting at the University of Kansas. Darren, welcome.

Darren Canady: Hey, thanks for having me.

Elyzabeth: And we have Megan Gogerty, a playwright, standup comedian, and professor at the University of Iowa Playwrights Workshop, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in playwriting and comedy studies. Her latest one-person show is called The Once and Future Emma Goldman Clinic, Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the first abortion clinic to open east of California, the Emma Goldman Clinic in Iowa City. Megan, thanks for being here.

Megan Gogerty: Thanks for having me.

Elyzabeth: So we all teach classes in playwriting and script analysis, which means we have to teach students how to read plays. So maybe we should start there. So how do we read plays, or rather, what do you want your students to think about when they’re reading plays?

Darren: I hope this is useful. So I teach playwriting within the auspices of a creative writing program that’s within a department of English. And so a lot of my students end up coming to playwriting after experiencing writing and reading in other genres. And I think the first thing that I end up trying to get them to move their minds towards is, it’s called a play for a reason. We call it a play, not a read. And to try to think about the ways that sound live, the flesh, the vividness of it, how to think about what’s on that page as a two-dimensional capture of something that’s experienced, hopefully as messily and as vividly as possible in three dimensions. So I think that that’s maybe one of the first things is to rethink the notion of what we mean by read, is one of my first steps.

Megan: Yes, I super agree. And in fact, this year I’m doing something fun. I’m excited about what I’m doing, which is traditionally the way I’ve taught script analysis is they go and read the play by themselves and then they come to the classroom, and then we talk about it or do an exercise about it. And this year we’re just flipping that on their head, and that they’re going to come to the classroom and we’re all going to read it aloud together. And then they’re going to go home and do whatever exercise or reflection or whatever I want to do. So we’re just inverting that because I want my students, just like Darren, to understand that a play is a thing that happens in time. And I have said, I don’t know how many times, countless, every year, you should get together and read this aloud.

You should get together and read it aloud, because there are plays they just don’t get unless they read aloud. And frankly, some plays are hard to understand if they’re just read on the page. That’s a real skill that sometimes I think those of us who are professionals forget that that’s a whole thing to learn. And so then I’m like, why do I keep suggesting this? Why don’t I just make them do it? And the other thing I’m excited about is by doing it this way, then they’ll actually have to read the play.

Elyzabeth: So we teach them how to read the play, and we want our students to grow and challenge themselves. So we assign the material that asks big questions and digs deep into uncomfortable topics. So how do we approach that difficult material in the classroom, especially when that material leads to difficult conversations?

Darren: I like to question, why are we using the word difficult, and where we put that. To talk about, it’s one thing to talk about the “isms” of our world; it’s another thing to label someone’s identity and the presence of that identity as difficult.

Megan: I love that.

Darren: So just because we are talking about queer folks, just because they’re Indigenous folks in the piece—”Okay, we’re going to have a difficult conversation”—immediately connects in the student’s mind, okay, that identity is difficult. I want us to step away from that and get to the place of saying, “Okay, this is outside of your experience. Sure. And I’m going to need you to dig down deep and start to develop some new tools within your toolbox.” Some of us call it empathy. But I am finding a lot of times there are colleagues both within our field and outside of our field, again, I’m teaching within creative writing and also experiencing colleagues right outside of it. Well, it’s a Black piece, so we’re going to have difficult conversations. Is it? Or is it just a play about a family as a starting place?

Megan: It also depends on who is in the room and what they are coming in with, and where they are. So teaching freshmen is very different than teaching graduate students, for example, and I teach at a primarily white institution, but it’s not an exclusively white institution. So if we’re having conversations about race and racism, thinking about who is in the room and what’s their lived experience coming in is going to… There’s some students I have to educate more about the basics of American society, and there are other students who are already prepared to have that conversation. So I don’t know if there’s a one size fits all answer to that question.

Darren: I’m in a weird place, right? Because I am at a predominantly… definitely a PWI, and for many of my students, I am one of the first Black instructors they’ve ever had and perhaps one of their first out queer instructors all in one very interesting body. So they’re like, “Oh, wee.” And so one of the starting places is to create a space where no one feels like… Try to get people to start conversations where they don’t have to be profound. What hit you? What caught you? What are you paying attention to? And to bring the skills of the close reading to the text, both when I’m introducing plays and when they’re working with their own scripts. And what I mean is saying, “I felt this thing,” and me constantly saying, “When? When? When? Get into the text. Get into the text.” As opposed to needing to be like, Obviously this is a response to this presidential nominee.”

Like, okay, yes, you felt a thing and whatever you felt is what you felt. I’m not going to fight you on that. Where is that in the text? What did that do to you? Where did that come from? And similar with the performance. If I take you to a show, which I require, what were the moments that popped for you? Why were you in it? Where did you… You might have felt great, you might have felt awful, but why? What in the text? What in the piece? And so, then whatever the topic is, it is about the shared either text or shared experience, which allows the conversation to move a little bit forward. I’m not saying it’s always a success, but those are two tools that I try to keep on the track at the same time.

Megan: That’s huge, Darren. That is huge. And let me co-sign it. I think that one of the hardest skills, especially for people who are not actors, is to approach plays inside their own bodies. Can we articulate the experience that we are having, not our intellectualizing of the experience we think we should have? But I get really frustrated with conversations about the symbolism of a play. I get really frustrated. Because that’s a very literary analysis, which is lovely and great, but we’re in the theatre, and I want an embodied experience. I want you to be able to articulate: what is the embodiment? Where did you feel nervous? Where did you get excited? Where did you feel lost? What are the feelings? And can we start there? Can we articulate what the feelings are? And I find that that question is difficult for eighteen-year-olds, but it’s also, in some ways, more difficult for my graduate students.

I have some graduate students who are so… Because they’re scholars. They’re on their way to become professors, and so they’re ready to drop the ten dollar words and the liminal dichotomy of the blah, blah, blah. They’re waiting for that. And it’s like, “Okay, but how do you feel in your gut? Get in the body and articulate from there.” Because from there, while your body is… You don’t have to be the expert on all theatre to be an expert on your own experience. And the first way in to any play is your embodied experience. And then we can contextualize and blah, blah, blah. Because you’ll get students, especially if it’s a play that is way outside their comfort zone, where their embodied experience is to go, “No, thank you. I don’t want it. I don’t like it,” which is great. let’s talk about that. But until we talk about that, we can’t really go forward. And any conversations about context and blah, blah, blah, become intellectual exercises.

My supposition is that if we’re checked in, we’re going to be paying attention to each other more as well, which is part of what makes those conversations so tense sometimes, is when people feel isolated, alone.

Darren: You actually… Megan, thank you for saying that. I do feel both within the confines, Elyzabeth, of the conversation that we’re setting up here around controversial topica, controversial content or difficult content, both there and more broadly, I am moving to a place of trying to create a more holistic space in the classroom. And I think Megan, that’s exactly what I hear you say more and more. There’s a great colleague of mine, Megan Kaminsky, who’s a poet who does… I do check-ins just as like, here’s a warmup question at the top of class, on the top of workshop. Megan actually does physical exercises that really allow you to check in with your body. And of course for theatremakers, particularly, as Megan pointed out, for those that are coming from performance and directing backgrounds, that’s warmup, right? You must check in with the body to do the work.

And I would love for us to move that over to also the script work so that we’re not separating, as Megan points out, the cerebral from the lived experience. Because ultimately that’s what we’re trying to get at. And my supposition is that if we’re checked in, we’re going to be paying attention to each other more as well, which is part of what makes those conversations so tense sometimes, is when people feel isolated, alone, “Am I the only person who thought this was racist? Am I the only person who doesn’t know what’s happening in this scene because the characters are Asian or from this other subgroup? Am I the only person who doesn’t know why the play was written?” And if we’re checked in, we start to be a little bit, I think, a little bit more open and a little bit more receptive to the energies that are happening around us.

Elyzabeth: So people have a lot of big feelings about the term “trigger warnings,” which—especially when it comes to theatre—which is really made to be triggering in some way. It’s meant to be this cathartic experience. How do you guys feel about that? Yay? Nay? I can tell Megan has some thoughts on this.

Megan: It’s my time to shine.

Darren: Amen. Take it away.

Megan: So I have a whole soapbox about this, so bear with me. I think it’s important… Sometimes what gets lost in this conversation about “should we have trigger warnings?” and “should we not have trigger warnings?” is this understanding of what a trigger warning is and what a trigger is, right? And so it’s useful to remember, just quick back of the napkin context, is that a trigger is a word that is associated with post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]. It is part of the trauma response. And the idea is, let’s say you’re a veteran and you’ve come home from the war, and you have PTSD from all of the shooting of the people that you had to do. And one day you’re in the convenience store parking lot and a car backfires, and your brain thinks you are in combat again. Even though you’re not in combat, you have a physiological response: you are triggered, and you are pale and flushed, and your heart is beating, your adrenaline is spiking, and it’s like you are in the combat zone, even though you’re just in the parking lot of a Get and Go. Okay? That’s what a trigger is.

It’s about trauma. And the way that we got into trigger warnings is because somebody pointed out that there is a lot of trauma on college campuses. There is an epidemic of sexual assault. The number for especially women is one in five. Your chances of getting raped when college, if you’re a woman is 20 percent, one in five. If you are a man, that’s a smaller number, but still. So we have this one in five is a huge number. And unlike the combat veteran at the Get and Go, who presumably combat was in the past, if I’m facing a lecture hall full of students of a hundred students and 20 percent of them have trauma about or were sexually assaulted, it could be as early as last night. So that’s who I’m talking with, and I need to teach my students in a way that they can hear me.

And one of the ways that psychiatrists or whoever, psychologists, psychiatrists in the medical field, one of the ways that you can avoid those PTSD flashbacks is if you can give, say our veteran, a heads-up. Like, “Hey veteran, Fourth of July is coming, and there’s going to be a lot of fireworks,” so that when the fireworks go off, their brain has an opportunity to go, “Oh, this is not combat. Actually it’s fireworks,” and they can be in their bodies and not have that trigger response. So a trigger warning is about letting traumatized brains have an opportunity to breathe so that they can take in the material. I think from that perspective, it’s a no-brainer. If I’m going to teach a play with heavy material, material with suicidal ideation, material with sexual assault, material with a lot of violence, it’s a no-brainer to say, “Okay, I want all one hundred students in this lecture hall or all twenty students in this discussion to be able to hear me.”

And I know that many of them are traumatized, and so I’m just going to give them a heads-up, “Hey, suicide’s mentioned in this play. Hey, there’s sexual assault in this play,” so that their brains can be with us in the discussion. So from there, the trigger warning filters out of the academy and now goes into the theatre industry, and people are like, “Well, we’ve got to put trigger warnings on our plays.” And then there’s this real pushback about, grumble grumble, “You’re spoiling the play,” but here’s where my opinion comes in. Okay, I have an opinion, strong opinion here. It’s not spoiling the play, and those people are crybabies. That’s my opinion. Okay? So if I go to see, let’s say Long Day’s Journey into Night and somebody gives me a heads-up, “Hey, there’s suicide and drinking,” that doesn’t take anything away from that play.

I just go, “Oh, what a lovely night in the theatre I’m about to have. This sure is a long day’s journey into deep, dark night.” It’s fine. It doesn’t actually spoil anything for me. But if I have a traumatized brain, it may allow me to stay in the play. And I also feel, while I’m on my little hobbyhorse here, I also feel that a lot of the resentment and the grievance around trigger warnings—like grumble, grumble, grumble—comes from an impulse that some folks have about not wanting to care about other people’s feelings. And I think that if the trauma that 20 percent of our students were having was not sexual assault, was not gendered in that way, that maybe there wouldn’t be such a strong pushback. In other words, friends, misogyny. Thank you for my soapbox. Rant over.

Darren: Megan and Elyzabeth, can I ask you questions?

Elyzabeth: Of course.

Darren: I’m always the practical place. I deeply hear that, and I keep trying to figure out what… It normally is like 0.02 seconds, not 0.02. But I will say, “Okay, we’re moving into workshop. You’re going to start bringing in scripts. Please do consider your classmates.” And I will have tried obviously to have already modeled for them in our discussions of other scripts how I am approaching trigger warnings or content warnings. And if you have a distinction there, I’d love to hear it too. But what do the two of you tell students about appending trigger warnings to their own scripts, particularly, I think… I suspect, or at least for me, I tell them it’s a little bit different in a workshop setting when you’re trying to develop a thing and you’re not entirely sure what you have, versus if we’re in production, or maybe it isn’t. Maybe you’re both like, “No, actually it’s the exact same thing.” I’m just curious, what are y’all takeaways, thoughts?

Megan: When it comes to new plays, when you have a room full of playwrights, I think it’s really important at the top of the class to have a conversation about what our class policy is going to be. And this speaks to just a larger approach to teaching, which is that thinking about teaching less as a top down, “I’m going to inform you of this great knowledge that I have that you don’t have,” and more circular and collective, and that we are going to learn from one another, which means that we have to come up with some collective agreements about how we’re going to operate. And having a conversation about what is the function of a content warning? What is the function of a trigger warning? If you have a good classroom set up and you have a strong classroom where the students all trust one another and trust you, that can be a really wonderful conversation to have at the top of the semester, where students can say, “Yeah, look, and also I have some family stuff in my background and I need a trigger warning about this, that topic.”

That kind of thing can be really useful. And also it just allows folks to understand that we’re not talking to faceless masses, that when we read our plays, we’re actually talking to the other people in the room, that the other people in the room are our first audience, and they are whole people unto themselves. And I have found that my students are happy to extend that courtesy to one another. They don’t have a problem with it at all, because we’re talking about… It’s no longer theoretical, it’s about these actual people. “I don’t want Sandy or Eric to be upset or to not be able to engage with my play. Oh, that’s the worst if they weren’t, can’t read my play. Oh, my God. Especially if I could just give them a heads-up and then they could read my play, then that’s what I really want.”

Darren: Well, and I do think there’s something, Elyzabeth, I love your point about finding those places where students are empowered. And I think that’s another portion of this, the bigger topic of empowered, but also empowered means you’re also carrying a responsibility. This is not high school. This is a learning community, and I’m facilitating learning, and I carry a certain responsibility, but so do you. Because you reminded me there as well, Megan, like, “Oh, right, I start every semester with a discussion of community agreements, and those live on our website for the class.” And you’re absolutely right. Yeah, that’s one of the places to really address that. And then to the point of our conversation is a way to set up, how do we want to engage each other when we do run up against things where we disagree or we feel something struck a nerve? That’s difficult. That’s challenging.

Elyzabeth: Well, and that’s a great segue into my next question, which is how do you handle situations when students push back either against the play or against you or against what someone in class has said? How do you make sure that the conversation remains constructive and productive?

Megan: Well, there’s two different times that I think it’s useful to draw a distinction between. One is if we’re dealing with a new play that a student in the class has written, and we’re workshopping this new play. That’s one set of circumstances. The other is if we’re reading an established play, a classic play that the students are encountering for the first time. So when it’s the second, when it’s a play that is established, let’s say everybody’s reading, I don’t know, Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine or everybody’s reading… Whatever we’re reading. We’re reading Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, whatever we’re reading.

One of the rules that I have in my class is I say, “For the purposes of this class, we are going to assume that every play that we read is a masterpiece. And that if we don’t like it, if we feel outside of it, if we find ourselves bewildered by it, that is our cue to lean in closer to dig deeper and find out more about it.” But also, that doesn’t mean you have to like all the plays. In fact, learning which classic plays you can’t stand is an important part of your education—

Darren: Amen and Amen.

Megan: And serve you For the rest of your life. And so by all means, go to the bar/milkshake shop or wherever they go, go to the place where you go and be like, “Can you believe Tennessee fucking Williams?” Go ahead. Go ahead at that spot. That’s the time to trash. But in the classroom, because what we’re trying to do is figure out what can we glean out of this play that we can use for our own education. So it’s not about celebrating the play, it’s about milking it. Because sometimes students will read a play… I certainly have had this in my own education before, where students will read a play, especially a difficult play or an unusual play or play that’s weird, and their knee-jerk response is they hate it. And then they get into it and unpack it, and then it becomes their favorite play. And they get so thrilled about it. And so that’s my method to… Because I don’t want to rob them of… I don’t want them to decide too early.

We also want our students to swing for the fences. We want our students to take big, big swings and try things out. And that means sometimes, in fact, it is inevitable that they’re going to step in it.

Darren: I just want to co-sign everything Megan just said, including that starting place of the two distinctions. Because Elyzabeth, I love that question. And I do find that, at least in my playwriting workshops, we have to separate out those two places of pushback. And I also find, this may be because I’m also teaching in the Midwest, so the distinction that I will find is that no matter how open I try to make the workshop experience, there is something about the power that I wield as a professor that I would say 70 percent of my workshops I find out after the fact, because someone felt like they weren’t supposed to bring that up in, and when I say bring that up, of an actual resistance to something within the play. So there’s this Midwestern politeness that I have to combat or that I have to help them see and unpack, which they don’t necessarily see as something that’s filtering and stopping them from being completely open about where they stand with the piece.

And I will say what I want to really… What I have learned is to model as often as I can, as early as I can, the behavior and engagement. And to Megan’s point, there’s always at least one play where I explicitly tell students, “I am not a fan of this piece, and I have programmed it because I need you to understand, we still have to do the work of finding out what is this playwright doing? How are they doing it?” It’s speaking to someone in the case of… There is a play that I cannot, honey, I can’t stand this play for so many reasons, and I have programmed it twice, and students see me actually sweating in the classroom because the end of it makes me want to flip tables. And this play, which shall remain nameless, and the playwright have honors up one way and down the other, and it’s a contemporary piece.

Megan: Listen, when this podcast recording is over, I need to know the name of that play.

Darren: Yeah, I absolutely will. Absolutely. Point is I really want to co-sign that aspect of having it there and nevertheless doing the work of the analysis and figuring out, also embody, “Why am I sweating? Why is it bringing out rage in me?” And also telling the students, “It’s okay to feel strongly. Let’s unpack that and let’s also observe why you might have been like, I don’t care about this play. And yet for that person who’s in the room with you, they’re like, ah. And let’s get into that conversation as safely”— I don’t think there’s anything… I don’t believe that there’s anything that’s completely safe. I tell students—”release that notion, but as safely as we can.”

Elyzabeth: So what happens when it’s a new play? Because that’s a slightly different situation because also presumably you’ve got the writer in the room.

Megan: Yeah. So here’s the hard part about teaching playwriting, which is that you can’t do it in pieces. You have to do it all at once. You can’t just like “Today we’re going to talk about dialogue.” You have to write the whole play every time, and every time it teaches you something, right? And we also want our students to swing for the fences. We want our students to take big, big swings and try things out. And that means sometimes, in fact, it is inevitable that they’re going to step in it. It is inevitable that a playwright with all good intentions is going to write something that is upsetting, that is obtuse.

They will have missed some huge part of the culture that everybody in the room seems to know but them. It’s inevitable that that is going to happen. And so, knowing that, when we have our first day, our collective agreement, that first week, that’s one of the things we talk about. What are we going to do when that happens? What do you want to happen when it’s your play and you step in it? And how do you want it to be resolved when somebody else steps in it and you’re a responder? Let’s talk about what we’re going to going to do there. And there’s a whole… By talking about it before any of the issues come up, it can take some of the sting out of some of those conversations. Because what we all want to do is get better as writers. What we all want to do is we really want to benefit from all of the different perspectives that are in the room.

And we want to offer our comments to one another as gifts. “Let me help you write a better play. Let me give you something that you don’t have because I’m rooting for you, because you’re my colleague and I want you to do well. And so I have this information.” And one of the things we say is, especially if somebody has stepped in your pudding, somebody has stepped in your pudding, you have the right to not give that comment right away. You can think about it. You don’t have to be on the hook to… If something’s not sitting right with you and you need seventy-two hours to process it, that’s okay, right? So that’s just a couple of ways that we go about it.

Darren: I will say, for a variety of reasons, here at KU, I’ve been part of a group of folks who lead discussions around hot topics in the classroom, hot moments in the classroom. I don’t love that label. Oh god, “hot moments.” But it takes up a lot of this. And one of the things that I think sometimes we in creative writing fields take for granted, particularly theatre folk, is that one of the key ways that we as a field have addressed this, is to actually have workshop models for those that do have a workshop process. I think that’s one of… So first of all, cosign everything Megan said, those are tactics that I definitely cosign, and I would say, anyone listening, please use them.

So this is me just adding, don’t overlook the, or discount or take for granted the usefulness of a workshop model and a workshop process. It is, I think, a potentially… I hope this isn’t a spicy comment. To me, it is so dangerous to have someone walk in, present their work, and we just opened the floor and we’re like, “Okay, what did you think?” And I will say, in full transparency, it surprises me the number of folks who still just basically do that. And there are equity issues there. And particularly, Elyzabeth, thank you for convening this conversation. This conversation and its topic is exactly why we do need process.

So students know here’s how we, based on our community agreements, are going to take up a text. And it’s a process where, as Megan pointed out, somebody is going to step in it. And where is the step in the conversation that we have where we can, with respect and with honesty, take up, you done stepped in it? Don’t think you did it intentionally, but here’s how we are going to respond as audience and receiving of what that did to us. Interest of transparency, I still use Liz Lerman and critical response process up one way and down the other. I modify it because sometimes some groups are ready to have the comment step and some are not quite ready for the comment step.

Megan: That’s it. That’s it. Yeah, that’s a hundred percent it.

Darren: Some people love Save the Cat! and other methods do what you do. I do recommend having a process.

Megan: I’m also a big fan of the Anti-Racist Writing workshop, which talks about Liz Lerman. And there’s a great quote in it, and I’m flipping through my copy that I keep on my desk, hoping to find it. And of course I can’t find it. But there’s a great quote about how the people who want brutal honesty are usually people who already feel welcomed into the workshop space because of their identity, which I think is really, really great. And that when students ask for brutal honesty, what they’re really saying is, “Take me seriously as a writer, please.” Which I will. Which I will. But that… It’s not useful to say mean things. It doesn’t help you become a better writer. It’s not useful.

Elyzabeth: So how do you guys handle situations where you are teaching a play that is outside of your experience or outside the experience of the majority of the students in your class, especially if they’re not connecting with the material?

Megan: Well, the first step, I think, is we have to acknowledge the reality in the room. So it is not unusual for me to have a class of a hundred percent white kids, farm kids from small towns in Iowa who have come. Their conception of a play is, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which they were in in high school, and now they have come to college and everything is a lot harder and weirder, and they’re out of their depth already. And then I’m like, “Welcome to Suzan-Lori Parks,” and they’re having to figure out that the words they’re reading on the page is a play. Do you know what I mean? They’re looking at Topdog/Underdog or The America Play or any Suzan Lori Parks, and they’re going, “What does this have to do with, You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown?” They’re just trying to figure out what that is. And so acknowledging that, I think, is important. That’s one thing.

What do you got, Darren?

Darren: It’s interesting that you say outside of myself, because when I think about… Because I grew up in Kansas and I’m in the crossover generation where I think we finally… As I was coming through high school, we finally were doing some major work about rethinking what we called the “canon.” That I was reading the majority of things outside myself because they were predominantly white authors for years and years and years. And so what I learned to do with that is to start from the place of close reading. So I’m being a little bit repetitive and saying what is on the page? And I think the thing there, so I guess always co-signed Megan, one thing that white supremacy does is it centers a white narrative. And so the first step when we’re like… People are butting up against, I can’t access this. I don’t know this.

One, maybe it’s not for you. It could be that the audience, not necessarily for you. Doesn’t mean you get to check out, to be clear, but maybe that was intentional. Two, and to actually think about what happens if we center… and that means normally unpacking what do we mean by centering? So that’s a conversation that also has to be had. But if we make this experience at the core of the conversation as opposed to the other, the margin, it’s weird. What happens if we say it’s normal? What do we see? Release that. Let’s pretend this is completely normed, and let’s not pretend. Let’s say, because in the world of this piece, it is. It’s completely normed. What does that do? That’s one place where the conversation goes. I will also say, I normally find that I have to keep in my back pocket, contextual stuff.

At some point I’ll have to pull out, “Here’s a review. Here’s an interview.” Those sorts of things become vital. And because we’re theatre artists, what did actors who worked with it struggle with? Particularly if it’s a piece that is thorny, and there is work where people talk about… I mean, again, actors, directors, designers are so flipping brilliant, and so many of the times the things that we are struggling with as readers are things they were the first people to struggle with. And so I love having done some of that to say… And here’s the other… So that’s another tactic. I also, I’ve been known to program work by my friends. So like, “Hey, can you Zoom?” And now we have Zoom. “Can you Zoom in?”

And I will tell students, “Are you struggling with something in this script? Hey, why don’t you ask the person who created it what that was?” That’s another practical way that I, when I know that I’m not, I don’t have the spoons, I don’t have the expertise if it’s… Those are the ways that I work. And I love programming work from people that I know who are wildly different from me. So I can be like, “I’m glad you asked that, my student, so-and-so is going to be joining us on September sixteenth, and I want you.” And I will warn them. I’ll be like, “And I will actually calling you to ask that question, or I’ll just put you on the spot.”

Megan: Let’s just talk about white people for a second. Because I’m thinking about… James Baldwin talks about white innocence and how the project of white innocence that in order for white people to not lose their minds, having created all this tragedy, the way that they live with themselves is to distort reality, to preserve their white innocence. So this project to protect the innocence of white people, so they have plausible deniability about the horrors of American history is a real thing. And I have, in the past few years, one of the things that I am doing when I’m teaching primarily white people, and we’re talking about plays with Black playwrights or Indigenous playwrights or playwrights of color, is that we talk explicitly, before we talk about the play, we talk explicitly about white supremacy, talk about white innocence.

And I have a whole PowerPoint, I do whole framing to get these eighteen-, nineteen-, twenty-year-old students caught up in just… Get them to see the bubble wrap that they’ve been wrapped in their whole life that is preventing them from seeing what is obvious to people who are outside of that bubble wrap. So we have this whole conversation, and still I’ll teach say, Topdog/Underdog, and I’ll say, “Why are their names Lincoln and Booth?” And they’ll be like, “Oh, any other reason besides race, it must be some other reason. It has to do…” Right? People go out of their way to avoid saying, avoid talking about race, but because there is so ingrained in them, this is a hot button, and I shouldn’t see it, and I need to protect my innocence. And so sometimes just talking about that in a way that is kind, that in a way that is rooted in everybody’s humanity, if we can just acknowledge the reality.

So many of my students are so afraid about being wrong or being embarrassed, that they will shut down rather than risk that. And so my job as a professor is to create a room where people can feel like it’s okay to hazard a guess and be wrong. It gets tricky because I have multiple audiences, so yes, primarily white students, but not exclusively white students a lot of the time. I don’t want to make the other mistake, which is catering solely to the white kids or solely to the cis kids or solely to the straight kids without—pardon me, adult learners. Adult learners is what I meant, not kids. Talk about the multiplicity of voices in the room. And so that is the trick, I think, to professoring in the twenty-first century.

I think the lesson of this moment in history for all of us is that there is no such thing as a neutral, objective point of view, that there is no such thing as an apolitical stance or an apolitical reading.

Darren: It is. And everything that you just said reminded me too, Megan, that this is hard work, what we do. Maybe we don’t say that often enough. I’m the first to say, I understand I’m not out here curing cancer, is always the famous line. And I get that. And also to do this well and to do this responsibly, it’s more than a notion, as we would say in my family. And it takes that careful consideration. I actually have to… Because I have anxiety, because of all these things, I actually have to meditate before each class.

I had to go in, to quote the old sayings about the church I grew up in, I got to go and prayed up. Because exactly what you’re describing, Megan, is I have to ask myself, go through the checklist. “Have I actually prepared the class to have the conversation that I want them to have? Have I prepared them process-wise so they can roll with anything that’s coming in from their colleagues in the work that they’re presenting?. Do I need to change my process? Am I being transparent enough in those changes to be ready for all of that?”

Elyzabeth: And I think it’s important for us to teach our students how to contextualize this work, because ultimately what they’re writing is informed by the world around them as well. Making sure that they connect why this writer wrote this play at that moment in time helps them connect to the why now question of the work that they’re doing too, right?

Darren: Yeah. And I appreciate too what you said, is that there’s so many tools that come from our field, and the thing is to… I want you to use those tools that you’re learning in other courses to apply in an equitable and just and challenging way to this. You might, understandably, you’re scared about saying the right or wrong thing. Well, let’s go at it from this way. Why this play now? Who is it speaking to? What moment is it speaking to?

Elyzabeth: Speaking of moments in time, this very interesting moment in time, scary moment in time, and we’re all teaching in states where public education, in particular, is under attack, where these plays that we are teaching, the content of these plays, the ideas of these plays, are under attack. How do we keep these stories alive? How do we continue teaching these stories? How do we make sure that our students see the value in these stories?

Megan: I’ll just say I think the lesson of this moment in history for all of us is that there is no such thing as a neutral, objective point of view, that there is no such thing as an apolitical stance or an apolitical reading, or I’m just going to teach, I’m going to teach Hamlet and I’m going to teach it, the whitest play in the world. I’m going to teach this play, and I’m just going to be neutral and I don’t want to get politics involved. I appreciate, I really empathize with that longing as a way to circumvent the aggressors who are trying to turn our society into a fascist state. I appreciate that. And also it’s impossible. So I think we have to first acknowledge that it is impossible to avoid this conversation and be ethical and be true to our mission. I teach at the University of Iowa, and our mission is really clear. It’s about discovery. It’s about diversity of voices and experiences. Not for some sort of kumbaya thing, not for some make the world a better place, although wouldn’t it be great?

It’s because we are smarter when we are surrounded by different points of view. We are smarter when different people are looking at a problem together. We are better, and we want to create knowledge, and so we can’t back away from the lived reality of our lives. And that is hard, and that is uncomfortable. And here’s where I look to my tenured colleagues to please lead the way, because it’s a lot more dangerous for people who are not tenured, who are easily dismissed. And yet also, I have to live with myself. I have to live with myself, and I have to teach my students how to navigate questions like how do you know what’s true? How can you tell? People are telling you all kinds of things. How do you know it’s true? Let’s start there, right? There are actual things that we can teach that I believe a college educational liberal arts education can help us through this difficult time, but we have to be brave about it.

Darren: I know this is recorded, so y’all can’t see my face. I look like a deacon sitting at the Missionary Baptist front pew. I’m like, “Yeah.” It’s a sermon. What Megan said, it’s so much what is also my politic as an instructor. And also I feel called in as someone who is tenured. So I think for those of us who understand the tenure system, which I think is the dismantling of it is underway and it will go forward. And so I think that is very prescient what you pointed out there about using the power that still exists within that system responsibly and to be brave. Elyzabeth, I love that question that you asked that got us here, and I think the way we keep those things alive is the bravery that Megan’s talking about, and also knowing that students, no matter what, one of the things that I love about the creative writing workshop is that students are going to come in with their narratives and their truths built, carried in their bodies.

And so I could do a curriculum completely based on some banana pants thing that some person…Let me not get too nasty, that some fascist leaning person wants me to do. And still, it is my job to create a spring… I still would never be able to completely keep out challenging, marginalized, intriguing narratives out of the classroom, because those are going to come in anyhow via what my students have lived. So better, I’d be responsible and create a receptive place rather than trying to do the impossible, which is to hold the door and be like, “We’re only going to do the things that these random people not in this classroom deem as safe.” When you are the one student who has paid money to be here and is carrying all of this joy and trauma and lived life, and you’re going to draw on that. Better I be responsible and ready and have built in work that yes, whether you are white, whatever your background, you feel ready to be challenged and challenging in your work, understanding that that is always going to be the call and that is always going to be there, is the other piece that I would add.

Megan: And I just want to throw in—this is obvious, or we’ve been taking this for granted, but just so that it’s spoken—this narrative that professors are trying to indoctrinate their students with a woke agenda is such hot garbage.

Darren: Hot garbage.

Megan: It’s such… I can’t get my students to do the readings. They’re not going to sit still for The Communist Manifesto. I’ll just—

Darren: Honey.

Megan: That’s not really happening. Right? This idea that… It’s just not really happening. And they want to say that it’s happening so that they can control speech, so they can control ideas. I get it, but it’s not right. It’s not accurate.

Darren: It’s not accurate.

Megan: We have to start with the truth and that what a college degree, especially an undergraduate bachelor of arts in the liberal arts is about, is about critical thinking. That’s what it’s about. And critical thinking requires you to live in the real world and not the imaginary world. We’re in 2023, about 30 percent of Americans are trying to live in an imaginary world. You can’t get smarter if you live in an imaginary world. You actually have to grapple with… We didn’t make it up. It’s not that racism exists, that sexism and homophobia, transphobia exists. There are just whole wings of the library. I wish it didn’t exist. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was just a narrative? I’d love to come into classroom and be like, “Discrimination is over. We solved it, everybody.” Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Darren: Wonderful.

Megan: That would be amazing. But it’s not true. And every time we do an experiment, every time we look to see if additives are different, we find a lot of these same issues that America has been stubbing their toe on since its inception are still with us. And so we have to acknowledge that reality.

Darren: That part.

Elyzabeth: Excellent. It seems like a great place to stop. Thank you guys so much for your time, for your wisdom, for your humor. I appreciate you being here with us today.

Megan: Elyzabeth, you are wonderful.

Darren: You are divine.

Elyzabeth: Thank you, guys. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this show and other HowlRound shows wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on Have an idea for an exciting podcast essay or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit and submit your ideas to this digital commons.

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