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Breaking the classroom’s fourth wall

Theatre course teaches students about social justice in and out of the classroom

Given McGill’s reputation as a bastion of tradition, it’s surprising to hear terms like “experimental” and “self-reflexive” associated with one of its professors. Yet after only one year of teaching in McGill’s English department, those are the terms that arise in descriptions of post-doctoral fellow Dr. Karis Shearer’s classroom work.

A self proclaimed “critical pedagogue”, Shearer’s newest course, “Performing Social Justice in Canadian Theatre,” reflects her postmodern teaching imperatives. Through a balance of theoretical, creative, and participatory work, Shearer’s students actively examine the role of theatre in Canadian social justice movements, while building the practical knowledge and experience to become part of the movements themselves.

“I want students to realize that the walls of this classroom are permeable,” says Shearer. “There is a lot of opportunity to get involved in theatre right here in Montreal.”

Within the first moments of Shearer’s course, the traditional power dynamics of the classroom are inverted. Self-organized into performance companies, students begin Shearer’s class themselves with a 10-15-minute scene study by one of the groups. This performance is followed by a student-led “talk-back session with the audience” (what Shearer in her syllabus terms “The Colleague-Critics”) that elucidates new interpretations of and challenges to the performance. Those first 15 minutes reflect both the aims of social justice theatre and the essence of the course, asking students to constantly “challenge” and “redefine” what culture critic Henry Giroux calls the “existing borders forged in domination.”

In addition to being given the chance to experience the views endorsed in the course, students in Shearer’s class will also have the opportunity to engage personally with new and esteemed members of the Canadian theatre community.

Just last week, McGill graduate and Toronto playwright, Jason Maghanoy, spoke to Shearer’s class about the effect that different spaces have on audience reception. His play, The Corner, based on the shooting of Jeffrey Reodica, a 17-year-old Filipino teen killed by Toronto police in 2004, was first produced at the professional Factory Theatre. But the play received its most passionate reception elsewhere: in the basement of the Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts & Culture.

Despite missing out on some of the aesthetic pleasantries of mainstream theatre (Maghanoy comically describes creating a “spotlight” with a hallway light), The Corner’s community centre audience was both emotionally compelled by what they saw and actively critical of it.

In a talk-back session after the performance, Maghanoy described being interrogated by his audience: “What were you doing there? Why didn’t you show this?” In contrast to the passive reception The Corner received at the Factory Theatre, the community centre space allowed for Maghanoy’s representation of the Jeffrey Reodica case to be remodelled and reworked by its viewers.

Even with their classroom’s bolted down chairs and minimal stage space, Shearer and her students have been able to transform the space into a similarly constructive forum. “Classroom is like theatre…. We’re in performance every day.” Approaching education as something that, like theatre, is inherently political and can be infinitely framed, Shearer and her students are creating a course the very structure of which accomplishes forms of social justice.