Being a Student Again: How Taking Classes Made Me Reflect on Teaching Classes

I feel like I’m in high school again, and it’s been an unexpectedly good thing for thinking about teaching.

I recently moved to Montreal and decided to take French classes. As I filled out the online registration forms, I thought to myself, “A little morning routine, a little french, and the possibility of interaction with other humans in the brand new city I’ll be google-mapping my way through? This is a great settling-into-a-new-city-plan.”

I wasn’t wrong: the classes have been immensely useful for grounding my first couple of weeks. They have also been unexpectedly helpful for thinking about my own teaching.

Here are the top three things that being a student has got me thinking about:

The Vulnerability of Learning

As a kid, I was in French immersion – a Canadian public school program where students from non-French speaking families take most of their elementary and high school classes in French. So, technically, my French is decent. Practically, it is not.

Trying to find my knowledge of French has been felt like being in the movie Inside Out: I spend my morning classes running around my brain, searching for old memories. Much to my dismay, it seems that many of these memories have been dumped to make room for new skills and knowledge.

To the shock of no one that knows me: I have a robust set of feelings when I’m not instantly good at something. So, when my teacher hands back my homework, and I see the 1003 minor grammar errors, I can’t help but wince a little.

Other than the hit to my ego, this has been a critical reminder of the the vulnerability of not knowing, of not understanding, of trying but not getting it right the first, second, or even the third time. I try to acknowledge this vulnerability when I teach but sometimes I forget how amplified it can feel for students.


Three weeks ago, I could not have told you the last time I took a midterm. That changed, last Wednesday. And, much to my surprise, I think that’s a good thing.

As a university instructor, I know that tests can be good evaluative and pedagogical tools, and I do incorporate final exams into some courses. But, I also know that tests favour certain learning styles over others and can prompt huge levels of stress and anxiety for students. In the context of rising mental health crises across American and Canadian post-secondary campuses, the stakes of stress and anxiety can be concrete and significant. It doesn’t help that, even when test-related stress is contained to the classroom, students generally hate exams.

Actual archival evident that I took a French midterm some time after high school.

In my French class, I was no different. I did not want to take my midterm. In fact, I briefly considered refusing to do so (me: at my most mature).

After having a little chat with myself, however, I decided to write the midterm. This meant I had to study. And, you know what? Studying prompted me to engage with the material in a way I’d been avoiding: I went back and reviewed some of the core concepts; I memorized the rules; I did mock exercises.

Did it bring back a whole bunch of weird want-to-succeed-in-evaluative-contexts feelings? Why, yes it did. Did it also light a fire under my learning feet? Most definitely.

On Mattering

As a university instructor, I’m aware that, within the context of a classroom, I am in a position of power. As a student, I am am actively reminded of how this power looks and feels.

The teacher – who is like every french teacher I can remember: energetic, kind, passionate, precise – is the point toward which I, and all the other students, are oriented physically and intellectually. And, boy oh boy, do we notice everything she does:

  • I notice that she tends to stand on the right side of the white board (likely so she doesn’t have to cross when she needs to start to write a sentence). This means that she often unintentionally favours the right side of the class, who are physically closer to her.
  • Another student feels that she pays more attention to those with stronger language skills.
  • Another student feels her pedagogy is better than any of the other instructors they’ve had.

Even for adults with diverse areas of expertise and experiences (the class of twelve includes adult learners from 7 different countries who work in a range of fields from health care to hospitality to academia) the teacher matters, and that mattering often articulates in very embodied, and sometimes very emotional, ways.

I already knew all of these things, of course.

After all, I’ve spent big chunks of my adult life as a student. And, even though I’m done with formal coursework (phew!), I’m an active learner. I take professional development workshops, praxis sessions, and all kinds of classes. And not all of these classes are in areas where I excel either. I, Kelsey Blair The Historically Inflexible, take yoga classes.

But being in a semi-intensive, pass-or-fail class with medium-level stakes for most of the students has reminded me, at a bodily level, of what it feels like to be a student.

This, in turn, has reinforced something I already suspected: being a student, particularly in moderate- to high-stakes environments, is invaluable to the development of my teaching practice.

Performance as mental health crisis intervention: an interview with Natalie Alvarez

Friends, once more I’m thrilled to be able to share with you the full text of a piece published in my new (August 2019) special issue of Research in Drama Education. (If you missed the last two freebies, please click here and here.) In this interview, Ryerson University Performance Studies professor Natalie Alvarez talks about an extraordinary research and development project she is currently helming in southern Ontario, and reflects on how that project debunks some of the persistent myths theatre and performance scholars carry with us about what performance-led interdisciplinary work should look like. I learned a huge amount from conducting this interview with Natalie and, although it’s long for a post on this blog (4500 words), I hope you can make the time to read it. It will be worth it.



Natalie Alvarez, Ryerson University professor and investigative lead on the SSHRC-funded four-year project, “Scenario Training to Improve Interactions Between Police and Individuals in Mental Crisis: Impacts and Efficacy”

Living the interdiscipline: Natalie Alvarez speaks with Kim Solga about conceiving, developing, managing, and learning from a large-scale, multidisciplinary, scenario-based project supporting police de-escalation training in Ontario

(Published in RiDE 24.3 [2019]; click here for a free download of the published interview.)

Ryerson University theatre and performance professor Natalie Alvarez is currently helming a large, interdisciplinary team of forensic psychologists, mental health clinicians, Applied Theatre practitioners, police trainers, and community stakeholders with lived experience of mental illness in southern Ontario that is testing the power of Forum theatre to build better, more responsive scenarios for police officer training in de-escalation and mental crisis response. Funded by a four-year Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the project, titled ‘Scenario Training to Improve Interactions Between Police and Individuals in Mental Crisis: Impacts and Efficacy’, is already significantly changing the paradigm for police training in response to persons in mental crisis in the province.

In this interview, Alvarez sits down with issue editor Kim Solga to talk about where this project came from, what challenges arise when working in an intensively interdisciplinary way—and how theatre and performance can serve effectively as a methodology at the heart of a wide range of scholarly investigations, both inside and outside of the arts and humanities.

KS: To begin, can you say a few brief words about your own training and background? As a scholar, how do you ‘identify’?

NA: I would have to say that I identify now as a performance studies researcher since I am most interested in how performance can be used as an optic and method of analysis to examine cultural practices both onstage and in the public sphere. But my training, formally, has moved from English and dramatic literature with a focus on discourse analysis and critical theory as an undergraduate student to theatre and performance studies as a graduate student.

KS: Can you give us the project’s ‘elevator pitch’, and tell us what stage of the project you are at right now?

NA: The project is tough to distill in two to three sentences—you are testing my pitching skills!—but in short: it’s a four-year, evidenced-based study that brings together theatre practitioners, forensic psychologists, mental health clinicians, people with lived experience of mental illness, mental health advocates, and police trainers to develop a scenario-based training program designed to improve police response to individuals in mental crisis. I realize I squeezed a lot into that first sentence. Sentence two: We are using a mixed methods approach that is longitudinal, with quantitative and qualitative measures, to determine whether a scenario-based program can improve skills in effective de-escalation and reduce stigmatizing attitudes towards individuals living with mental illness. We are in year two of four of the study.

KS: Where did the inspiration for this project originally come from?

NA: It emerged from the field research I did for my book, Immersions in Cultural Difference: Tourism, War, Performance(Michigan, 2018), which took me to military training sites in Canada, the US, and the UK. I was struck by how these large-scale, pre-deployment training environments of simulated Afghan villages were using high intensity scenarios to test soldiers’ capacities to engage in ethical decision-making while under extreme stress.

In this training designed to prepare soldiers for deployment in Afghanistan, military training personnel worked with special effects teams largely drawn from the film industry to create scenarios that would expose soldiers to what would be, in many cases, their worst possible day in theatre: surprise insurgent attacks requiring them to rehearse their tactical responses and rules of engagement. But in the context of a mock Afghan village, scenarios were also designed to build soldiers’ ‘Cultural Intelligence’ (or CQ) about local populations in Afghanistan to better establish working relationships for the purposes of a counterinsurgency mission. Scenarios would unfold 24 hours a day, seven days a week in a large-scale environment: in the case of CFB Wainright, outside of Edmonton, Alberta, for example, four small Afghan villages were set up across a wide swath of Alberta prairie to create this sense of full immersion. This fully immersive, 24-7 form of scenario-based training is a far cry from the short, discrete scenarios in contained environments that we now design for police, but it’s nevertheless instructive since it shares many of the same principles that underlie scenario-based learning in police training contexts: the creation of high-fidelity scenarios designed to capture the stress of the encounter and develop trainees’ capacities to think critically, responsibly, and ethically in the heat of the moment.  

There was one debrief I witnessed during pre-deployment training at Wainright for soldiers headed to Afghanistan that made a particular impression on me, and sparked the idea for this current study. It happened after a mass-casualty scenario involving actors in-role as Afghans in a village that had just been struck by an IED, which killed a member of the Afghan National Police who was well known to villagers. It called on soldiers in training to manage frightened and grieving villagers while following through with their protocols to establish a safety cordon and contain the area.

The scenario debrief was impressively led by a staff sergeant and I found myself struck by his teaching skills: he asked soldiers to replay the scene in their minds and hit the ‘pause’ button at key moments in their recounting—effectively, to ‘rewind’, replay, and reconsider their courses of action and decision-making. The moment made me think of how useful it would be if soldiers had this opportunity to pause, rewind, and reconsider on their feet, in an embodied way, in a kind of modified, Boal-inspired use of Forum Theatre.

It was around that time that the Sammy Yatim incident occurred on a streetcar near my home in Toronto on the night of 27 July 2013. Yatim was armed with a switchblade and behaving erratically, exhibiting signs of mental distress, and he was alone on the streetcar by the time Constable James Forcillo arrived on scene with his partner. Forcillo fired two volleys of shots, nine in total, to subdue Yatim. Forensics revealed that the first three shots killed Yatim almost instantly. Forcillo was later convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to six years in prison.

After that incident, which made headlines around the world, the Ontario Ombudsman, Paul Dubé,issued a report investigating the state of police training in Ontario with respect to de-escalation in cases where mental illness or distress is a factor. I have an elder sister who lives with schizoaffective disorder, and so I find these incidents of lethal force in response to people in mental crisis harrowing and deeply concerning. As I was bringing the book to completion, I kept thinking about the Ombudsman report and whether the discoveries I had made in my field research could evolve into a new context of police training.   

Auspiciously, around this same time my former department, the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock University, hired Dr. Yasmine Kandil, a specialist in Applied Theatre. Shortly after her hire, I cornered her in the university cafeteria and pitched the idea of this project that would aim to realize many of the recommendations that had come out of the Ombudsman report. The vision I had was to take officers in training through a spectrum of scenario-based training—from the stop-playback method of Forum-inspired scenario training to a high intensity circuit of scenarios that would assess officers’ critical decision-making while under stress—and gather a multidisciplinary team from across the humanities and social sciences alongside community stakeholders to design, execute, and measure it.

KS: I hear you saying that police and armed forces already use complex scenario training—hence your work embedding with and observing them for your 2018 book. Can you speak briefly about how the scenario work you envisioned for this project differs from existing scenario training models for police officers?

NA: Our stop-playback method of Forum-inspired scenarios, which allows a multidisciplinary team to ‘press the pause button’ and offer feedback to a trainee in the moment, is a significant departure from how police training typically unfolds. In general, mental crisis response knowledge is most commonly conveyed in a de-contextualized classroom context with guest lecturers often delivering information about signs and symptoms of mental illness with minimal scenario-based learning. Scenario-based learning is most often used in police Use of Force ‘block’ training contexts, which don’t necessarily prioritize cases of mental crisis and are comprised of five- to ten-minute uninterrupted scenarios that are led by and debriefed with police trainers only.

Our study, by contrast, uses scenarios as the primary method of content delivery, so that material that would otherwise be delivered in a lecture format becomes immediately demonstrable and experiential. And we’ve designed the forum scenarios to have a host of built-in ‘what ifs’ or hypothetical circumstances, so that trainees can discuss and practice a range of de-escalation strategies in fluid situations with minimal to significant complexity and discuss the potential circumstances leading to that crisis situation. Trainees then receive feedback from multiple perspectives: a mental health clinician, a person with lived experience of mental illness, and a police trainer.

KS: This is clearly a very larger project with lots of people of very different backgrounds and skill sets involved. Who are your collaborators? How did you go about realizing you needed them, and then finding them?

NA: The research team formed over the course of two years, as reading one publication led me to a particular researcher who then suggested another publication that led to another researcher…and so it went. I began with Dr. Terry Coleman and Dr. Dorothy Coleman’s 2014 Mental Health Commission of Canada report on the state of police training in mental crisis response, Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé’s 2016 investigation into police training, and the Hon. Frank Iacobucci’s 2014 independent review of police response to individuals in crisis. And I read through their works cited lists to follow the trail on the existing research on scenario-based police training, de-escalation, and mental crisis response. I visited the Ontario Police College several times to meet with trainers and curriculum designers and observe their scenario-based training.

All of this reading and all of these meetings made clear to me the fact that training of this kind exceeds the insights and capacity of any one discipline and any one individual. It demands a multidisciplinary team: we needed mental health clinicians who could offer insight on signs and symptoms and best practices on how to engage effectively with persons in mental health crisis; we needed police trainers to marry those best practices with police de-escalation training that prioritizes safety and the sanctity of life; and we needed people with lived experience of mental illness who have had encounters with police to be at the table in both the design and delivery of the training in order to help guide officers on how best to realize consumer-centered decision-making. We also required individuals who specialize in intercultural communication, and who can support an intersectional understanding of the experience of mental illness as informed by ethnicity, gender, class, age, and thus help develop trauma-informed approaches to persons in mental crisis. Many, many phone calls with experts in these areas and many, many meetings later, I had assembled our core team of 12 research collaborators and partnered with a police service in southern Ontario. We have since added 6 trainers and instructors and have developed 7 scenarios that involve over 26 actors.

And, of course, we required theatre practitioners who know how to craft and direct effective scenarios that have complex and credible levels of challenge and escalation for officers-in-training to practice a range of de-escalation strategies in a host of possible ‘what ifs’. This project also requires theatre practitioners who know how to direct and work with actors who have a very particular kind of skill set: our actors need to be able to toggle between the role of actor and that of educator as they navigate high-affect scenes while improvising within certain parameters set by the scenario and guiding trainees through various rewards or redirects based on the choices the trainee is making.

Iacobucci’s report in particular made evident to me the need for partnerships between researchers and police services. His report emphasizes the need to measure the efficacy of de-escalation training and the impacts that training is having on the person in crisis’s experience in the encounter with police. For this study to impact police training standards or make a persuasive case for more robust mental crisis response training in the province, generating meaningful and reliable data is imperative. That’s what brought my co-investigator Dr. Jennifer Lavoie to the project. Alongside Yasmine, Jennifer has been pivotal to the success of this project. She isa forensic psychologist in the Department of Criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University who specializes in policing and mental crisis response; she has spent over 250 hours in ride-alongs observing police response to individuals in mental crisis. She designed the qualitative and quantitative methods for data collection and analysis for our study. Critically, she led the team in the design of a tool to assess police performance in de-escalation strategies, which I feel is a key contribution this study has made to public culture. As a humanities scholar, I never thought I’d find myself thisexcited about an assessment instrument, but it’s truly a beautiful thing. It’s the product of input from people with lived experience, advocates, psychologists, police trainers, and performance practitioners… . It’s basically the first, validated assessment tool in Canada, to our knowledge, that sets a measurable, observable standard for effective de-escalation in police training.

KS: As the performance-trained scholar at the centre of this interdisciplinary team, how much did you have to bend or flex your scholarly perspective—and maybe even your identity?—to enable the shaping of the project? Has your sense of the work you do as a performance scholar shifted over time to accommodate interdisciplinary methods and perspectives, as per your work with the military?

NA: I’ve had to adapt to new vocabularies and certainly new paradigms of engagement, to be sure. But that remains true for every research project I engage in because, predominantly, the studies I work on require some form of field research and therefore an ‘embedding’ in different worlds of experience, discourses, and fields of inquiry. The question that remains constant for me is this: what does performance have to say within these worlds, and what will performance unveil there?I think of performance as a kind of hermeneutical method through which we can examine a host of cultural phenomena—this is, of course, influenced by and related to the ‘broad spectrum’ approach to performance studies (championed by Richard Schechner, Barabara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, Diana Taylor, Dwight Conquergood, among many others), but it also exceeds it. Performance, for me, is above all a methodology, and as such it is always bending, flexing, and shifting—its site-responsiveness is what is most exciting to me.

What’s become clear to me over the course of this particular project—and I would say that this is a recent development—is the way in which performance can serve as a nexus or meeting point for different disciplinary perspectives that can work in concert toward social justice initiatives. Looking back, I realize now that the seeds of this idea were planted at the ‘conversatorios’ I curated with Aluna Theatre for their 2014 RUTAS/ROUTES festival, which formed research ‘clusters’ that brought scholars from different disciplines together with actors, directors, activists, elders, and students for conversations with the public on the social justice issues raised in the festival performances. But this is the first time I have led a project of this scale that draws on a multidisciplinary team toward a shared set of research aims.

KS: I’m really interested in the place of theatre and performance within this complex interdisciplinary work, given how many science-side stakeholders are involved here. For example, in your description of collaborators above, I get the sense that theatre is both central, yet also somewhat marginalized, in the project, given your (necessarily) heavy focus on assessment and measurement. Can you talk about this tension?

NA: The reality in practice is that roughly 80%-90% of our time is spent developing scenarios—writing them, structuring them, rehearsing them with actors, and testing them over a period of months with our actors, police-in-role, and our multidisciplinary team—and delivering them in the training week, which is comprised almost exclusively of scenarios. Performance is, then, the core methodology and the substance of the project, without which the project would not exist. I would say the qualitative and quantitative methodologies we have developed to build the evidence-base could be described as theatre’s indispensable partner in this project, since they help us answer the question, ‘Does scenario training actually work and, if so, how?’

The tension you describe—performance as ‘both central, yet marginalized’—is something I simply don’t experience in this project. But I wonder if what you’re picking up on is not so much a tension but a movement, the kind of movement that happens when performance is used as a methodology that flexes and bends with the project’s demands, a movement that goes between being ‘central andmarginal’ (rather than ‘central, yet marginal’). This central-marginal movement, in my mind, describes the exigencies of multidisciplinary work, especially in an intensely collaborative and multifaceted project of this kind. As a methodology, performance provides the container for the research, which allows, in turn, points of emphasis from all of the contributing disciplinary perspectives to become centralized as needed, moment to moment, as circumstances and project demands require.

It’s a fascinating question, though, and it makes me wonder whether it’s revealing of certain assumptions about performance studies as a bounded discipline that makes itself visible, central, or ‘less marginal’ on certain terms. Or, to put it differently, and perhaps more importantly for the concerns of this issue: I wonder whether it reveals certain assumptions that performance needsto be positioned as a bounded discipline in order to make itself visible, central, or ‘less marginal’. But what happens to these assumptions, and this sense of boundedness, if we follow, in earnest, the notion that performance studies is an interdiscipline and performance a kind of hermeneutical method? The enormous potential of performance studies in these collaborative research contexts lies, for me, in the fact that it is not a discrete, circumscribed field of study but a mode of investigation that reorients other fields to uncover new pathways of inquiry. For me, it’s less about proceeding with a systematic core that is then applied to other fields, which would only be a form of analogical thinking, and more about flexing performance across fields to reveal otherwise-invisible structures and paradigms within those fields.

To illustrate what I mean here: at the risk of severely over-simplifying, Judith Butler’s notion of the ‘performative’, for example, is not a metaphor; it does not say we operate ‘as if’ we are in a performance. It highlights something configured into our everyday behaviours that would have otherwise gone unnoticed had we not deployed performance as a means of thinking it through, allowing us the opportunity to reconfigure what is otherwise taken for granted.

I guess I’d like to hear more about how this project would unfold—or what it would sound like—if performance was more ‘central’?

KS: That’s an incredibly useful response. One of the reasons I posed the question is because we theatre workers often risk, in interdisciplinary projects where performance is not the core method or framing paradigm, feeling marginalized or undervalued; it’s one of the concerns of this issue to unpack when and how much theatre and performance scholars and makers need to bend and flex on others’ terms in order to survive the STEM (or even the STEAM) turn. But you’ve created a project that implies something very different: you’ve centred performance as method, as paradigm, and then grouped others’ needs and concerns around it, allowing the hermeneutic power of performance to become evident for a wide range of collaborators and to a wide range of practices. That’s exciting!

Given the wide multidisciplinary range of labour at work here, I’m curious to know if the project looks today more or less like you conceived it to start. How have your collaborators helped to shape its development, through the process of grant applications and beyond into training proper?

NA: In terms of the general structure of the training program—with respect to a spectrum of scenarios moving from Forum to circuit—it remains more or less as I had envisioned it at the outset. But it crystallized into its current form over many conversations with Yasmine. On the ground, the program has continued to develop to include additional types of scenarios: what we’ve called ‘What If’ scenarios, where study participants (or officer-trainees) develop their own scenarios in collaboration with our actors that re-enact a mental crisis call trainees themselves have already encountered in the real world as an opportunity to ‘replay’ it and get feedback from our multidisciplinary training team. Further, the exact structure and management of the high-intensity scenarios (this is the point in the program’s training week where officers’ de-escalation skills are assessed) took shape over many conversations with Yasmine and one of our trainers and scenario-writers, LJ Nelles, both of whom have extensive former experience running OSCEs or exam circuits with actors/Simulated Patients in medical training contexts.

What developed most from my initial vision, and over the course of many discussions, was the method to build an evidence-base for the study. Jennifer designed a sophisticated plan of data collection to ensure we were getting reliable data that would allow us to measure intra-officer changes pre- and post-training. She also designed a consumer satisfaction survey to measure whether there are changes in the region of our partnering police service in terms of people’s perceptions of and satisfaction with police response to mental crisis. We plan to track these consumer responses as officers move through the training over the four years of our study.

With Yasmine’s guidance, we’ve continued to fine-tune the structure of what we’re calling the ‘Forum Scenarios’—the stop-and-playback method that allows officer-trainees to step in and try a host of de-escalation tactics and communication skills while receiving feedback from a multidisciplinary team of instructors: a mental health clinician, a person with lived experience of mental illness, a police trainer, and an intercultural communications expert. Yasmine is very skilled at facilitating Forum Theatre, drawing on her years of experience using Applied Theatre methods with vulnerable populations, and she’s very attuned to how delicately these Forum Theatre experiences need to be structured. Trainees can easily feel overwhelmed and vulnerable, with all eyes on them, scrutinized by their peers and a team of instructors, so Yasmine developed a nuanced facilitation structure that addresses the power imbalances in the room and ensures that the multiple perspectives at play have sufficient room to be heard.

KS: What lessons about interdisciplinary, cross-platform collaboration have you learned that would be worth sharing with other T&P academics?

NA: I think in this political moment, we have an opportunity to harness performance’s potential to foster genuine interdisciplinary, cross-platform collaboration, especially if we take in earnest Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblett’s claim that performance is an ‘organizing concept’.[1]Think about the potential in that. What if we work seriously to understand performance studies as an inter-discipline, one that at its best becomes a means of organizing and bringing together multiple perspectives around the core principles we as researchers value in performance—the doing, the behaving, the embodying; attempting to inhabit different vantage points and constructing hypothetical visions of the world to imagine what’s possible. These principles are integral and foundational to allinvestigative research, but theatre and performance researchers are the ones with the expert insight to support their broad-spectrum application. I think T&P academics have much to offer when we think of performance as a kind of methodological container for interdisciplinary research—a container that holds the research but whose shape is plastic and responsive to those working within it.

KS: Our issue is about the role that theatre and performance already plays—but also could better play—in the neoliberal university, and it’s dedicated to strategizing around impact on our own terms (or, perhaps, on terms framed by performance, to pick up on the spirit of your comments above). When you talk to administrators, industry partners, or others outside our field, how do you describe this project? Is ‘theatre’ as a mobile learning platform part of your description?

NA: I describe it as ‘scenario-based, de-escalation training’ and the scenario-based approach instantly makes the connection for people between theatre/performance and this project. I talk about theatre in terms of the methodology it offers of scenario-based thinking, planning, and learning, which lies at the core of this study. I think that approach best—and most readily, for non-specialists—conveys what performance has to offer across disciplines.

Scenario planning is, I think, one of the most viable ways in which we can transmit what performance has to offer to other areas of public life—and areas that sorely need our support! Scenario planning has, since the 1990s, acquired much traction (and scrutiny) across a host of industries as a way of anticipating and imagining all possible futures—a core theme that ran through my 2018 book, which this current project extends. Scenario planning immediately conveys the centrality of performance as integral to these kinds of ‘logic modelling’ exercises that require environments to be created and ideas to be tested in hypothetical, high-fidelity contexts. I think this is what theatre does best. Scenario planning is actually a kind of neo-naturalist approach to the idea of theatre-as-laboratory, one taken beyond the stage proper to address social justice issues with all of the necessary community stakeholders at the table.

KS: How has the work on this project shaped the way you think about the role of T&P in your individual institution? Are you thinking differently at all? Have you caught the eye of administrators or other change-agents who are now beginning to think differently about the work we do as ‘theatre’ scholars?

NA: Since moving to Ryerson University (in Toronto) in 2018, I was very pleased to hear my Dean, Charles Falzon, in one of our very first meetings, key in to what this project suggests about the potential of performance in ways he hadn’t considered before. He acknowledged that ‘theatre’ for most people tends to invoke this idea of actors on a stage performing for an audience in a discrete/contained environment. And while he was careful not to diminish the power that theatre proper has in these contexts, he also expressed his excitement about what, for him, was this new and comparatively under-explored idea of performance’s potential in the public sphere—as a paradigm for thinking and a nexus for cross-disciplinary collaboration. For my Dean, it allowed him to understand how performance fits within his broader vision for the Faculty of Communication and Design, which is heavily invested in the idea of creative innovation. I left that meeting with the distinct impression that the project had already changed preconceived notions of what performance does and can do for someone in a senior position at a university that is at the forefront of thinking about new ways university students and researchers can contribute to important community and industry conversations in Canada. And I get the distinct sense that it’s opened up the scope in administrators’ minds here of the reach of performance-based research, particularly in terms of its social impact.

[1]See Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s allusion to the idea of performance ‘as an organizing concept for a wide range of behaviour’ (2002, 25) in her essay, ‘Performance studies’ in The Performance Studies Reader.


Tactics, Practical and Imagined

Summer is over; time to head back into the classroom – at least in my neck of the woods. Others of you may still be enjoying a much-needed holiday; still others may already be hard at work. Wherever you are in the cycle, though, no doubt you’re wondering where the summer went, and where you’ll find the time to do all the stuff looming up on the horizon.


What I did on my summer vacation: glamour shots of the Anglesey coast in northern Wales. Bye, summer…

At the start of last (winter) term I reflected in this space on planning my upcoming semester. I can report that the exercise I trialed and discussed (and which I got from academic coach Jo Van Every) was extremely useful in keeping me organized, on track, and also kind to myself as January slushed into February and slip-slid into March. (If you missed that post, click here.)

This time, I’m offering something different: a list of survival tactics.

Below, you’ll find another bit of swag from my newly-published issue of Research in Drama Education – the full text of a feature I co-authored with Sharon L. Green, Diana Damian Martin, Clara Nizard, Theron Schmidt, and Max Schulman, all of whom participated in the issue-themed roundtable I held (with Diana, Katherine Low, Rebecca Hayes Laughton, and Sylvan Baker) at ASTR last November. Following the text, there’s a link to the published article on the RiDE website, free to the first fifty who click.

This feature is called “Tactics: Practical and Imagined” and it distills in deliberately bite-sized form the core of the issue’s goal: to share with one another proven practical ideas, as well as just-yet-maybe notions, for getting through it all each day – and doing better by ourselves, our colleagues, and our students in the process.

Our collected tactics are personal and may often seem quite small in scope, but rest assured they are in no way designed to let our institutions or their increasingly commercialized cultures off the hook. What they are is realistic in their avowal that it’s often the day-to-day that breaks us – and therefore the day-to-day that needs to be made better as we struggle onward to change the future of our workplaces.

Please enjoy, pass along – and if you want a published copy, but the free download link has stopped working, just email me directly at




Clara, thinking about care… especially of students.

Step away from commitments to rest. Keep the pot as close as possible to the stove-top (become feminist cooks). Find your ‘equity and diversity crew’. Babysit each other’s kids when away for work. Become a mentor. Pay students in training or cash. Have a citation policy in your research. Recommend books and events. Circulate resources. Go to events together. Put care at the front of your practice. Co-create assignments with students. Design a feedback model when collaborating.  Be wrong. Be Out. Drop-in ‘queer’ as often as possible. Have 1:1 meetings. Facilitate access to support. Be powered by joy. Talk about Weinstein. Discuss larger issues. Work with compassion. Make room for emotions. Be personal. Be reflexive. Experiment with forms. Craft alternative methodologies. Account for feelings. Allow people to enter discussion from a place of feeling. Have an open-door policy. Sit with people when they book mental health appointments. Walk people to their mental health appointments. Archive what you do. Share your archives. Make resources open-access. Build alliances. Curate feminist networks. Pass around tools. Pass around power. Develop feminist ears. Listen for the silence (harassment work). Do not stay in a job that personally damages you. Self-care is warfare. Transform the organisation that employs you. Make banners. Put up posters. Make theory work for you. Theory is a tool. Take theory seriously. Make better tables. Hang laundry outside. Organise Long Tables. Porch-sit.


Images from our inaugural issue-themed workshop, at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in December 2017, are scattered throughout the published version of this feature; I include a few here. In this one, the brilliant Gary Anderson gives his keynote in his hotel room near Central (for good reason – trust me!).

Sharon, thinking about interdisciplinary collaborations.

How to bring others to the table?

Invite them. Meet them on their turf. Invite them early.

Spend time learning about what matters to them. Gauge their interest first, then invite them to participate in whatever way is meaningful for them (be prepared that this may be different than you expect).

Take someone to coffee and learn about their work and interests; ask them to be involved in something small and low stakes/low prep then use this as an opportunity to gauge continued, more in-depth collaborative interest.

Find and meet staff stakeholder, show them how collaboration/participation with your project will help meet their own goals.

Expect to spend a lot of time learning, cultivating new relationships, and drinking coffee.

Walk across campus and see what life is like from a new point of view.

Cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with both junior and senior colleagues; expect to be challenged, to change course, to learn new stuff.

Attend talks/lectures/events organized by other departments/colleagues, then stay after the talk to meet those colleagues and thank them for the event; do the same for student events.

Send an email note of thanks to a colleague for an event that you particularly enjoyed – tell them why it mattered to you.

Find out where the money is and how to get it to support your work. And when you get it, prioritize paying people for their labour.

Invite stakeholders or potential future collaborators to apply with you for funding a project; ask them how you and your work can also support their goals.

Pay attention to who is sitting at the table with you and who isn’t. Ask yourself how you can shift structures to be more inclusive if you don’t see and hear a diversity of ideas, points of view, and experiences.

Offer something concrete, if possible, to collaborators in return: guest talk in a class, give a backstage tour of an upcoming production, offer coaching a performance-based exercise in a non-performance class, or plan a joint field trip.


Our amazing student/colleague Rebecca Hayes Laughton, who kept a visual record of the Central symposium for us, December 2017.

Kim, thinking about decolonizing teaching.

Be open and transparent with students at the beginning of each semester about your own goals, about the amount of work teaching is, about how you negotiate its labour – let them see you as a worker, not just a professor.

reconfigure your classroom space a few times in a few different ways so that everyone in the room can experience it physically from another point of view (including yours).

be willing to say you don’t know the answer; be willing to ask everyone to help you try to find the answer.

Invite colleagues to go out for coffee and talk about teaching.

stop colleagues in the hall or drop into colleagues’ office to ask how their classes are going.

visit the teaching centre on your campus to get connected to other colleagues in other disciplines who are interested in the questions you have about teaching.

Offer to speak with your graduate students about teaching issues and challenges, even if they are not your assigned TA.

check in with your graduate students about their wellbeing at key points in the semester.

set limits on the time you will spend on teaching tasks each week (prepping, marking, responding to emails) and try logging these limits in your calendar.

AND: If you feel the urge to bypass these limits, remind yourself that GOOD ENOUGH is good enough!


One of many visual documents of our labour, December 2017.

Diana, thinking about working across contexts (between academia the wider cultural sector).

share the resources where possible to the benefit of those outside of the institution whose labour is fundamental to its pedagogical and research cultures. place pressure on transparency of pay and be aware that the university upholds hierarchies of knowledge – do not participate in that. work in alliance to change structures that do not foster multiple routes, forms and ways of work of academic practice. invite those who are critical and do not be defensive. circulate resources. be open with students, and do not traffic in narratives that are harmful or reductive. be an ally to colleagues and to students. make space for other ways of working. strive for plurality. share toolkits and knowledge. talk about failures and be accountable. name and make space for collaborators, especially those whose work is outside academia and who often get left out. learn ways and modes of listening; pay attention to where you are. make a case for knowledge-production as a shared endeavour. keep your door open. build alliances. work collectively. unpack affects and how they shape you and others – think about how they might be in the space differently. organise spaces for conversation. share opportunities and share your knowledge about processes, institutional jargon and structures, which are often impenetrable for students, early career researchers, and cultural workers on the outside.


Rachel Hann claims her space, as Kat Low mugs in the background, December 2017.

Max, asking: how can we use first-year “intro to uni” courses to help reposition or reorient theatre studies (discipline, department, mission) within the institution, and within the community, in a productive way? 

There are inherent skills and capacities within theatre studies that make it an effective and nimble player on campus. It is especially in its practical and “applied” capacities that theatre can work toward larger campus-wide change by providing 1) opportunity and tools for dialogue, 2) general dissemination of information, 3) empathetic and embodied learning. How might we target moments of campus or community gathering as places where those skills (through Boalian exercises, ensemble creation, applied theatre exercises) can be of most use? Rather than focusing on specific courses or creating events in order to enact these practices, what curricular or administrative instances already exist that might benefit from our involvement?

An example. Many universities have a required course for incoming freshmen that act as an introduction to campus life as well as an introduction to some kind of critical thinking that they will use in their college careers. I wonder: how unified are these gateway courses across academia? At my university these courses are primarily team-taught pet projects with intriguing titles. But perhaps there is a way to strategically use these courses as a way of setting standards for discourse on campus.

“Intro-to-uni” classes are often focused on negotiating campus life, along with the development of skills necessary for success at the university more broadly. Imagine, then, a curriculum component or tool focused on embodiment and dialogue that was inserted into all freshman gateway courses? Imagine a group of thirty freshmen exploring concepts of diversity, independence, depression, STEAM vs STEM, and more through Boalian sculpting or curated improvisations.

The eventual (perhaps utopian) idea is that every student on campus will then have engaged in a version of an applied theatre studies curriculum, and developed basic tools of embodiment and observation, as core to their learning alongside standard Socratic dialogue or didactic practice. Perhaps, too, they will discover the power of the former early, and know that it is okay to jump in, make noise, stand up, step back, and breath.


Theron, imagining the classroom as social practice.

Imagine the classroom as social practice. Consider that this class is not separate from the power relations we study but is an instance of them. Ask everyone to read Jo Freeman’s ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’. De-invisibilize the structures we are working with and within. Model different ways of thinking, sharing, responding, making decisions. Work in silent collaboration. Take an unguided walk together. Allow five minutes of uninterrupted speech from everyone, not just those used to talking. Cultivate active listening from everyone, not just those used to being quiet. Let silence be equally valued as a form of expression. Take turns demonstrating non-directive leadership, so everyone gets a go. Try out preferential voting systems rather than binary ones. Borrow from histories of consensus-based processes. Remember that ‘formal consensus works best in an atmosphere in which conflict is encouraged, supported, and resolved cooperatively with respect, nonviolence, and creativity’ ( Adopt principles from Open Space, such as: whoever is here are the right people; or, if you’re not getting or contributing something it is your responsibility to move to a conversation where you are – and if such a conversation doesn’t yet exist then it is up to you to start it. Craft neutral questions, or even try avoiding questions at all. Value the richness of individual experience and non-verbal knowledge. Explore resiliency as an anti-individualist practice. Use terms like ‘anti-racism’, ‘emotional labour’, ‘hidden curriculum’, and ‘intentional community’ so they become part of ordinary conversation.  Don’t mistake any structure for an ideal one, but compare the affordances of each, its inclusions and exclusions, its dramaturgy and its politics.

And then do the same in the department meeting. And then at the university council. When it looks less like a boardroom, it will act less like one, too.

[Read four more bite-size tacticals here. Link not working? Email me!]


Saying Hello: An Introduction, and a Meditation on Beginning of Term Introduction Activities

Hello All – I’m Kelsey Blair! I do a lot of things: I research and write about performance, sport, circus, and musical theatre; I work as a sessional instructor at a university; I write basketball novels for ten to thirteen year old girls; I make theatre; I watch daytime soap operas; I play and coach and administrate sports, and I recently (unofficially) ordained a wedding! Now, I also work with Kim and help curate the Activist Classroom. And, you know what? I couldn’t be more excited about it!

Kelsey, ordaining a wedding, a performance that felt a lot like teaching but with better lighting.

It is fitting to introduce myself to this blog the first week of September, the start of term at most Canadian and American universities. As an instructor, I often feel like the first week of class is an introduction-juggling act:

“Meet me! Meet my teaching style! Meet the course content! Meet the assignments! Meet the reading schedule! Meet the policies! Meet each other!”

I find facilitating this last introduction (between students) challenging. This is particularly true in smaller classes where interaction is a vital part of the course. I have tried many of the standard introduction activities: partner introductions; small group introductions; class-wide activities (Arts majors, back corner! Business majors, front corner!). Most students will go through the motions – especially if I throw the full force of my enthusiasm behind them. But, I’ve often felt dissatisfied with the results.

In a lot of ways, this dissatisfaction is a product of the tension I feel between the pedagogy of post-secondary education and the bureaucracy of teaching in a post-secondary institution.

On the one hand, I truly believe that students learn better in smaller classes if there is a sense of temporary community. Community doesn’t just manifest. It takes time and work. On the other hand, colleges and universities are, by their very nature, policy-heavy institutions. Part of my job is to create, implement, and, to my occasional dismay, enforce policies. Both of these things need to be done starting the first day of the course, and it’s hard to do them simultaneously.

Not only that, the start of term is introduction-saturated for students, and I’ve found that key information – like, you know, their classmates’ names – often doesn’t stick.

So, last semester, I tried something different. Rather than doing a quick, high-energy, activity, I opted for a slower, more creative, student-to-student intro activity: mug decorating.

For context, the course was a once-a week, three-hour, upper year undergraduate theatre course in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia. The topic of the course was performance studies. There were fourteen students, most of whom were third and fourth year theatre studies or theatre production undergraduates. I had taught twelve of the fourteen students before – in either lecture or seminar classes – so most of the students knew me, but many did not know each other. My aims for the activity were four-fold:

  1. To provide dedicated class-time to introductions, demonstrating the importance of interpersonal communication and community in the context of the course.

  2. To find a creative, and hopefully somewhat more memorable way, to get students to introduce themselves to one another.

  3. To create re-usable “name-tags” (the mugs) that students could 1) put out in front of them every class, to help with name prompting, and 2) use for beverages throughout the semester.

  4. To encourage the students to begin to apply the week’s readings.

To prep for the activity, I purchased fourteen mugs, a large green bin (for storing), and dish soap from a local dollar store. When the first day of class came, I gathered markers, string, tape, and really a lot of stickers from my teaching supplies cupboard and threw everything in the green bin.

I began class by working through my “performance of the syllabus” and did a discussion/activity that engaged with the week’s readings. Then, I turned to the mugs. After introducing the activity, the students enthusiastically started decorating. I was feeling chuffed.


Then, I attempted to facilitate a conversation.

To get the students thinking about the relation between the readings and our activity, I asked questions like: What gets carried out when we say our favourite colour is green, pink, or maroon? How do we interpret other people’s “introduction performances”? What information (gesture, tone of voice, colour choice) inflects our interpretations?

The questions worked well enough but facilitating discussion was a challenge. I struggled to balance the informal vibe of the crafting activity — which encouraged an organic flow of multiple conversations — with in-depth and focussed discussion that encouraged consecutive, rather than overlapping, discussion.

In the end, the students decorated their mugs, but I’m not sure they thought much about performance. I walked out a little disheartened and moderately concerned. Was it the end of the world that the conversation wasn’t as rigorous as I’d imagined? No. Was it ideal, especially on the first day of class? It was not.

Would I try the activity again?

Despite the bobbled discussion facilitation, I think I would. The mugs were used as nametags throughout the first half of semester, which helped students call each other by name (full disclosure: I kept the mugs and brought them weekly so the students couldn’t lose or forget them. I also brought dish soap and insisted that they put the mugs in front of them on the table for the first six weeks of class). The crafting did encourage low-stakes student interaction. And, most importantly for me, the mugs prompted the actions of community – sharing the tape, passing stickers from person to person. So, even if the execution could have been better, the activity still achieved some of its goals, and in doing so, helped unsettle some of that tension I often feel around introductory exercises.

What are your favourite introduction activities?


Welcome to The Activist Classroom 2.0

When I began writing this blog in March 2013, I hoped it would do something I very much needed at the time: create some breathing room.

I had moved countries and jobs, and my new professional responsibilities had crowded out much of the space I needed for thinking through my teaching, beyond the nuts and bolts of weekly prep and marking. I started The Activist Classroom as a place where I could simply reflect: on what was going well, or poorly; on moments of success and failure; on tools I’d discovered that might help make my practice better. The writing helped me sleep at night.

After some early and spectacular teaching pratfalls – bawling my face off in front of a room of startled first-year English students at Dalhousie in 1997 remains, truly, my finest teaching hour – I had developed a thick(ish) skin and a capacity for openness and transparency. And I’d long since learned that the quickest way to escape a pedagogical pickle was to be honest about the problem – with my students, with my colleagues, and with myself – and then to invite feedback. The blog’s voice developed from my natural tendency to overshare in public, coupled with my earnest willingness to expose my shortcomings in the service of learning.


The blog’s focus, though, always owed its origins to my time as a postdoctoral fellow in the Performance as a Public Practice stream at the University of Texas at Austin. PPP advocates performance as a tool for shaping social change and activating thoughtful, critical citizenship; it put performance as a means, and social activism as a goal, together for me at the beginning of my life as a full-time teacher. To this day I believe that teaching is a performance of citizenship, one in which instructors model intellectual curiosity, open-minded and collaborative knowledge-building, and encourage students to understand learning as an investment in a shared, equitable future. It is what my scholarly mentor at Austin (and fellow feminist blogger) Jill Dolan might call an especially powerful utopian performative.

Lately, though, I have found myself running a bit empty. While the blog remains a cherished reflection space for me, I’ve also become weary of the labour of finding new ways to say many of the same things I’ve already said. And I’ve grown a bit sick of my own voice, truthfully; I am only one teacher, and my perspective, however hard I work to bring other voices into my writing here, dominates. This isn’t how any good classroom should work: classrooms are at their best when they are collaborative spaces.


Cut to the end of June. Kelsey Blair – women’s basketball guru, young adult author, newly minted SFU PhD incoming postdoctoral fellow at McGill University – grabs me out of the post-luncheon fray during the annual conference of the Canadian Association for Theatre Research. Kelsey tells me how much she admires the blog – a kindness I have appreciated from so many grad student and early career readers, thank you! – and then asks me:

Have you ever considered opening the blog up to other voices?


Friends, have I ever!

Fast forward to high summer. Kelsey has agreed to take on the proper job of Activist Classroom curator and co-producer; we’ve spent time in person (with donuts) and on Skype (with coffee) planning and visioning a reboot of this much-cherished (for both of us) space. We’ve developed a mandate for The Activist Classroom under renovation; it captures what we both feel is most worth holding onto as we move forward in collaboration.

Here it is.

What does it mean to be a human being standing in front of a classroom, performing? 

How do the things that happen inside our classrooms affect our lives outside the classroom? How does our teaching teaching practice participate in, affect, and even shape, public discourse? 

What is an activist classroom and why should we strive to create one?

The Activist Classroom is a teaching commons populated by a diverse community of curators, contributors, and readers.

We understand pedagogy to be a process, an always-shifting practice that requires regular thinking through and tending; we recognize teachers to be committed, creative professionals, but also imperfect human beings who likewise need regular care, tending, and support.

The site began in 2013 as a blog about pedagogy and performance; today, the AC retains its core emphasis on the active, inherently theatrical elements of teaching practice. We understand post-secondary teaching as an essential form of public performance, in which teachers and students work together to figure out the script, devise a better plot, and work through the challenges that collaborative knowledge-making inevitably creates.

Our content includes accessible, free, and above all honest responses to the challenges and joys of teaching. Our goal is to provide a wide range of tools and possible solutions for supporting teaching practice, and to advance our understanding about what teaching accomplishes in and beyond our classrooms.

We welcome contributions in a variety of formats and lengths, from short essays and interviews, to videos, to memes and gifs.


The shift from single-author blog to teaching commons will take place under Kelsey’s curation over the next few months. We aim to be as inclusive and equitable as possible in building this new common space, and we are excited to share contributions from teachers across the career spectrum, teachers both inside and beyond academic theatre and performance studies, and teachers whose embodied experiences represent a range of ways of looking at and shaping the future of our shared learning endeavours.

My voice will recede as the commons evolves, though I will remain a regular (if less frequent) contributor. I’m thankful to have had so much time, space, and opportunity over the last six years to share thoughts on my practice in this space, and I’m excited to discover and learn from our new community members.

Let The Activist Classroom 2.0 take shape!

With gratitude to you all for reading,