Theater offers the opportunity of letting marginalized stories be told, giving voice to folks who don't get heard very often.

Professor of Theatre Gary Grant gravitates toward the avant-garde and non-traditional "I strive to find the deeper story, the 'other' story," he says.

A scholar of theater history, dramatic literature and criticism, Grant has studied playwrights such as Sam Shepard and directors including Jerzy Grotowski, and he is currently focusing on how theatre can serve purposes beyond entertainment to address social issues by connecting with audience as participant through a genre known as applied or interactive theater. "There are many different avenues for theatre to be used to address community problems," says Grant, "but the two best-known types are called playback theatre and theatre of the oppressed."

After teaching the theory and practice of these types of theatre to students in the classroom, Grant sends the students into prisons, detention centers, schools and other institutions to engage with the group who are both the actors and spectators, or "spect-actors," as Augusto Boal, the originator of Theatre of the Oppressed, calls them.

"In playback theater, somebody gets up and tells a story, and other people in the audience enact the story for that person," Grant explains. Akin to therapy in a way, the participants are given the opportunity to explore new options. "Sometimes you change the ending of the story, perhaps changing what actually happened, to explore how the teller would have done things differently."

"Interactive theater can really make a difference," Grant says. "In the Theatre of the Oppressed, a scenario is presented with a problem, and anyone in the audience can get up, take the role of the protagonist and act out solutions to the problem. With our Educational Theatre Company,  we help professors to use theater to teach chemical reactions, explore communication problems in management scenarios, create sermons that use liturgical dance. Theater now becomes a practice that can be broadly used for a variety of reasons."

Of course theater is also meant to entertain, and as a musical theater director, Grant collaborates with a staff of light, sound, set and costume designers, a choreographer, musical director and actors to present "unique" theater. The production team might present a Broadway-style production, but to Grant it's important that they search for their own interpretations and ask questions relevant to today's college campus.

"I think that theater allows other people's stories to be told; stories other than the main cultural story that we hear, whether it's in mainstream theater, mainstream film, even in commercials. Theater offers the opportunity of letting marginalized stories be told, giving voice to folks who don't get heard very often."

Ultimately, the audience is drawn in and able to identify with something they've experienced. "Theatre recreates life using its own methods and conventions. Theatre has the capacity to move people deeply and also to make people think. That's what makes theater so great," he says. "That's why we have such a passion to do it."

Posted March 28, 2012