Last semester, a team of Georgetown professors and students partnered with Patrick Henry College, a Christian institution in rural Purcellville, Virginia, to write and perform a brand-new theatrical piece. In Your Shoes is the work of Professor Derek Goldman, co-director of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown; Professor Daniel Brumberg, an Associate Professor in the Department of Government; and Patrick Henry professors Cory Grewell and Mark Mitchell. The performers are ten students: five from Georgetown and five from Patrick Henry College.
Students at each institution have been meeting several times throughout the year. Through meaningful dialogue, they grew to know each other deeply, delving into conversations of identity and faith. They recorded and transcribed these perspectives, later performing them theatrically as personal monologues. The show will synthesize those works into a moving piece about putting oneself “in the shoes” of another perspective.
The Voice spoke to Professors Goldman, Brumberg, and Grewell to find out more.
Tell me a little about how the project and how it got started.
Well, I direct the Program in Democracy and Governance at Georgetown, focusing on issues of democratization… over the past two years, we’ve recognized that there are challenges to US democracy that have become quite severe, and one of them is polarization. We have communities living in separate bubbles that don’t talk to one another. I wanted to find an interesting way to approach this problem in a more hands on way. My friend and colleague Professor Goldman… we met and began to piece this thing together in spring of 2018. The piece is a way to communicate that is not explicitly political, but does get at deeper political questions and social issues, built around questions of identity, home, and community.
What tools did the students at both schools employ to engage with each other? What strategies did they use to recreate and perform each other’s narratives?
The power of [our strategy] “performing one another” is the mutual call and response, recording the conversation, attending to the things that someone says… It means really listening in a deeper way. The students really look at the texture of what they are sharing with each other… Part of the power of this is the experience of seeing someone perform you, literally. You think, “Oh, I didn’t know I felt that way.”
What inspired the partnership with Patrick Henry?
Professor Brumberg: Georgetown University is, of course, a Catholic institution…. So I thought of reaching out to an evangelical school, where religion is perhaps even more front and center, and that is perhaps more of a conservative institution. Patrick Henry is reasonably close, so our students can go back and forth. Being together, being in each other’s spaces is part of the dynamic. The two places were different in identity, and we hoped that would make a great partnership. Derek recruited our students, five, and Cory [Grewell] recruited theirs… We weren’t looking, per se, for theatre students. We were looking for [diverse academic backgrounds]… because this is a different show.
Was there anything unanticipated that developed during practice and creation?
Professor Goldman: The honest truth is that it’s all felt unanticipated. By which I mean… generally, it’s about bringing people together in dialogue. It’s reactive. It’s been profoundly moving to me. Lots of things have surprised me. The depth, openness, and candor with which students of quite different perspectives have been willing to share with each other in this space, around really deep, existential, philosophical questions about why we’re here, and meaning, and faith… that’s been hard in one way. But actually even more than that, around loneliness…racial and sexual identity… stuff has surfaced that is quite charged, quite personal. Many students have felt that they’re able to share things that they would never share among friends, on their own campuses… where on the surface, they may even have deeper affinities.
Professor Brumberg: In terms of the issue of faith, for many Georgetown students, faith is a journey, it’s constructed as they go through this. For the students at Patrick Henry, they have this deep faith in an institution that’s there. Faith gives them certitude. Those dynamics… that’s very interesting to hear articulated.
Professor Goldman: I would say that that’s generally true that the Patrick Henry students experienced God and faith as a sort of center… most of that seems solved. What’s been dramatic and rich… is the complexity of perspectives. Even some of the students that lead with faith… have written wonderful work that’s all about doubt. We all make general assumptions about groups of people, but this production reminds us of how complicated that spectrum is… there are layers of identity that get peeled away.
Professor Brumberg: It doesn’t matter how certain you are in your faith… these are all young people who are growing up… what they share is this angst and concern in life and in meaning.
How did you move from conversation to performance? What has guided the transition?
We had to go from all that to writing a script that was performed publicly. They can only perform what they’re comfortable sharing, and no more.
Professor Goldman: It’s been important to me that the point is not, “we’re putting on a play together, and there’s a production at the end.” The point is actually the conversations, and performance is the methodology.
What will the final performance look like?
Professor Goldman: It’s an ensemble piece woven with movement, gesture, and music, but the focus is simply on the faith and the identity of the students. It’s the monologues. There’s an elegance to the form [that we have] to find, while being faithful to the material.
Professor Grewell, what was the most gratifying aspect of the production for you?
Professor Grewell: I think watching how the students have challenged each others’ assumptions in a productive way throughout the process of this piece. They see each other in a different light now, and I think they’re actually quite surprised at how close of friends they have all become. They’ve gotten to be really close friends, and that’s been wonderful.
What do you want viewers to take away from the show?
Professor Grewell: That’s a great question. I would want them to see how possible it is to forge mutual empathy and understanding when we just sit down and talk to each other. We’re doing the script now, and when we put it together there are some pretty divergent worldviews. But we can speak lovingly to each other, as Professor Goldman might say. We can find common ground in the things that are obvious, but meaningful, too: the students found common ground in dealing with college, where they come from, what home and family means to all of them. They had the common experience of being human, and when we removed the political labels, we could see that. Faith and values was where divergence happened.
This piece was very student-led. What did you and your colleagues learn from the experience of directing it?
Professor Grewell: Well, Professor Goldman should take the lion’s share of credit. He and Daniel taught me an awful lot just by being great colleagues. From them I’ve gotten experience with this kind of major project. I’ve learned how to facilitate dialogue. There’s a lot of applications from that, whether for facilitating dialogue in the classroom or in any other place where humans talk to each other. Also, I’ve learned so much from the students, how open minded they tend to be. You have to bridge ideological gaps. Even between [Professor Goldman and Brumberg] and I, I’m guessing there are political gaps between the three of us, but we talk to each other productively. Hey, Derek and I, we found out we’re both Red Sox fans.
Georgetown students can see In Your Shoes on Thursday, April 25th at 7:30 p.m. in the Davis Performing Arts Center on campus.