Reimagining the open scene: ambiguity and feminist pedagogy

In my Introduction to Acting course at Brooklyn College I strive to enact feminist pedagogy through the cultivation of a collaborative learning environment emphasizing mutual respect and accountability. I treat the course as a lab in which students explore ways of being present on stage and begin to build their own acting process. In addition to the classroom environment I endeavor to facilitate, I see feminist pedagogy as having two primary aims. First, it encourages students to recognize and think critically about the power structures and ideologies that condition their world and its representations. Second, it prompts students to imagine how this might be challenged or how society might operate otherwise.

One of the exercises I come back to throughout the semester is the open scene. The open scene consists of between 2 and 20 lines of intentionally ambiguous dialogue, attributed to unidentified characters. In order to perform the scene, the students must establish the relationships and circumstances of the scene. The open scene has a number of pedagogical functions, but I like it because it challenges the understanding of acting as a project primarily in service to the vision of others (directors or playwright). The open scene models the liberatory capacity of interpretation and demonstrates how texts can be reimagined. Last fall, I intentionally gave several groups the same scene, hoping the students would see how varied yet still valid interpretations of the scene could be. However, my students gravitated towards familiar scripts. A number of students staged one of the scenes in the same way: as a clichéd break up in which a heteronormative relationship ended as the male character cruelly left the pining female. When I brought this up, the students laughed and were able to critique this interpretation. I asked the students to try again and encouraged them to think more creatively about the circumstances of the scene. The result was a number of scenes about alien and zombie battles. They had chosen to avoid the political challenge of the scene, and gravitated towards a different set of (rather militarized) clichés. This, I think, attests to the challenge of deviating from accepted and familiar scripts. It demonstrates the limits normative ways of being and interacting place on the imagination. Even when power structures, ideologies, or injustices are recognized it can be quite difficult to take the next step towards reimagining the world.

In this instance the open scene both achieved and did not achieve the goals of feminist pedagogy. In imagining the possibilities for the scene, my students hit a bit of a wall. However it stimulated a productive conversation that allowed us to bring feminist concerns into the classroom and which continued to percolate as students approached their more structured scene work. These conversations were always a bit reluctant, though. Because of the nature of our classroom environment and the task of acting, my students are quite comfortable discussing their personal challenges as well as being playful and uninhibited with each other. However, I have not been entirely successful in helping them build bridges between the personal and the political and between their free imaginative engagement and critical thinking. I am quite eager to hear your strategies to help students make these connections.