In 2019, UVA faculty and administrators added a dynamic new tool to their communications toolbox with the arrival of UVA Acts, an educational theatre program promoting equitable, vibrant spaces for working and learning. Cortney McEniry, the program’s inaugural artistic director and program manager, spent the last year working with the Center for Teaching Excellence, the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs, and a team of actors from throughout the UVA and Charlottesville communities to create live and in-person programs that offer a new way of experiencing and understanding how to promote understanding and inclusivity across Grounds.
Then, as it did for all of us, 2020 happened.
McEniry engineered a quick pivot, with UVA Acts creating more than 20 presentations in the fall semester alone. Like most of us, she is both grateful for what the virtual option has offered and mindful of its limitations. “I remain convinced that there is something to being with other people as we are having conversations and witnessing performance,” McEniry said, “and Zoom has not changed my mind on that.”
Her conversations with UVA faculty, she said, have offered a silver lining. “I am so grateful for the resilience of many of my colleagues who are both figuring out how to teach in a whole new way as well as how to support students, as well as themselves, through a really difficult time. That’s been really powerful.”
Also powerful, McEniry said, is the opportunity to do the work that UVA Acts is doing at a time when the tireless work of so many activists is keeping issues around racism, inclusivity, and equity front and center. “My aim is to keep that pressure on at all times through the work that we do, and to think about how we build deeper structures of accountability. How do we build more sustainable connections with the broader community by continuing to do the work we have been doing, even in the course of this pandemic?”
McEniry has seen performance as a key to bridging these gaps since her freshman year at Furman University, when she began working with young people experiencing confinement in juvenile detention centers. She went on to broaden her experience with several professional theatres before landing an internship at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center. “That was when I really started to develop what I now think of as my personal practice,” she said. She followed that experience up by earning an MFA at the University of Texas in Austin, where she studied applied theatre and community-based performance. She was the Director of Community Engagement at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre before her arrival at UVA.
“I believe that performance is a very personal and tangible experience,” McEniry said, “that can stick out in our memories in a way that is different than maybe a PowerPoint or a lecture does. And I think that the dialogic meaning-making that we design in our programs is important because it highlights a skill that we all really need to practice—how we have dialogue across different power structures in honest and authentic ways.”
In addition, she said, theatre allows participants to get outside of their own experiences and to see what things look like in practice, making systems visible in real-time in a way a lecture or memo never could. “We are able to build in a certain amount of vulnerability and comfort for participants in that they are not being asked to talk about their own personal stories. Instead, they are being asked to talk about how they connect with fictional characters, and through that exercise to talk about how they feel about the topic. The other really helpful thing that happens is that different people in the same room are going to see completely different stories, despite having watched the exact same performance. That’s a great opportunity for us to say, ‘OK, let’s talk about why we are seeing these different perspectives.’”
UVA Acts currently offers a variety of programs to UVA faculty and staff. They include an “Inclusive Teaching Tool Kit” program that highlights a range of perspectives and contexts ranging from preparing for the first day of class to examining what inclusive lectures and small group projects look like. There is also a program for search committees that look at how to create more equitable search processes.
Programs under development include “Critical Moments in the Classroom” to help participants understand and deal with issues like microaggressions, the “3x3” short film series, and a new intensive Gender-Inclusive Cultures workshop series.
UVA Acts includes a team of actors drawn from the University, Charlottesville, and regional communities. A student ensemble has also been created but is on hold due to COVID-19. “The team works together to create each piece based on the learning objectives developed with our institutional partners, which include the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and the Center for Teaching Excellence. I work with them to maps out the objectives and to determine what skills we want participants to practice.” McEniry then develops the spine of the pieces, which feature a combination of scripted and improvised material, then works with the actors to flesh them out.
Ajay Limaye, an assistant professor in Environmental Sciences, first came in contact with the program in the fall of 2019 as part of the orientation program for new faculty. UVA Acts presented their “First Days” program. “The biggest thing I remember,” he said, “was that I really didn’t need to be thinking about an actual first lecture, that the whole thing should be much more low pressure. I learned that there are all these subtle ways to be communicating what the class is going to be like, which is really what the students are needing at that point.”
Limaye was struck, he said, by the impact of the performative piece. “They laid it out in a humorous and engaging way,” he said. “So much of the communication we receive from the administration is about policies and deadlines, so I think having this performance really made it easy to empathize with the student experience as opposed to having to imagine it.”
This past year, Limaye said, UVA Acts returned to present to his whole department, this time on the subject of inclusive teaching. “The presentation dug deeper in to thinking about different ways to gauge how students are feeling within a class, and how we can better frame expectations in a way that highlights the challenges ahead while at the same time emphasizing our guiding and nurturing roles.”
One big difference between the two presentations was in their respective formats. The inclusive teaching program was presented via Zoom this year, which added a new layer of support options. “These were soliloquies by the actors that highlighted different issues,” Limaye said. “One that really stuck with me included an actor playing a student experiencing migraines, a situation which might be hard for me to recognize if we are only communicating online. It primed us to think about students facing the kinds of challenges they’re facing, and particularly those challenges that are not going to be apparent if we are just looking at the grade book or at their participation in class.”
One of the keys to the program, McEniry said, is the participation of the faculty through both the preparation and feedback processes. “We involve the faculty in the development process. So, when we pilot a program with faculty, we tell them it should be considered half-baked. We want to hear from them about their experience through the program and get their feedback so we can incorporate it into what we do. It is not feedback for feedback’s sake. It really shapes our program in important ways.”
The feedback from faculty on the program as a whole has been overwhelmingly positive, with 95% of respondents saying UVA Acts has inspired them to do something different In their work.“This is exactly the response we are hoping to see,” McEniry said,“and it means to me that faculty feel equipped to make these changes, which is really important.”