October 23, 2015

The lessons of the cemetery

Downtown Bloomsburg from the point of view
of those who lived and worked here.
I first learned the term "experiential learning" as a piece of jargon or buzzword. It was eduspeak. For a time, perhaps still, it was a way of communicating to funders and others about the value of what we did as theatre educators. The term was valuable to them as a way of understanding not what we were teaching, but the way we were teaching. Our teaching methods were not as recognizable as rote memorization, the drilling of on-paper exercises, or reading the test-approved texts. 

I don't know what the official definition is now, if there is one, but I have learned more about my own definition. My approach to teaching college students includes a focus on experiential learning. For me it's about getting out of the classroom and about doing stuff when we are in the classroom.

This week I took my Bloomsburg University playwriting class to the Rosemont Cemetery. (It wasn't the first time I took students to a cemetery. I also took one of my acting classes a couple of years ago, but for different reasons. They were performing pieces from Spoon River Anthology, a series of poem-monologues spoken by the residents of a cemetery. Published in 1915, many of the permanent residents of the Espy, PA cemetery lived and died around the same time as these characters.) This week's lesson theme is "How can a playwright find inspiration in current events, history and research?" Our artist research sometimes include traditional academic methods of delving into books and other scholarly sources, but the research is also going to places in reality and in one's imagination to mine inspiration. 

The culminating project for student playwrights is writing a 10-minute play inspired by Bloomsburg town history. In class we looked at the fantastic resources of our own Andruss Library Archives and the Columbia County Historical and Genealogical Society archives. We traveled to the cemetery to find more immediate and visceral inspiration: the people of Bloomsburg. 

Playwrights conclude their research session
and return to life-in-progress.
The names on the stones are fantastic. Inspiration in themselves. Catharine Kressler, Philip Unangst, Margaret Metz. The fact that the Sheep and Peacock families are buried so close to one another.  The numerology of the life and death of Augustus Mason: b. Feb. 17, 1817, d. Feb. 17, 1879.  The students saw the names of the buildings on the university campus –  McCormick, Waller, Hartline. And we were all impacted by the many stones that read "Infant child" or a name with only one year indicating that the child did not make it past one year old. 

I encouraged the playwrights to take in the names, but also the entire atmosphere of the cemetery and it's relationship to the town around it. I asked them to ask questions, to become curious and investigative. What else would they want to know about these people? This cemetery? This town? It didn't take much encouragement to set them to exploring the cemetery. They had inspiration all around them.

I am looking forward to hearing the first reading of their plays.