Teaching as Theatre

Dr. Charles F. Urbanowicz / Professor of Anthropology
Department of Anthropology
California State University, Chico
Chico, California 95929-0400
530-898-6220 [Office]; 530-898-6192 [Dept.] FAX: 530-898-6824
e-mail: curbanowicz@csuchico.edu / home page: http://www.csuchico.edu/~curban

13 February 2003 [1]

[This page printed from http://www.csuchico.edu/~curban/StrategiesTwo.html]

This page appears as a chapter in Strategies in Teaching Anthropology, Second Edition (2002), edited by Patricia Rice & David W. McCurdy, Editors (NJ: Prentice Hall), pages 147-149. The first edition ofStrategies In Teaching Anthropology was published in 2000 (also edited by Patricia Rice and David McCurdy and a Prentice-Hall publication) and my chapter entitled "Mnemonics, Quotations, Cartoons, And A Notebook: "Tricks" For Appreciating Cultural Diversity" is in that volume (pages 132-140).

The strategy discussed in this article is about the use of a theatrical device to encourage students to ask questions and raise problems about some aspect of anthropological theory. A few years ago, I decided to appear in class as a theorist, in this case, Charles Darwin, and present his (now my character's) thoughts about his research and theory and his response to some of his critics in a way that would more closely involve students. Appearing as Darwin, in costume (and shaved head) is not a new idea: Zoology professor Richard Eakin portrayed great scientists in his classes at Berkeley in the 60s and 70s. (See Eakin 1975.) I have presented Darwin in the first person since 1990. Students could listen to Darwin as a person, and ask him questions about his theory and contributions to science. Recently, I converted the presentation to video tape and show several visuals showing Darwin's place in 19th century scientific thought. Sudents seem to like this approach and display increased involvement and enthusiasm about theory. The personal approach takes them beyond the written word.

I believe the theatrical device works well because the theater-like classroom creates an ephemeral sense of intimacy for both the instructor/performer and student audience. Although a theatrical performance lasts only for an afternoon or evening and ends, the classroom theater can create a sense of intimacy that may last for weeks or years, creating a positive atmosphere throughout the rest of a term.

Since different anthropology courses highlight different theories and theorists, you will have to make a choice about whom to portray in front of your class. I suggest you find an appropriate individual, one whose life, career, and theory is important and well known. Remove that individual from the academic pedestal of words and, representing him or her, share with your students the problems and processes of research and scholarship that went into making that person an important contributor to the discipline. I suggest that you stress the "context" within which the person worked, so place your individual in the milieu of the time.

Make sure there is enough information about the individual you intend to portray. For example, I can show that Darwin's work was highly creative. Born into a wealthy family, he was an individual of leisure. With ample time, he wrote a great deal about his life, including the development of his thinking and the impact it had on his life. As I play Darwin, I mention that various people were important in my (his) life: Hooker (the botanist), Huxley (scientist often referred to as "Darwin's Bulldog"), Lyell (geology), Wallace (naturalist), and Wilberforce (theologian). Darwin was also written about extensively, making it easier to see his impact on others during his lifetime. So as I play Darwin, I can also comment on the material that was written about me (him).

When I first became Darwin, I simply wore my academic robe to class (and obtained a typical black "bowler" hat from a local costume shop). As my Darwin evolved, I eventually shaved my head, acquired some professional costumes from the Theatre Arts Department on campus, and became Darwin as on older individual. I've had a beard for thirty years and for the videotape of Darwin I let it grow longer than usual and used gray tint to make me look older. Although you can make yourself up to look older or younger and even change your sex with a lot of makeup, it is more difficult to play a five foot tall Margaret Mead if you are six foot tall. It is easier to choose an individual to match your physiognomy and age.

I present Darwin in the first person, maintaining character throughout: the classroom is a theatre setting and one is always in character. I speak of my supportive family, especially my younger and older sisters, how I went to university and graduated, but did not know what I wanted to do with my life, and how I lucked out. Students who are about to graduate are often amazed that Darwin didn't have his life picked out for him in advance. In some respects, he "stumbled" into his career, but he faced it with an open and inquisitive mind. 

I discuss my marriage to my cousin Ms. Emma Wedgwood (and one can get into some traditional anthropological kinship relationships then), and then I talk about leaving "dirty" London for the bucolic countryside. I discuss my professional papers, my extensive correspondence, and the children that Emma and I had: Emma bore ten children, but seven only survived beyond childhood. I discuss the impact of my various publications, more than twenty-in-all, the reactions of the citizens of the time, and eventually I speak of my death and my burial in Westminster Abbey. In brief, I become Darwin for the day. 

Students respond by asking me "how long did it take you to prepare for this?" and "was it a lot of work?" and "how did Darwin develop his theory?" I respond by pointing out that "work can be fun" and it has taken many years to become Darwin, and I am still working at it. I also point out that Darwin developed his theory by building on the work of others and thinking about what he observed in the world of nature. We discuss the communication techniques of the day and students are amazed that so much correspondence is available and that Darwin was such a meticulous note-taker and observer of nature. We discuss the need for research and the importance of "time" in allowing ideas to develop!

To prepare for your performance, read, synthesize, travel and create your own understanding of the people you are to portray. Where and how did they live and what did they do to become recognized? What was the creative process they experienced as they matured and with whom did they interact during their lifetimes? For example, I have read most of Darwin's publications and correspondence. Indeed I discovered that Darwin was called "Bobby" when he was a young man and "Philos" later by Captain Robert FitzRoy of the HMS Beagle. I really needed to become an expert on this literature. I learned, for example, that there are different editions of The Origin of the Species and that they vary over time as Darwin reworked them and added to them. I have visited Darwin's home in England and sailed through the Galapagos Islands, which were so important to his scientific insights.

In short, I found that the theatrical approach is a manageable and enjoyable (for both instructor and students) way to introduce and discuss the work of a theorist who is important to our discipline. How you work that performance out, how you involve the audience, and which points you stress will be a matter for you to develop for yourself. But for me, at least, the approach changes the tenor of the classroom and engages students in a way that lecturing and reading and discussion cannot manage.

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Reference Cited:

Eakin, R.M., 1975 Great Scientists Speak Again . University of California Press. 


1. This chapter appears in Strategies in Teaching Anthropology, Second Edition (2002), edited by Patricia Rice & David W. McCurdy, Editors (NJ: Prentice Hall), pages 147-149. A lengthier version of this paper entitled "Teaching As Theatre: Some Classroom Ideas, Specifically Those Concerning Charles R. Darwin (1809-1882)" was presented at the session entitled "Another Bag Of Teaching Tricks" (15 November 2000) at the 99th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association (November 15-19, 2000), San Francisco, California. For this web page, Urbanowicz adds the following:

"I have prepared a written article entitled 'Teaching as Theatre' and I grant and assign solely and exclusively to the Publishers of this Work and all rights in the Work and all deriviative works throughout the world, in all languages, for the full term of copyright and all renewals and extensions thereof, and the rights to secure copyright in the Publisher's name or any other name. This grant includes, but is not limited to, the exclusive rights to reproduce, print, distribute, market, promote, publish, sell, license, broadcast, or transmit, in all channels of distribution, the Work and derivitative works, in whole or in part, in all forms, formats, media and versions, now know or hereafter developed, including, without limitation, by any electronic or electromagnetic means or analog or digital signal, or on any human of machine readable medium, including as part of an electronic database, and to license others to exercise and all such rights. For these rights, I accept the payment of two gratis copies of the volume as the sole compensation for the article."

For the chapter ("Mnemonic, Quotations, Cartoons, and a Notebook: 'Tricks' for Appreciating Cultural Diversity") that was published in Strategies In Teaching Anthropology (2000), Edited by Patricia Rice and David McCurdy (NJ: Prentice-Hall), pages 132-140, please see http://www.csuchico.edu/~curban/TeachingT.html]. To return to the beginning of this page, please click here.


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Charles F. Urbanowicz

Cosmetic changes on 13 February 2003

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