History, Herstory, Ourstory
Theatre 420 - Hip Hop Theatre Presentation, 2018 BFA Acting Program
A. Kikora Franklin, Associate Professor of Theatre/Dance
2018-19 Teaching Transformation and Innovation Grant Recipient, final report
In the fall of 2018, Theatre 420-Scene Study, a course required by the School of Theatre BFA Acting program, focused on Hip Hop Theatre. The theme of the course for the semester was: “Lived Experience as Text: Creating, Performing Hip Hop Theatre.” Students in this class were introduced to Hip Hop Theatre and culture by engaging in movement, storytelling, discussions on assigned reading, research, performance projects, and other creative processes. We used the lens of Hip Hop theatre to observe, practice, and create performance based in this particular aesthetic. In addition to working with the instructor, students participated in workshops with guest artists, explored texts, and ultimately devised work based off of these experiences.
Undergraduate learning was enhanced in a variety of ways that included students being introduced to unfamiliar and diverse cultural experiences, having multiple modes of learning, engaging with guest artists, and leaving the classroom setting to have real-world experiences.
Diversity in Learning Opportunities
By its nature, Hip Hop culture is comprised of various modes of expression that are referred to as the “elements” of Hip Hop. These elements include MC/rapping, DJing, B-boys/B-girls (dance), and graffiti art. Students explored each of these elements on some level. Most of the students had not had experience performing or using these elements nor with Hip Hop culture. A good portion of the class was dedicated to students researching and learning about the historical significance of each artistic medium, pioneers in the field, and the significance of the elements within Hip Hop and broader culture. Students worked collaboratively in pairs to complete the research and present to the class.
In addition to research, guest artists were an integral part of the semester. We had a total of three professional artists visit, each of whom heavily involve Hip Hop culture/theatre and performance into their work. These artists shared their expertise, experience, and world-view, giving students the opportunity to engage in learning exercises and conversations that brought a new perspective they might not have otherwise considered. After working with NSangou Njikam, a guest artist from New York, one student commented, “the workshops with NSangou definitely shifted my opinion on Hip-Hop Theatre. I left this week with a very new understanding and appreciation for the work in general because it is different from what we do in our day-to- day theatre lives.” Another student commented, “After watching both documentaries and really diving into the events that birthed hip hop, I thought about how we went from the struggle that was born out of, to the hip hop generation we live in now. It got me thinking about what kind of hip-hop theater can be born from the current hip hop generation.”
Both of these statements demonstrate a level of reflection and thought taking place after working with a guest instructor. One of the goals of the course is for students to recognize, value, and express their own views based off of “lived experiences.”
Exploring Beyond the Classroom
Experiential learning outside the classroom was the central theme of this course. Thus, in addition to diverse modes of learning and working with guest artists, the class was able to travel to New York City and Washington, DC. I learned that taking students outside the classroom and into different spaces was an essential component of students having the opportunity to “experience” the culture. Hip Hop has its origins in New York City- the evidence of which is visible in every part of the city. Our students observed this culture up-close and personal by visiting sites they read about in assigned readings.
Taking in the energy of New York City was an essential part of elevating the learning from a mundane task like reading an article to participating and engaging in a live moment. Traveling provided students with the opportunity to make personal observations and contrast/compare their experience to material read in texts. They were able to see where Hip Hop was “born,” see and meet a Hip Hop dancer who also taught a few basic movements, and visit several historical places throughout Harlem and the Bronx.
Time and Space for Reflection
A significant portion of the course was dedicated to providing students with the time and space to reflect on their experience. Students were also encouraged to submit ideas from their experience that would eventually become a part of a final performed piece that incorporated elements of Hip Hop Theatre. This process required students to work collaboratively, with one student sometimes leading the others.
I learned a lot about what would work best for purposes of this course. First, the visiting artists all had a positive impact on the students, and each brought a unique perspective to them. Each had so much to offer in the way of content, and in their pedagogical approach to working with the class. In the future, I will spread their visits across the semester as opposed to concentrating them to one month to allow for students to wrestle with the information.
I also learned that the course involves a lot of new content for the students. It is important for them to have time to read, digest, and reflect upon the information they take in. To that end, I incorporated a required weekly reflection. I asked students to think about and articulate their understanding of what they read, observed, or felt. I asked them to offer their point of view on the issues we discussed. The feedback from the written reflections allowed me to understand how the material was landing with the students. In addition, it gave me the opportunity to engage in an exchange with students in real time. It also helped me make changes to how we were working, if necessary. Finally, the written reflections provided a safe space for some students to express themselves instead of having to speak in front of the class.
I learned that having the resources to travel and bring in guest artists allows for more exploration, creativity, and innovation in teaching a course. However, even with optimal resources, challenges can arise. Having time to execute all of the great ideas that flow is perhaps the biggest challenge. It is important to have a firm structure and plan in place, and it is equally as important to be able to adapt to change as needed.
In closing, the following excerpts are from select student reflections and are shared with their permission:
“The Hush tours allowed history to be put in motion. The most interesting thing was that we started in Manhattan and moved all the way to the Bronx. The people that I saw lived such different lives. The structure of the buildings, the posters and signs, and even the way people walked allowed me to see differences in these two places. It fit perfectly with the history being talked about on the bus, and made clearer the need for Hip-Hop. I loved being able to make my own observations on the tour and also enjoy some new facts and stories. On our trip to Washington D.C. we were able to see Hip-Hop theatre in action. It was pretty incredible to see such a unique show being produced at the Kennedy Center. So much of Hip-Hop theatre is what you create out of yourself and what you have. And here we all got to see someone doing self-created work, on a big stage, and utilizing the elements of Hip-Hop. That was a powerful experience for me and I feel that is what sparked my own need to develop the pieces we created for our final presentation.”
“…it dawned on me how much I’ve learned about hip-hop culture and its history. Then, when I sorted through all the pictures of our class to make slideshow, I thought, “wow, we really did a lot. The fact that we got to travel so much and have guest artists come visit Penn State was incredibly valuable… because hip-hop is not just an art form, it’s a history. I don’t think I would have gotten the same understanding of that if we hadn’t traveled and had guest artists. There’s a huge difference between talking about something, and actually seeing and experiencing it…for something that is so deeply rooted in lived experience, it honestly wouldn’t have made sense to just learn it from books or our PSU bubble.”
As an educator, one of the most rewarding experiences is witnessing students make discoveries about their abilities while increasing confidence in themselves and their work. A large part of the student experience in this course was due to the resources provided through the Schreyer’s grant. My teaching and students’ learning were positively impacted. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to expose my students to new paradigms of theatre. I am confident their experience will be a source from which they draw as they move forward in their academic studies and in the profession.