By Natalie Goodnow – Artistic Associate
Courage in Action (CIA) is one of Theatre Action Project’s newest TAP in the Classroom programs. This is the first year we’ve been able to fully develop and tour CIA extensively, and we’re thrilled at its success. This is my fourth year working with TAP as a Teaching Artist, and I count this as one of the most powerful and transformative programs I’ve ever had the joy of participating in.
CIA is a five-day, interactive performance, with a similar structure as some of our older and more well-known programs, The Heroes/Los Heroes and The Courage to Stand. We meet with one class of students for an hour at a time, for four days in a row, and then visit for a follow-up several weeks later. With CIA, we visit primarily 5th grade classes, though we’ve found that the program is equally effective for 4th or 6th graders as well.
The goal of CIA:
to inspire young people to become leaders, community-builders, problem-solvers, and agents of change in their own lives,
Or, as we say in the program, to be “courageous leaders.”
The dramatic frame is that my fellow Actor-Teacher Keri Boyd and I are agents in an undercover agency known as the CIA, or, Courage in Action. Our job is to travel the world training courageous individuals to become agents in the CIA, also known as courageous leaders. The dramatic frame is ridiculously fun. We wear shiny jackets, space helmets, and take directions from Bobobot, the motherboard of our spaceship, who relays messages to us from Mission Control. The students are then in role as “cadets.” Throughout the course of the week, the cadets undergo various “simulations” as part of their rigorous training regimen.
On Day 1: the cadets generate a definition of courageous leadership, and then, in small groups, they read about various courageous leaders from throughout history and throughout the world, and are given the challenge of re-creating courageous moments from those leaders’ lives through dramatic tableaus, and then must tell one another about those people and those moments. The “courageous leaders” we feature are individuals who used nonviolent tactics to promote peace, justice, and equality, such as Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi, and also lesser-known individuals like Emma Tenayuca and Zachary Bonner.
On Day 2: cadets travel back in time and meet Cesar Chavez (I play Cesar Chavez!), and, with him, discover the four steps to becoming a courageous leader:
1) Recognize a Problem and Imagine Solutions,
2) Assemble a Team and Make a Plan,
3) Take Action,
4) Evaluate Your Success and Try Again.
They learn about the plight of the farmworkers in Delano, California, and then, in-role as farmworkers themselves, must work with Cesar to make a plan as to how they can overcome their desperate circumstances. Through role-play and improvisation, we allow the students to Take Action, and try out all kinds of Plans – talking to the boss, pleading with the boss, working harder, or even threatening him – and to discover for themselves, by Evaluating their Success, what works best. At the end of the day, we lead the students in a narrative pantomime, re-enacting Cesar Chavez’ 300-mile march across the state of California to the capital, so that they can discover what really happened, and what really worked to effect change in the farmworkers’ lives. We’ve been pleasantly surprised, though, to find that many students have the imagination to figure out an effective, peaceful solution before we get to that point in the program!
On Day 3: we present a semi-imaginary scenario of two students at Anyplace Elementary who learn that their school lunches are not healthy, one of whom would like to do something about it. Cadets are given the challenge of using the four steps to becoming a Courageous Leader to help the students to solve the problem at their school. And so, through various “simulations,” or, improvisations, the students get to generate and try out a variety of plans, to try convincing their friends, parents, teachers to help them, and to brainstorm how they, as 10-year olds, could impact something as big and as complex as our educational system. What they realize by the end of the day is that, as impossible as it seems, they really can make a change.
On Day 4: Bobobot presents the toughest challenge yet: to stay at their school, rather than traveling to Simulation Station, to begin solving problems in the real world. Cadets choose 1-3 problems that they recognize in their school, neighborhood, or in the world at large, and begin devising and implementing plans to do something about it. We’ve seen students write speeches, short plays, and letters to the president; create ribbon and poster campaigns, websites, and newsletters; and make appointments with the counselor and the principal to discuss the creation of peer mediation and recycling programs on their campus. One youth at Mathews Elementary even started a petition for healthier lunches at his school, got 60 signatures, presented it to his principal, and got permission to speak to the superintendent about the matter, all in one day!
I am awed, inspired, and transformed by the youth every day I do this program. I have so many CIA stories to share, it’s almost overwhelming! For now, I sign off with this introduction to the program, and I look forward to sharing more.
And remember the CIA pledge, everybody…
When We Stand Together, We Stand Strong! Courage in Action!