You can hear a pin drop as your staff looks on with anxiety, apprehension, and understanding. Their rapt attention during a long fall training program is rare indeed, but with the program being presented you do not see a drooping eye or slouching body in the room. With such interest by your staff you have the full understanding of the impact of the program that was just presented. You also realize how unique this presentation was, and most importantly, how effective. You realize that you have found treasure and you are happy to share it.
These are the thoughts that ran through my mind when I first performed one of the two plays that I wrote with three other colleagues. The two plays, “But What If….” and “But What if…The Next Generation” transformed training at both institutions that I worked at and was met with thunderous approval by the students that attended the ‘performances’. So, you ask, “How did a play make such an impact? How can I do the same with my training program?” You say, “I do not know how to write a play. I can’t act. This is a pipe dream.” Not so! The three original writers of the first play and four writers of the second play are all involved in education, all were involved in Residence Life when the plays were written, and had not one iota of screenplay or acting experience. Although profoundly true, it was a small obstacle that was overcome by a passion for students and education while trying to transform experiences and issues into a format that would prove to be undeniable in its message.
Quotes in written evaluations include: “An excellent and outstanding presentation.” “Definitely worth spreading to other campuses.” “Very powerful.” “This was very realistic and down to earth. Hard hitting.” “You hit major topics and really showed how Resident Assistants can make a positive impact. Very realistic.” “Great acting and thought provoking. Very impactful.” “Presenters were brave to lay a lot of important issues on the table.” “One of the most creative and imaginative approaches to diversity and training. Captures the audiences attention!” “Does not hold anything back! Excellent!” “An excellent and outstanding presentation!”
So what are the plays all about? Each play traces the lives of roommates who meet the first day of their college careers through their four years of college, describing their interactions with Resident Assistants and the influence that these staff members had on them. Sounds like a bore so far, right? We throw a few curve balls in, though, that grab the attention of the audience.
The plays follow an engaging format. The RA confronts a situation appropriately, whether it is a violation of policy or an act that would disrupt the community. The individual who is affected the greatest peels off from the group and recites a monologue on what their experience was and how the RA impacted their life. The last phrase of the monologue is “But What If…” and the scene is picked up at the moment just prior to the arrival of the RA. However, this time the RA inappropriately addresses the behavior. There is a resulting negative consequence for the residents and the audience is addressed with a new monologue. In this monologue the negative consequences are highlighted as well as the distress that the resident has because the RA was not there for them.
The effect is monumental, as Resident Assistants have illustrated for them the impression that they can make on their residents. One of my greatest frustrations has been creating a device that demonstrates to Resident Assistants that they will rarely know if they have made a difference, but if they do not do their jobs with passion and diligence, it is often readily measured. How does a staff member know what they have prevented by doing their job? By illustrating the impact of both an appropriate and inappropriate intervention, your staff will be shown in graphic detail the influence that they can have in the development, success, and failure of their residents. Your staff will have a snapshot of the opportunity and potential for shaping the lives of their residents.
What do these plays address? What is their substance and how do you create such a powerful production? It is not hard to achieve such results. Look upon the issues at colleges and universities across the country. Look within your institution for concerns with your residents. Unfortunately you will find that you have enough to write multiple plays. For our first piece we chose to perform a five-act play that examined alcohol, racism, gambling, and sexism. For our second production issues highlighted included drugs, homophobia, eating disorders, and suicide.
We examined pop culture including TV, music, movies, and advertising as well as national trends to fill in the skeleton that was developed. The use of humor is a theme that prevails throughout both plays, whether it is appropriate or inappropriate. The caveat in this instance is that the plays are so heavy and emotionally draining that we as performers and you as an audience need a break from the seriousness and enormity of the dilemmas that are presented. These plays are acted with nothing held back, using strong, vivid language. We explain to the audience before the show that they will feel uncomfortable and angry at times. They will feel despondent and horrified at times. They will feel empty and weary at times.
Resident assistants have commented on how realistic the plays are. They appreciate that they are not be talked at and that such a credible enactment of life in the residence halls has been dramatized. By not editing the graphic nature of the play your staff will buy in to the messages being sent. The play is processed afterwards for about an hour. This debriefing is vital to the success and acceptance of the messages that are sent. We have found great success in staying in character for the first half hour of processing.
What are some of the weaknesses? The plays were written by men and involve the lives of men. This was done somewhat purposefully. Written by three close friends who did not realize how powerful of a training tool we had stumbled onto, the first play was a revelation. The second play was written by four close friends who knew how compelling an instrument we had, but who also knew that we had to simplify the production because we would be asked to perform the play numerous times at several schools and conferences. Since then I have learned how to incorporate resident assistants as the actors and actresses, re-writing segments to be more gender inclusive. Secondly, the blunt and strong nature of the play is akin to a punch to the stomach. You are well aware of it and it can knock the wind out of you. Additionally, you need to invest the time in writing a script and rehearsing. This is not as imposing as it seems but it does require the dedication of time. I prefer to write and rehearse away from the office without distractions and interruptions.
I have heard of some schools that have taken parts of the plays and customized the idea for their own uses. Many other schools have simply called me to have it performed at their institution. I have found great success in having three to six resident assistants rehearse with me the day before the presentation, and then we present the program to the rest of the staff. The resident assistants identify even more in such cases and they command even more attention. Whatever method is chosen, do not forfeit the opportunity to have a unique, intense, and dynamic technique of sending a message to your staff and covering a multitude of significant issues in a few hours.
Are you ready to take a chance with your RA Training and go beyond the usual boundaries?
Submitted by Michael Polcari, Assistant Director for Residence Life, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts