The Case for Classroom Play Readings
By now, many of us have rethought the structure of our class time. Whether it was through following the decades-old, sage advice that we “flip” our classrooms so lectures are completed as homework and course meetings are used to engage new material, or employing the multitude of blended, synchronous, and asynchronous teaching we undertook due to the pandemic, seasoned instructors have recognized that there are innumerable ways to facilitate learning. Yet, despite all the innovative initiatives to rethink teaching, the most fruitful approach remains storytelling. Hearing stories read unites an audience on an individual word at a singular moment in time. That connection is profound, fostering a fertile environment to plant ideas and harvest discussions. While it’s no secret that storytelling offers rich rewards to both the listener and the speaker, reading a play aloud in a group helps democratize those inherent benefits. By virtue of volunteering or being voluntold, would-be voice actors can assume the roles in a script and then collectively tell a story. Nothing unites a class quite like the focused and purposeful performance of a play and exploring the words of venerated playwrights reaps rich rewards.
N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa) wrote, “In the beginning was the word, and it was spoken.” Alluding to the Biblical book of John, the sentence evokes both the genesis of creation and the truth that the spoken word has had power since time immemorial. It’s also a quote that I cite whenever I ask new students to read a passage aloud in my classroom. Typically, after I cite Momaday’s words, I seek volunteers to read a role, explaining that everyone will read a part at some point during the semester. By setting this expectation on the first day and continually reinforcing it each successive course meeting, students come to see the process of performing classroom play readings as an expected yet fulfilling part of their course participation. Still, it’s the talented playwrights and their rich subject matter who make this activity successful.
While there are countless, gripping full-length plays penned by gifted Indigenous playwrights, one-act scripts offer rich catharsis while still affording class time for discussion. The latter group offers compelling launching points for instructors to pilot. Tested and true favorites of mine include William S. Yellowrobe Jr.’s (Assiniboine) The Body Guards and Rez Politics, which each offer very different looks at racism and definitions of bravery. E. Donald Two-Rivers’ (Anishinaabe) A Winter’s Summit depicts animals discussing habitat encroachment, while his Coyote Sits in Judgement is a trickster story that confronts environmental degradation without becoming preachy. The Woman Who Was a Red Deer Dressed for the Deer Dance by Diane Glancy (Cherokee) delivers a powerful message about learning from elders, and Ian Ross (Métis) Kinikinik offers a lesson about treaties that helps explain the concept to audiences of all ages.
If more time is available, there are some longer comedic one-acts worthy of consideration. Jim Northrup’s (Fond du Lac Anishinaabe) Shinnob Jep exudes laughter about tribal life and politics through a game of Anishinaabe Jeopardy. Drew Hayden Taylor’s (Curve Lake Anishinaabe) The Boy in the Treehouse shares the story of a child trying to undertake a vision quest without guidance, and his Toronto at Dreamer’s Rock depicts the power of a sacred space across the generations. My favorite new play to explore across multiple class sessions is The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa Fasthorse (Sicangu Lakota Nation), which explores woke non-Natives trying to produce a holiday show without offending anyone.
The magic is in the reading of the script, and I’ve found some ground rules that help make for an enjoyable experience. First, when casting, find someone to read all dramaturgy—preferably not the same person cast in the “narrator” role, should the play have one. Second, encourage everyone to have fun with their roles, realizing that some words, such as those in Indigenous languages, may not be familiar to all in the room. Third, tell them to take their time with the lines but to only put long pauses between different speakers’ lines when the script directs to do so—dialogue is best when it flows smoothly. Finally, encourage the cast to enjoy themselves, as reacting to incredulous plotlines and impeccable punchlines make the experience all the more memorable.
A course meeting, much like a theatrical performance, takes place during an ephemeral moment in time. It draws from the people assembled, reacts to their energy, and creates a gathering that cannot be perfectly replicated. Regardless of the level of preparation for class, all students can join in the collaboration. Of course, these comparisons are also true of storytelling, which has been a part of teaching since the beginning of time. While not all educators are storytellers, everyone can reap the rewards of classroom play readings. My hope is that you will rethink your syllabi and offer your students at least one chance to take a bow in the forthcoming semesters.
Ryan Winn teaches in the Liberal Studies Department at College of Menominee Nation.
Momaday, N.S. (1978). The Way to Rainy Mountain. University of New Mexico Press.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.