Inside Out playback theater group awarded Catalyst Initiative, Justpax grants

From left: Inside Out playback theater group members Matt Carlson, Art Stoltzfus and Professor Heidi Winters Vogel engage with Summer Peacebuilding Institute students in summer 2017 at Eastern Mennonite University. Inside Out has been awarded two grants from The Catalyst Initiative and the JustPax Fund to continue their work with marginalized communities and racial healing. (Photos by Andrew Strack)

Eastern Mennonite University’s Inside Out playback theater group is the recent recipient of two grants to expand their work with racial healing and marginalized populations.

The six-year-old troupe, co-founded by theater professor Heidi Winters Vogel and applied social sciences adjunct professor Roger Foster, includes current undergraduate and graduate students and alumni. It specializes in improvisational theater that includes the audience and actors in storytelling sessions, “played back” through action, dialogue and music, that encourage connections and conversation about difficult social issues and challenges. Inside Out has engaged with students returning from study abroad experiences, international peacebuilders, descendants of slaves and slaveholders, sexual abuse survivors, ex-offenders and migrant workers, among others.

Heidi Winters Vogel (back row, left) with Father Daniel Robayo (standing, second from left) and other Catalyst Initiative grant project leaders at a December planning session in Phoenix, Arizona. (Courtesy photo)

The Catalyst Initiative grant, funded by the Phoenix, Arizona-based Center for Performance and Civic Practice (CPCP), provides mentorship and guidance as Inside Out develops a partnership with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia to confront issues of race, immigration and reconciliation in communities around the state.

A grant from the JustPax Fund will fund engagement with the Shenandoah Valley’s Hispanic and Haitian migrant workers, building on previous work on the Eastern Shore with similar populations. The grant also provides funds to develop and disseminate a “toolkit” for participatory arts organizations around the country to engage in similar partnerships.

Both grants will enable Inside Out members with unique opportunities to interact with well-known and inspiring mentors in the field: Hannah Fox, program director of the Centre for Playback Theatre, and Michael Rohd, founding executive director of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice.

“These two grants build upon our previous work, strengthen our capacities and challenge us to work intentionally with partner organizations,” said Vogel. “EMU students are able to practice their art in direct connection with social justice action networks. This is a game-changer in our ability to practice arts for change.”

The Catalyst Initiative: racial healing in church communities

Inside Out is one of six grantees around the United States to receive the recent round of Catalyst Initiative grants. The $6,000 grant “supports place-based project teams comprised of an individual artist and a civic partner to conceive and execute a small-scale local arts-based project created in response to an expressed need by the partner,” according to the organization’s website.

Lebanese native Myriam Aziz, an alumna of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and current Teaching Fellow at EMU, helps to tell a story.

Inside Out is partnering Father Daniel Robayo, rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Harrisonburg and a new member of the Diocesan Commission on Race and Reconciliation.

Vogel and Robayo recently returned from a two-day workshop in Phoenix with CPCP staff to begin developing their project focused on building awareness and insight into white supremacy and privilege.

“I don’t think anyone would deny that these kind of conversations need to happen, but it’s often difficult to find a welcoming space,” Vogel says. “Father Robayo and the diocese have offered this space to promote cooperation between congregations, denominations and ethnicities. Our project will most likely consist of storytelling sessions at churches around the state bringing together diverse groups.”

The project will be implemented from January to October 2018. CPCP staff will make site visits to monitor the project and give guidance and critiques.

JustPax Foundation: Building Just Communities

In 2017, collaborating with Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center  and funded by the the nonprofit U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC), Inside Out hosted storytelling sessions with migrant workers on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. They also produced a “toolkit” for participatory arts organizations around the country to engage in similar partnerships.

The JustPax Fund grant provides more funds for Inside Out to work with regional migrant workers, and to continue developing and disseminating the toolkit.

Part of the grant will be used to host a Jan. 5-8 training workshop with Hannah Fox, program director at The Centre for Playback Theatre. The organization was founded by her father, Jonathan Fox, and Jo Salas, two co-founders of the playback theater concept.

“All of our members have been trained but some have not had the benefit of the formal training that is the gold standard for playback theater,” Vogel said. “With actors coming from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Richmond and Washington D.C., this should be a phenomenal opportunity to learn and practice new skills with truly gifted actors.”

This is not the first time EMU has hosted playback theater trainings with celebrated practitioners; movement co-founder Jo Salas and playback director Ben Rivers, who works in Israel/Palestine, have led trainings and special Summer Peacebuilding Institute classes.

Twenty spaces are available for the course. Email insideout@emu.edu for more information.

Course offered at 2018 Summer Peacebuilding Institute

Vogel and Foster will co-facilitate a course on participatory theater June 11-15 at the 2018 Summer Peacebuilding Institute at EMU. For more information, see the course description here. To learn more about SPI, click here.