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Acting Up: HCA to Offer Political Theater with Renowned Professor

June 4, 2021

Acting Up: HCA to Offer Political Theater with Renowned Professor 
HCA: A School for Social Change, Entrepreneurship and the Environment

Brunswick, Maine — “Theater should be relevant to the community,” says Lee Rose, who joins Harpswell Coastal Academy (HCA) this fall as the director of its new political theater program. Course offerings will range from acting to stagecraft & design to public speaking, but political theater — or theater as a vehicle for social change — will be the focus. 

According to Rose, theater has always been a means of communicating social and political ideas. “The art form has been both co-opted by some and banned by other governing bodies in order to promote their agendas,” he notes. “On the other hand, theatrical art has also been used to fight against or undermine the power of oppressive regimes and individuals.” 

Rose’s background is impressive for its breadth of teaching, directing, playwriting, and acting. He has appeared on stage as well as in television, film, and music videos, and directed and stage managed Off-Broadway plays. In addition to directing the theater program at the University of Maine at Machias and other institutions, he has been awarded numerous grants and facilitated student performances that highlight Maine’s history, such as one based on oral history research with Maine elders.

Initially, students will hone their craft doing reader’s theater (performed with scripts in hand), their gaze on the Maine Drama Festival, an annual one-act play competition for thousands of high school students where winners advance to a statewide battle of the bards. As the program evolves, Rose envisions staging classics such as Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, a play written in 1882 that is considered political theater because it deals with socially relevant issues and calls for collective action. Meanwhile, students will investigate the political power of theater through reading, viewing, and discussing various plays and films (some of which were used as propaganda tools), and the use of theatrical elements in real-world situations such as advertising, interpersonal communication, and political campaigns. 

Rose was drawn to HCA’s innovative approach: “Choice is really important,” he says. “Adult students want choice and so do kids.” While many schools contend with district scrutiny that can result in curtains being dropped before a show opens, because of its charter status HCA can explore material that might be deemed provocative. If the purpose of theater is to connect us with the human condition, says one reviewer, “we need to represent that the human condition is messy and uncomfortable.”

“HCA is an ideal setup for delving into the real-life issues and dilemmas found in political theater,” says Head of School Scott Barksdale. “We want our students to be confronted by the real world — both its beauty and its tragedy — and then figure out in what ways they want to be a part of it. High schoolers can do that — they don’t need things sugar-coated.”

For example, Rose’s former college students performed a play for local high schoolers about teenagers who shepherd a friend through the emergency room following an opioid overdose. Their school guidance counselor participated in a talkback session following the performance, wherein audience members posed questions raised by the play. “Theater can be a means to broach difficult subjects indirectly,” says Rose. “It takes the burden of fault off the audience.” Such “scaffolding” during rehearsals with cast and crew, as well as community members after the show, is a potent educational opportunity. 

And the stage cultivates empathy among the cast and audience members in a way that film and television cannot. “There is no lens through which everything is being filtered,” says Rose, “literally and figuratively. It is real life with all the methods of communication at play: body language, smell, peripheral movement — aspects of real life that cannot be recreated on acetate or video.” 

Besides humanizing “the other,” Rose sees theater instruction as broader than the technical and creative skills necessary for an industry career. It teaches soft skills such as collaboration, work ethic, self-motivation, and self-realization — for starters. “Finding a new way to work together — taking opposing ideas and combining them — is something we have to do throughout life,” he says. “Theater teaches us how to participate honestly with ourselves and others.”

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HCA’s is a free public charter school and all Maine students are eligible to apply for enrollment. Our mission is to create an engaged community of creative thinkers, compassionate leaders, and effective problem solvers. Learning at HCA is project-based and place-based, grounding students in a purposeful exploration of the natural and human worlds. Our curriculum cultivates curiosity, integrity, and civic-mindedness and prepares students for post-secondary success, whether in college, technical training, or the workforce. We envision HCA students and alumni as lifelong learners and champions of positive social change, economic opportunity, and sustainability in our towns, state, country, and world.

Division I (serving grades 5-8) is located at the Harpswell School at 9 Ash Point Road.

Division II & III (serving grades 9-12) is located on Brunswick Landing at 8 Leavitt Drive. 

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