It would be sufficient for UNC's Performance Studies program, tucked within the Department of Communication, to only focus on the art. It would be easy for them to put on a few productions a year, teach classes along the way and return home to a life of comfort. But they don't strictly adhere to the call of duty. Instead, they eagerly tackle the task of creating new work that advances and reaches far beyond campus.
"It's not easy what we do. It takes incredible time and energy, and it's not like the people who do it are paid to do it; we must do it," says Joseph Megel, the program's artist in residence who serves as a director of the performances. "It's a real testament to a desire to make art."
Recently, the program's half-dozen faculty and their students have not only taken on the form, the scripts, the acting, the oral history and the core of their craft, but they have addressed controversial social and political issues both locally and internationally.
"I don't think of performance as a tool per se," says Professor Della Pollock, the faculty coordinator. "I think of it as what we do that we can become aware of and then mobilize in ways that we find important and valuable and take us in new directions."
The direction has been telling in the past year especially.
In November, the program produced Solo Takes On, an aptly titled festival of five one-person performances addressing AIDS, the flaws of the justice system, gender identity and immigration. It was a case study in how to intertwine time-tested professional work with that of raw, emerging students.
The first show, Intimacies, written and performed by Los Angeles actor Michael Kearns, celebrated its 20th anniversary at the festival. The final one, Jena Six, was the authoethnographic work of Kashif Powell, a first-year graduate student. (Authoethnographic refers to ethnographic work that comes from a personal perspective.) Powell's piece is one example of work that has been incubated within the program and given new life elsewhere—his piece was performed at universities in Texas and Michigan.
Megel, in his sixth year at UNC, collaborated across campus to create the Process Series three years ago, focusing on "giving new work breath," he says.
"Students get sort of a window to the creative process, to how artists create," he says. "They even participate in what that process can be." Post-show discussions lift the veil on the performance and allow the artists to improve the craft.
The power of the series is perhaps best exemplified by graduate student Marie Garlock's work It Is In You, which fuses song, dance and spoken word to tell the story of geopolitics in Tanzania. In October, Garlock's production opened the Global Health and Human Rights Conference at University Dar Salaam in Tanzania.
Assistant Professor Tony Perucci has had similar success in launching the Performance Collective a year and a half ago out of Friday afternoon workshops.
"What I came to realize was that rather than starting a group, we already were one," Perucci says. "We were already in the Performance Collective, someone just had to say it."
Five shows and one year later, Perucci and his students have established a vehicle for innovative, courageous and collaborative work, from the first, Buy Me!, an anti-capitalist production featuring five directors and "a celebratory rejection of consumer culture," to the most recent, The Activists, an adapted work that takes aim at how media, government and protestors respond to terror.
"Almost everybody who works with us are really committed activists in other parts of their lives, so what we do is kind of connect the sort of spirit and politics of an anarchists collective with the meticulous specificity of minimalist sculpture," he says.
Though the work is meticulously practiced for months with last-minute alterations occurring even as the productions open, Pollock says the performance is less important than the process.
"As committed as we are to things being good, we don't produce actors," she says. "It's not a career line as much as it is a line of discovery and contribution of social and theoretical practice."
Perucci says it's more about developing creative, responsible citizens with powerful voices, adding that performance must be an "intervention."
That feeling is emblematic of a department that seeks to do far more than perform.
"Theater always has to justify its reason for being. It's expensive and it's always in danger of failing because it's live," Perucci says. "What we owe the audience is always a kind of engagement, a kind of connectedness of the project of making meaning of this work."
From classroom to stage, the debt has been paid in full.