Living Newspapers: Using Theater and History to Engage Students in Current Problems

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 19–20, 2010

Howard University
Washington, D.C.

Statement of Problem

According to political scientist Amy Gutman, civic or political education, understood as “the cultivation of the virtues, knowledge, and skills necessary for political participation” represents public education’s most important function in a democratic society and is necessary for the formation of good democratic citizens (287). Political theorists largely agree that democratic citizens need to be politically knowledgeable in order to engage productively in political deliberation. Yet academic surveys and political pundits’ proclamations concur that the vast majority of Americans lack basic knowledge about American government and politics and that their interest in acquiring such information has only waned over the past half century (Niemi and Junn, 5). Critics offer a range of solutions to address this crisis, from civics courses to national history standards and increased standardized testing. This paper introduces Living Newspapers, a presentational form of theater, as an alternative pedagogical approach for engaging students in current events, making them more informed, encouraging their understanding of the world, and fostering their commitment to ethical citizenship.

Defining and Historicizing Living Newspapers

In 1926, theater professor Hallie Flanagan took a sabbatical from Vassar College, where she ran the experimental theater, to travel through Europe and the Soviet Union as the first woman to receive a Guggenheim grant. She was highly influenced by the vibrancy of the Russian workers’ theater and particularly impressed by its emphasis on the daily experiences and social conflicts of working people (“Shifting Scenes,” 13, 18). Here was a theater not to be taken “in moderation, after dinner, along with biscuits and cheese”–as she described the theater in London–but rather one that responded to and challenged its audiences (“Shifting Scenes,” 146). When Flanagan returned to Vassar, she began to implement some of the strategies she discovered on her travels.

In 1931, Flanagan co-wrote a play with one of her students that exemplified her developing creative approach. Can You Hear Their Voices developed out of a story that Whittaker Chambers published in New Masses six years before he allegedly gave the Soviet Union documents from Alger Hiss (1). Drawing on (and citing) Chambers’s article, as well as histories, reports, the Congressional Record and newspaper articles, the play highlighted the U.S.’s agricultural crisis in the aftermath of World War I. It described the crisis from various perspectives including poor sharecroppers, urban salespeople, and wealthy conservative politicians. Can You Hear Their Voices, which Flanagan produced in Vassar’s experimental theater, became the prototype for Living Newspapers.

Living Newspapers brought current issues–ones readers might encounter in the news–to life on the stage. Rather than illustrating such problems through dramatic narratives following one or two plot lines with a beginning, middle, and end, in which the audience comes to know and empathize with particular characters, Living Newspapers, like Can You Hear Their Voices, followed Bertoldt Brecht’s notion of epic theater. The plays prevented viewers from experiencing cathartic emotions, such as empathy. Instead, they presented viewers with multiple viewpoints in relatively quick secession drawn from diverse sources, including photographs, graphs, and charts, in an effort to educate, unsettle, and call audience members to action. Living Newspapers were, furthermore, presentational. In other words, they shattered the fourth wall that typically separates representational actors from their audiences by using dramatic lighting but otherwise simple sets, props, and costumes and by acknowledging, instead of ignoring, audience members. Like Can You Hear Their Voices, each Living Newspaper addressed the historical roots of a contemporary problem and advocated for reform.

In 1935, Flanagan took her avant-garde technique as well as her biting sense of humor and her theatrical verve to Washington, DC, having been tapped by relief administrator Henry Hopkins and actively recruited by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to run the Federal Theater Project. Over the following four years, Flanagan dedicated an entire division of the program she directed to the writing and performance of Living Newspapers. Whereas Flanagan and her student, Margaret Ellen Clifford, wrote the first Living Newspaper on their own, the Theater Project hired unemployed newspaper writers and other literary types and had them adopt newspaper roles, including editor-in-chief, managing editor, and beat reporter, as they researched and wrote about their given topic. The plays they produced, focusing on the battle against urban poverty, government attempts to electrify rural America, and the struggle to contain venereal disease, were unsurprisingly controversial and helped to undermine government support for the Federal Theater Project (Quinn, 57-81). Nevertheless, Living Newspapers offer a fascinating pedagogical model for teaching students about civic engagement as well as the controversies surrounding government funding of the arts.

Living Newspapers in the Classroom

Last spring (2010), theater professor Pamella Hendrick and I (a U.S. historian) created and co-taught “New Deal Drama: Past to Present,” an interdisciplinary General Studies course at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey that used Living Newspapers to encourage students to identify, historicize, raise consciousness about, and offer solutions to contemporary problems. The course began by introducing students to the context of the Great Depression, the New Deal and the origins of government funding of the arts. It compared the Great Depression to today’s Great Recession and highlighted the similarities and differences between the federal government’s stimulus efforts then and now. The class paid particular attention to the New Deal’s work-relief efforts in the form of the Work Progress Administration (WPA), emphasizing both the program’s creation of jobs for unemployed blue-collar workers to build bridges, schools, post offices, and public libraries, and also its support for white-collar workers, including needy writers, dancers, actors, musicians, and visual artists. As government employees, these relief workers created hundreds of thousands of works of art–plays, concerts, books, murals, posters, photographs, and sculptures–that they performed and showed to millions of Americans.

The bulk of New Deal Drama, however, was not a history lesson in the conventional sense. Instead, it called on students to study the Living Newspapers written during the Depression and then to write and perform their own. For example, students both read One Third of a Nation, a Living Newspaper that addressed the need for urban housing reform, and watched a 1939 movie version of the play produced by Paramount Studios. The film’s narrative is a realistic, plot- and character-driven account focused largely on a love relationship between a working-class girl living in a tenement on the Lower East Side and a wealthy realtor who saves her and her community from urban blight by knocking down old tenements and replacing them with affordable and safe housing. In contrast, the play, influenced by Brecht’s notion of epic theater, did not have a narrative’s typical beginning, middle, and end. Instead, it presented competing perspectives on the historical origins of poor urban housing and then called the audience to action. The only heroes in the Living Newspaper were the audience members who, inspired by the play, would presumably leave the theater and go on to work for urban reform. In comparing the film to the play of One Third of a Nation, students were asked to pay attention not only to the differences in narrative plot, but also to the various techniques employed by the Living Newspaper, including the use of overhead projections of photographs and statistics, dramatic lighting, disembodied voices heard over a loudspeaker, choruses, tableaus, and a “little man” (an audience member representing everyman, who comes onto the stage in the middle of the play to interrogate the various characters and really try to understand the nature of the problem).

New Deal Drama students, about one-third of whom had previous drama experience, also participated in theater exercises on a regular basis. Each class meeting was roughly divided with lecture/discussion for the first 45 minutes followed by 45 minutes of theater activities. In preparation for their final performances, students studied and used theater games to explore Ann Bogart’s viewpoints, Augusto Boal’s methods for creating spectacles, and Bertolt Brecht’s fully body mask and gestures. Before creating their own Living Newspaper, students also located and selected primary sources, such as New Deal photographs and oral histories from those who lived through the 1930s, and made them come alive on the stage.

Beginning in the second week of the term, students began to work on their primary class task: the creation and performance of a contemporary Living Newspaper. A series of assignments (both individual and collective) guided their creation. Students individually completed an initial proposal indicating the area that they wanted to investigate. Four groups of five to six students emerged when the students were grouped according to their general interests. Students then researched their groups’ topics looking for central problems and possible solutions. Then they worked collectively to outline five scenes for the Living Newspaper. The first scene needed to establish the contemporary problem they had identified. At least one of the three body scenes had to incorporate historical events and/or characters and address the historical origins of the problem the Living Newspaper described. Another needed to explore how the issues they identified affected South Jersey, where Stockton College is located. Finally, each play had to conclude, in Brechtian fashion, with a call to action where the actors proposed concrete activities that audience members could do to create change.

To aid the students in their group work, each student had to assume at least two roles. Everyone had to be a beat reporter and research and write one of the scenes drawing on both peer-reviewed secondary literature and primary sources. Beyond that, students could choose to be the editor-in-chief (in charge of the content and broader concept of the Living Newspaper), managing editor, (overseeing the play’s overall editorial direction and coordinating beat reports), play director (making sure that there is a unified “concept” for staging the script), or focus on set and costumes or sound, lighting, and media.

Assessment and Conclusions

Using this format, each group ultimately created, staged, memorized, and performed a Living Newspaper that addressed one of four topics: discrimination based on sexual orientation (“Waiting on a World to Change”), teen pregnancy (“The Not-So-Secret Life of the American Teenager”), the death penalty (“Death in the Eye of Justice”), and honor killings (A Difficult Honor: A Play on the Complexities of Islam”). All of the performances succeeded in identifying a contemporary issue and a number of them incorporated innovative staging. Students furthermore reported that they gained self confidence through the course, appreciated learning about the 1930s and government funding of the arts, became conscious of new contemporary issues, and acquired new skills in working with others. In a mid-term evaluation, one student wrote: “The class has taught me that acting is not only recreational and crowd pleasing, but can also be used as a way to reform social and political mindsets of people and produce real change in cases where necessary.”

Despite such successes, the course also had its drawbacks. The majority of the performances were more character driven than presentational. In addition, the disparity between students’ expectations of a General Studies course and the rigor required in New Deal Drama was pronounced. Students struggled to engage both seriously with history (learning about 1930s America, discovering how to gather and interpret primary and secondary sources, and identifying current problems and their historical origins) and also with theater (learning on-stage techniques and theories as well as memorizing lines and performing in a series of final student-authored and directed productions). Students also found the collective aspects of writing a Living Newspaper to be challenging, particularly since each group included at least one person who was, or was nearly, failing. Future renditions of New Deal Drama will include fewer assignments, allow students to work more independently, and emphasize history over theater by, for example, having students do a dramatic reading of their play rather than formally performing it. It might also incorporate newspaper reading and analysis more significantly into the curriculum.

Since 1931, when Flanagan introduced Can You Hear Their Voices to Vassar College’s experimental theater, Living Newspapers have provided a vibrant model for promoting civic and political education. By teaching students how to research problems, weigh evidence, identify solutions, raise awareness, and galvanize civic support for specific changes, New Deal Drama cultivates many of the intellectual and personal skills that citizens need to function within a democracy. Despite kinks in a course that will probably take several rounds of teaching to smooth out, New Deal Drama offers an alternative to civics courses, traditional history classes, and standardized testing for teaching students how to learn about the complexities of contemporary issues and encouraging them to take a stand. It also educates them about a time period with multiple resonances with today.


Bogart, Anne and Landau, Tina. (2005). The Viewpoints Book: a Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition. NY: Theatre Communication Group.

Brecht on Theatre. (1964). John Willett (Ed. and Trans.). NY: Hill and Wang.

Flanagan, Hallie. (1928). Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre. NY: Coward-McCann, Inc.

Flanagan, Hallie and Clifford, Margaret Ellen. (1931). Can You Hear Their Voices? A Play of our Time, Poughkeepsie: The Experimental Theater of Vassar College.

Gutman, Amy. (1999). Democratic Education. revised ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Niemi, Richard G. and Junn, Jane. (2005). Civic Education: What Makes Students Learn. revised ed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

One Third of a Nation. (2000). Dudley Murphy (Dir.). United Home. Videocassette.

“One Third of a Nation.” (1938). In Pierre de Rohan (Ed.). Federal Theatre Plays. NY: Random House.

Quinn, Susan. (2008). Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times. NY: Walker and Co.

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Spring 2011: Engaging Students in the Community and the World