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Social Justice Theatre Aims to Teach Empathy, Intervention at Frostburg State University

Social Justice Theatre Aims to Teach Empathy, Intervention at Frostburg State University
In a “freeze-frame” exercise, Llewellyn Brown prepares to hit Alex Ornukwugha, while John Muncill stands by and laughs, depicting a scene of someone laughing at a woman hitting a man, during a recent Social Justice Theatre session at Frostburg State University. The group was then charged with interpreting the scene and extending the action before and after.

A great acting performance is one in which the actor and audience can feel what the character experiences.

“As actors, our trade is empathy,” FSU theatre lecturer Michele Labar said. “It is our job, it is our study to understand how other people feel and how other people make their decisions and to not judge them, but to portray them.”

That premise drives Social Justice Theatre workshops at Frostburg State University where students can explore complicated topics related to gender-based violence, harassment and equality. By acting out scenarios, students can understand the difficult situations experienced by people who are not like them.

“This gives people who are not actors a chance to portray what they may have seen before or how they would hope people would behave, in a way,” Labar said.

FSU’s Office of Gender Equity is offering this program to groups at FSU with Labar leading the sessions. Social Justice Theatre is made possible through a grant from the Maryland Department of Mental Health and Hygiene’s Center for Injury and Sexual Assault Prevention. The grant funded several Office of Gender Equity initiatives.

During the free two-hour workshop, students start with icebreakers and decide what topic to explore, then those topics are acted out using improvisational games. In one game, each group performed a “freeze frame” of a compromising situation for other groups to interpret. That game evolved into a game in which the scene is extended for “before” and “after” situations, including how a friend would intervene using proper bystander-intervention techniques.

The workshops are based on Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed,” which provides a framework on how to use improvisational games to give power to people who are at a disadvantage – whether perceived or real – in society.

Psychology major Massa Kanneh of Lanham, Md., an intern in the Office of Gender Equity, participated in the first session. She believes the workshops could make a significant impact on campus if students participate in future sessions, she said.

“The majority of this role-playing was basically us thinking of what we would do before doing it,” she said. “So, if people would stop before they do the action, then I feel that healthy relationships would be more frequent on campus.”

Even though the topics focus on serious themes, humor breaks the tension to get the students to work together more. You could expect that in one game that mirrored a typical episode of “The Jerry Springer Show” or “Maury.”

Oohs and aahs belted out from the audience as one student proclaimed, “I have the DNA results, and I want to know if I’m the father!”

The laughter brought the students together more, as the discussion turned to an analysis of the situation. At the end of the workshop, students talk to each other to examine the scenes and ways to resolve the conflicts.

“I feel like there needs to be more communication so that those little fights don’t happen,” sophomore Mikayla Harmuth said, examining a scene.

The ability to make that analysis is one of the main goals of the workshop. 

“I want students to take away something they can use in their real life,” Labar said. “We are a very diverse community. We may look different, we may act different, we may be from different places and we have different interests. We often get stuck in our bubble of people who are like us. I hope they can recognize those people as their community. We are in this together.”

FSU student groups of up to 30 people can book the Social Justice Theatre experience through the Office of Gender Equity by emailing No acting skills are necessary – just bring an open mind.

For more information about the FSU Office of Gender Equity and its initiatives, visit or email


To view a video about this project, visit


For further information on this release, contact:

Office of News and Media Services
Frostburg State University
101 Braddock Road
Frostburg, MD  21532-2303

Telephone: 301-687-3171
Fax: 301-687-7589