Cathy Springfield knows theater can change students’ lives. The University’s director for performing arts has seen it time and again in her 14 years on campus. So last year, Springfield formalized the idea and launched the Theatre of Conscience, a service component that’s being integrated into virtually all Xavier Player’s productions. The goal is deceptively simple: to help students see further into their characters—and deeper into themselves as well—at the same time deepening their performances and strengthening their impact on audiences.
“We’re looking for a social conscience behind the plays that we do,” she says. “The idea is to do plays that support the University’s morals and ideals, and that include some kind of social justice issue. I’m not saying every play we do will pass that litmus test, but most of the plays will, we hope.”
The idea is as practical as it is cutting edge. “Of course, all plays have moral and ethical issues,” Springfield says. “But I don’t know that I’ve seen anywhere full casts go into service that relates to the moral and ethical issues of the play. I don’t know that that is done anywhere.”
Once plays are selected, the Players’ board of advisors then plans a service component to accompany each production. The first tentative step in this direction took place during the 2002-2003 production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” when the group brought in an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union who talked about how the story had changed his life. Since then, students have become more actively involved, Springfield says.
“For our production of ‘Fences,’ we went to the Drop-Inn Center downtown a couple of times,” she says. “We prepared and served food, and talked to the people who came in. That was an interesting process. There was a lot of character study going on. Then for ‘Footloose,’ we staged a senior prom at a retirement home. ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is a love story, so we did valentines, again for a retirement home.”
The concept takes a quantum leap forward in 2004-2005 when the Players team up with the Innocence Project and another as-yet-unnamed campus organization during the production of “Dead Man Walking.”
“Tim Robbins wrote the screenplay for this, and he’s released it to Jesuit schools only for one year,” Springfield says. “He wants the drama departments to work in conjunction with another department—like mission and ministry or theology or some other department—with regard to the issue of capital punishment. The Innocence Project, of course, works with people on death row.”
Senior Molly Boehringer, vice president and service coordinator for Players, says the concept fits naturally into a well-rounded education that includes learning to see into a variety of issues. And she says the lessons learned offstage are a big plus in performance.
“It’s definitely changed the thought process when you’re going through rehearsals,” Boehringer says. “It allows you to connect better with the character you’re playing and to relate to the audience better in presenting the message that you’re trying to get across.
“It’s completely changed my perspective on the purpose of theater and being up on stage. It’s given me much more of a feeling of purpose when I’m out there. You feel like you are possibly opening some minds and presenting material that is going to stay with people after they leave the theater.”
Although she’s happy with the program’s growth thus far, Springfield has her eyes on a much more widely integrated prize.
Ultimately, she’d like to coordinate activities with Xavier’s service program. And she’s also working to develop an effective written reflection piece to be completed by cast members after each production.
“It’s difficult when you’re rehearsing to direct, rehearse and do the service project,” she says. “But we’re dedicated to doing it.”