Theatre turns teaching tool at Fairfield University

Image: Way to HeavenThe play's the thing at Fairfield University, where a group of professors, administrators and alumni from diverse disciplines are using theatre to take students out of the classroom to look at what they're learning through a very different - and decidedly Jesuit - lens.

"Way to Heaven," a play by award-winning Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga, is loosely based on a visit by the Red Cross to the concentration camp of Theresiandstadt during the Second World War. The Germans created a model village - with a synagogue, school, and playgrounds, in order to hide the true nature of the Final Solution. "Way to Heaven" presents the Commandant of the camp, as he works to create the "play" of the model village, and a handful of Jewish internees who are compelled to act in the play, forced to pretend that they are unaware of the machinery of the holocaust that is all around them. Among the cast are the dean of the University's Charles F. Dolan School of Business, a professor of philosophy, three professors of mathematics, and the chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, among other actors. This is the third play the group has produced, continuing the project they started with "Perpetual Peace" (2011) and "Glengarry Glen Ross" (2012).

More than 200 students will be attending the public performances as part of their studies, and the play is on the syllabus of courses in philosophy, history, modern languages and literatures, religious studies, and politics. In effect, the play is an exercise in integrative pedagogy - bringing faculty and students together from a number of disciplines to focus on a milestone event in human history, a learning experience made deeply experiential and tangible through the medium of the theater. Each performance will be followed by a different faculty-led discussion.

None of the actors are theatre professionals - and that's the point. "This is a way of being able to use theatre in an active engagement with our students," said Jerelyn Johnson, a Spanish professor who is one of the play's producers. "It's another avenue of inquiry, an innovative way to use theatre as a teaching tool."

Priests in the Society of Jesus, the religious order that founded Fairfield University, have been using theatre as an immersive teaching tool for centuries, said director Alistair Highet, the University's director of advancement and student affairs communications.

"They realized it's a powerful way to reach people," Highet said. "For instance, this play is about the Holocaust, a historical event so significant it has the danger of becoming abstract. Through theatre, you're grounding it in a lived experience. And we wanted a play that addresses the big questions - the big Jesuit questions - about justice and the dignity of the person. It's an expression of a kind of world-friendly pedagogy."

Watching professors transform into actors can also has a profound effect on the way their students view their own futures. "In addition to the important questions raised by the play, those of us involved in the production are examples of the lifelong learning the University encourages. We're not boxed into our own separate areas," said Johnson, chair of Modern Languages and Literatures, who also acts in the play. "We can all continue to try new things and grow throughout our lives."

Johnson and her co-producer, philosophy professor Dennis Keenan, said Fairfield welcomes outside-the-box thinking from its professors. "It's organic," said Keenan, who play's a key character. "It comes from the bottom up."

Sponsors for the play include the Humanities Institute of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Dolan School of Business and the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Center for Judaic Studies, as well as several other academic departments

"The University has been very supportive," Johnson said. "At Fairfield, you're really only limited by your own imagination as to what you can do and the ways you can teach."

Performances of "Way to Heaven" run Wednesday, September 25 through Saturday, September 28 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, September 29 at 2 p.m. All performances will be held in the Wien Experimental Theater of the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts. Tickets are $20. For tickets, visit or call the Box Office at (203) 254-4010.

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Media Contact: Meredith Guinness, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2950,

Posted on September 25, 2013

Vol. 46, No. 38

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