Sometimes dramatic performances spur audiences to political or social action. Take, for example, the work of El Teatro Campesino or the San Francisco Mime Troupe. El Teatro began with performances on flatbed trucks to dramatize the cause of California farm workers. Both use theater to highlight a social problem and encourage audience participation to solve it, explains Beth Wynstra ’01, who completed her Ph.D. in theater studies at University of California-Santa Barbara in 2009 and will be a lecturer in rhetoric at Babson College, Boston, Mass. beginning this fall.
While in Santa Barbara, Wynstra had the opportunity to be right at the heart of the phenomena she studied.
She served as artistic director of Nuestra Voz (“our voice”), a multicultural writing and performance program that partners UC-Santa Barbara undergraduates with underserved and mainly first-generation Latino adolescents from the YMCA Teen Center in Isla Vista, near the university.
“In late spring 2008 the County of Santa Barbara closed the Teen Center citing structural damage,” says Wynstra. “It was unclear when or if the facility would reopen.” Discussions among Nuestra Voz participants about the center’s importance to the community led to the development of characters and a storyline for the play Isla Vista: The Video Game. It was performed in front of city council members and various community leaders to illuminate the problem and encourage solutions. “Nuestra Voz is a university-community partnership in which service learning is bi-directional,” says Wynstra. “It benefits all participants.”
Wynstra not only sees theater as an agent for social change but also views education as a social cause itself.
“As a teacher of literature, theater, and writing, I want students to leave my classes not only with a knowledge of dramatic theory, theater history, or the rhetorical devices necessary for effective argumentation and oratory but also with an understanding of how such disciplines can work as powerful, transformative agents for social change,” she says. “Citizen-scholarship is at the heart of my pedagogy. I encourage students to think boldly and broadly not only about how literature, theater, and writing intersect with other areas of study across disciplinary boundaries but also how their scholarly work could serve and better their communities, the nation, and the world. My methods for creating a learning environment of intellectual inquiry, exchange, and application demonstrate a desire to encourage students to be eager and engaged citizens in a world outside the classroom.”
While at UC-Santa Barbara, she also had the opportunity to meet and work with several prominent artists and theater practitioners such as Michael Douglas, Bill Irwin, Jonathan Moscone, Naomi Iizuka, Les Waters, and Sean San Jose.
Wynstra is also a playwright. On Sept. 26, 2010, she will give a lecture on “Eugene O’Neill and the Women in His Life,” and her play, Always, Gene, will be performed as a reading at the Irish American Heritage Center, Chicago, Ill.
The play, Wynstra’s honor thesis, debuted at Lafayette in 2001. The cast included Wynstra, Liza Zitelli ’02, Rebecca Novia ’02, Kate Edelstein ’01, and Susan Donnelly ’01. “When I decided to write my thesis on O’Neill, specifically exploring how the women in his life influenced the characters in his plays,” says Wynstra. “It was my wonderful adviser Suzanne Westfall who suggested I write a play so that I would not keep the women in O’Neill’s life silent in a research paper.”
Wynstra, whose research interests are rhetoric, political performance, and theater for social change, first became interested in O’Neill due to his American version of the Electra myth. In addition, he wrote his masterpiece plays in Danville, Calif., just minutes from where she grew up. She visited O’Neill’s Tao House and has been involved in educational programs there for eight years, serving the last two summers as coordinator and lead instructor of the O’Neill Studio Retreat.
Wynstra was one of five graduate students campus-wide to win the Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award from the UC-Santa Barbara Academic Senate in 2008. She served as a Lafayette Alumni Admissions Representative both in San Diego, where she taught high school for four years, and in Santa Barbara. “The experience was rewarding and special; it is a great way for alumni of all ages to stay connected with all the amazing things happening at Lafayette,” she says.