Student Playwrights Find Their Voices

Author: Paige Risser

Theatre major Shay Thornton ’10 remembers well the genesis of the student-written play Scattered Voices. It was in early 2008. She and fellow students in Professor Anton Juan’s theatre and social concerns course started corresponding with juveniles at a local correctional facility.

The personal interaction, Juan says, was designed to help the students understand and then be able to dramatize the residents’ process toward reconciliation with society.




“We received letters, poems, raps, pictures, songs, and graffiti, all opening our eyes to these young men’s realities,” Thornton recalls. “The preconceived notions I had of what they must be like were blown away because of the universal themes of their works. They spoke about love, loss, hurt, happiness, families, and friends.”

Working from their exchanges with the incarcerated teens, the students together wrote Scattered Voices.

Then, in the spring of 2009, Juan taught the course a second time, that semester also organizing the International Playwrights Conference called Darwin and Theatre: Migration and Evolution.

“That class got involved in active and intense discussions on migrant issues and the role theatre plays in concretizing, voicing out, and dramatizing their contexts and conflicts,” he says. “Inspired by the presentations and discussions, the class members sought out migrants in our communities, went to their places of work and homes, and engaged them in conversations.”

From those experiences, the students in the course wrote the play Cargo.

The powerful experience Juan and his students shared while creating these two works inspired him to revive the New Playwright’s Workshop, a project first started in 1998 by Professor Mark Pilkinton to showcase student works.

In October 2009, Scattered Voices and Cargo made their debuts, melding performance art with Notre Dame’s commitment to the Catholic focus on social justice.

“[It] was such a rewarding experience because it was not only about a worthwhile subject,” says Thornton, who directed the production of Scattered Voices for the workshop, “but it was also exhilarating to be part of a group that conceived something from start to finish.”

This response was exactly what Juan had in mind when he created the course and, with the help of a mini-grant for community-based learning from the Center for Social Concerns, another program called Immerse, Engage, Emerge. His goal, he says, is to work with students to articulate issues facing marginalized populations and, in so doing, help them experience the power of the creative process.

“The response of the students to the works studied grew sincerely from their appreciation of theatre as an agent of social change,” Juan says. “Their response was not only as critical participants but as proactive contributors to the body of work of theatre dealing with urgent social issues.”

Originally published by Paige Risser at on September 29, 2009.