UChicago’s Civic Actor Studio challenges Chicago’s civic leaders to practice the art of leadership

civic actor studio

Civic action doesn’t come with a script but as the 20 community leaders the University of Chicago brought together last week learned, civic leadership is its own kind of theatrical performance.

Led by the University’s Office of Civic Engagement (OCE) and the Court Theatre, the Civic Actor Studio is a unique four-day leadership retreat that invites established and emerging civic leaders to examine the various leadership roles they play.

The Civic Actor Studio aims to provide a space where participants can connect and think about leadership itself as a performing art, Joanie Friedman, OCE’s executive director of civic leadership said during a recent interview with host Dr. Damon T. Arnold on WVON’s America’s Heroes Group show.

This year, because of the pandemic, the retreat consisted of three days of exercises over Zoom and one day of in-person interaction.

“What [the participants] all have in common is that they care about and work toward and love a thriving South Side,” Friedman said. “And they’re also willing to take a leap of faith and do this experience which doesn’t happen in a classroom behind a computer but actually happens in a rehearsal room where people use their body, minds, and voices to practice the performance art of leadership.”

The program hosted its second pilot cohort this year after 2019’s inaugural retreat.

To create the program’s framework Booth School of Business Professor Harry L. Davis and Charles Newell, artistic director of Court Theatre, combined the popular “Stage Page Tool” Davis co-developed with executive coach Barbara Lanebrown. The “Tool” is coupled with classic theater techniques that help actors access their voice, power, and the wide range of “characters” they contain that can be useful in different civic scenarios.

“This experience is truly transformational for these leaders, many of whom are getting the chance to tap into and express parts of their authentic selves they don’t often have an opportunity to explore,” Gabrielle Randle, dramaturg and Court Theatre’s inaugural Research Fellow said. “Each actor is drawing different insights about themselves and the roles that they play but each insight is rooted in truth and that’s what’s so powerful.”

This year’s programming was facilitated in part by six past participants who received special training. New participants represented sectors including education, finance, healthcare, journalism, and the arts.

Participants read and discussed themes of justice and leadership in the Greek tragedy Antigone and took part in theater-based exercises and discussions, creating scenes onstage at the Stony Island Arts Bank on the last day of the retreat.

“Oftentimes in the space that I’m in, I’m engaging with different community members and sometimes your voice gets lost in those conversations,” program participant and Chief Equity Officer at Thrive Chicago Christopher Goins said on the America’s Heroes Group show.

“The Civic Actors Studio helped me to rediscover my voice and stand firm in the spotlight where I’m most comfortable and where my superpowers shine through.”

For more information about the Civic Actor Studio, email Joanie Friedman at joaniefriedman@uchicago.edu.

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