Acting with Intent: Citizen U. and Civic Ensemble at the NY State Fair

By jenjensen | September 08, 2014

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative. This post originally appeared on the New York team’s Extension Reconsidered website and is published with permission here. It has been lightly edited for a non-NY audience.

By Paul Treadwell, distance learning advisor for Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) and member of CCE Extension Reconsidered team

One element of the Extension Reconsidered project here in New York State is focused on re-claiming theater as a tool for extension. There is a history of theater in extension work that has faded from recent memory. We are hoping that our collaboration with Civic Ensemble will reveal the value of theater as a method for presenting issues in a way that fosters dialog and deliberation. One of the major elements of our collaboration will be the creation of a new theater piece exploring the major themes and issues that have surfaced as the result of our Extension Reconsidered activities. This currently unnamed piece will premier at our capstone event on October 8, 2014.

Citizen U and Civic Ensemble performers at the New York State Fair. Photo courtesy of

Citizen U and Civic Ensemble performers at the New York State Fair. Photo courtesy of

Being creative and collaborative traveling companions, Civic Ensemble members have participated in a number of brainstorming sessions with us during the past few months. During one of these sessions a vague and tentative plan was developed to ‘do something’ with 4-H at the New York State Fair in August. The initial ‘something’ was a vision of extreme beauty and perfection, but — like many visions — reality sets in and you move from blue sky aspirations to practical application.

Rubber, meet road.

In this case, what evolved was a one and a half day workshop with four youth from the Citizen U. project of Broome county culminating in a performance in the Youth building at the fair. Working with the youth were Godfrey Simmons, artistic director of Civic Ensemble and Ryan Travis, actor and instructor at Syracuse University. The youth – Embroidery, Nosa, Macalah and Desiree – were taken through the process of creating and staging a performance that built on the 4-H theme for the State Fair of “The power of Youth”.  The day and a half of workshop included the full gamut of theater arts including script writing, acting, directing and performing.

Using “The Power of Youth” as a thematic frame, Embroidery, Nosa, Macalah and Desiree worked with Godfrey and Ryan to develop a piece that was rooted in the lived experience of the youth, and also spoken in the voice of the youth. The subject, language and staging of the piece was facilitated by Godfrey and Ryan but was wholly determined by the interests and desires of the youth.  The resulting piece, titled “The Power of You” was premiered on the main stage of the Youth building on Wednesday August 27. (You can view video of performance below or at Youtube.)

Agree, disagree or…

During the workshop process the youth engaged in an exercise called ‘agree, disagree, not sure’ (variations of this activity include Spectrogram and Four Corners). This activity uses a statement, or series of statements, and (not surprisingly) three signs labeled “Agree”, “Disagree” and “Not Sure”. The statement is read aloud and then participants move to the location denoted by the sign that best indicates their feeling about the statement. Then a discussion ensues with participants explaining why they feel as they do. This process can lead to some sorting of participants if, during the ensuing discussion, points are made that cause them to re-consider their position.


Workshopping in preparation for “The Power of You” performance. Photo courtesy of

After the performance on Wednesday the youth/actors engaged with the audience using the “agree, disagree” activity. And, while the environment was not ideal (noisy, a lot of traffic passing by) a fairly animated discussion took place. The youth moderated, evoked responses and actively listened, while audience members engaged in dialog.

There is, of course, a lot more that happened during the day and a half of work. And there will be some follow up performances of the piece: the first at the Broome county Extension Reconsidered event on September 12 and then again at our capstone events on the Cornell campus on October 8. We’ll be sure to document those performances on the CCE Extension Reconsidered site as well.