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A weekly inside look at the unique faces and personalities that make up The College of Wooster community. Helen Rooker ’18 is a stage manager for the theater department. She reflects on the impact of theater as a platform for social change.

Sally Kershner
Features Editor

Why is theater your platform for social change?

Primarily because I feel like the social context of theater is not read by people outside of theater as much to be a powerful thing, but, you know it’s one of the most versatile arts. [Chile] had a dictatorship in which when they took over, the first thing they did was dismantle the public theater company. Clearly, [public theater] is an important way of speaking and important voice for people.

Student protests are basically a type of theater, people giving speeches on the top of Kauke steps. It can come from this grassroots place and have a lot of power in more formal settings. So, I really love the work that I am able to do from just the smallest; you know one person talking at a protest or handing out pamphlets on campus, to big formal settings looking at how a theatrical production can talk about any topic it wants to convince the audience to think harder.

Your Indpendent Study looks at how the audience is a bystander in theater. How can we overcome the obstacle of being a bystander in theater, and to an extent, a social setting?

The bystander effect is defined as a group of people watching an event, usually a crime, and the more people there are, the less likely they will intervene. There’s a lot of different reasons: you assume someone else will intervene or it’s not your place to intervene, so in theater, pointing this out to your audiences means that suddenly, they re-examine who they are.

When you go to a theatre and sit in the audience, you don’t really expect to be complicit in whatever is happening, so it’s a really good way to point at something and say “Look! You’re just sitting here passively, what if you weren’t?” Doing the kind of theater that makes audiences want to stand up and say “Stop! This is horrible” helps to build how they may want to stop things in the real world.

How do you see the bystander effect being challenged at the College?

I think that through the student protests that we have seen these past two to three years we can really see the way students are becoming more and more active on campus, just from my freshman to senior year, it’s really changed, especially with how students interact with rape culture and the Living Wage Campaign.

What has inspired you to attack this theory and have this become central to your academic identity?

I saw a play in New York City called 1984, based on the novel by George Orwell, and in the reviews — which is why I wanted to see it — people were standing up in the audience and saying “Stop. Stop this violence” because it was horribly graphic and incredibly painful to watch, and that was kind of the point of the play. They showed really graphic and torturous violence and they blame the audience and the audience members would stand up and walk out or throw up and scream at the actors to stop.

So I saw that show and the day that I saw it, no one did anything. As I sat in the audience, I thought to myself “I hate this. I want this to stop. But I shouldn’t because there are so many people here and I don’t want to be the first person to stand up, maybe someone else will stand up and then I will stand up.” I felt those bystander effect justifications showing up. Later, I started thinking about my thesis and thought “Well, if nobody will stand up in that extreme case, how can I look at how we, as theater artists, interact with this effect?”

What was special about turning in I.S. for you?

Ironically, the show that I directed for my I.S. was titled “Nine” and after I turned in my I.S. I didn’t realize the button I got was also number nine until a friend pointed it out to me.

Most embarrassing moment on stage?

I almost broke my ankle on stage once. I was stage managing an opera on the Wooster stage and there was a freshly mopped floor that I was walking across and the director — this really popular director at the company — was standing right there and I slipped and cracked my ankle, so that was not a great moment.

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