3/29/22: Fiona Maxwell, “From Chicago Settlement Houses to the Zoom Room: Process-Oriented Youth Drama, Social Democracy, and Building Ensemble in Times of Crisis”

Please join the Theater and Performance Studies Workshop for:


Fiona Maxwell

PhD Candidate, University of Chicago Department of History

Who will Present:

From Chicago Settlement Houses to the Zoom Room: Process-Oriented Youth Drama, Social Democracy, and Building Ensemble in Times of Crisis

Jane Dailey, Professor of American History, the Law School, and the College
Joanne Underwood, Senior Teacher, Piven Theatre Workshop
Tuesday, March 29
4:30–6:00 PM CST
Over Zoom

Please register for the workshop HERE. The workshop coordinators will circulate the Zoom link prior to the workshop. 

We are committed to making our workshop fully accessible to persons with disabilities. Please direct any questions or concerns to TAPS workshop coordinators, Michael Stablein (mstableinjr@uchicago.edu) and Catrin Dowd (catrindowd@uchicago.edu).

ABSTRACT: My presentation connects the use of the spoken arts with children at Progressive Era Chicago settlement houses to our current moment. From the 1890s to the 1920s, give-and-take interactions between settlement volunteers and working-class immigrant and African American children resulted in a new methodology of process-oriented, ensemble-based drama centered on storytelling, improvisation, and gameplay. These pedagogical and performative innovations emerged in a context of massive disruption, with urbanization, industrialization, and migration fueling tensions and producing hazardous conditions. Settlement workers mobilized spoken performance to bridge boundaries, extend creative opportunities to underserved communities, and promote civic engagement. Youth performance endeavors ultimately inspired an inclusive and collaborative vision of participatory democracy. The story and games-based techniques that originated at Chicago settlements continue to evolve and thrive at the Piven Theatre Workshop. COVID-19 tasked Piven’s teaching staff with crafting a virtual approach to play and performance. Since the pandemic began, my eight- to twelve-year-old students and I have engaged in the same process of give and take as our settlement predecessors, and many activities that were used at settlements have proven effective on Zoom. While aspects of our current time are unprecedented, settlement workers grappled with similar issues, including public health crises, social and economic inequality, and contested definitions of citizenship and democracy. The questions posed by settlement children’s club leaders over a century ago remain relevant today: How can engaging in everyday acts of cultural production with children help to foster belonging, heal divisions, celebrate diversity, and provide the scaffolding for an ensemble-based politics?

BIO: Fiona Maxwell is a historian, storytelling artist, and theatre educator. A PhD candidate in History at the University of Chicago, her research explores the ways in which volunteers and participants at Progressive Era Chicago settlement houses used the spoken arts to bridge social boundaries and develop a collaborative approach to democracy. She is a lead teacher at the Piven Theatre Workshop, where she teaches youth classes in improv, theatre games, and story theatre, and she has performed in storytelling venues across the Chicago area. Maxwell received a BA in Theatre and History from Northwestern University with a module in Theatre for Young Audiences and a MA in History from the University of Chicago.

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