SANFORD - Onlookers were lashing between hysterical laughter and quiet reflection as Mike Wiley moved around the stage, transforming himself from one character to another, recounting that fateful day in Montgomery, Ala., when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus -- and changed the world.
In "Tired Souls," the professional actor brought his audience face-to-face with Jo Ann Robinson, Claudette Colvin, and other less-familiar activists who sparked the civil rights movement decades ago.
Occasionally, he pulled some surprised observers out of their seats and up on stage to reenact some of history's pivotal events, but with the roles reversed: a black policeman confronts a white woman as she holds her ground on the bus.
It was a performance that had everyone captivated.
Most in this matinee audience were students from Central Carolina Community College, but not the actors, musicians, or artists you might expect to show up at the Temple Theatre for a dramatic work. They were university transfer students studying American literature and history. Sociology and the humanities. Even writing. All were absorbing what was happening in person. In front of them. In the room where it happens.
After the thunderous ovation from an enthusiastic house of a couple hundred people, Wiley stood on stage for what theater people call a "talkback" -- the chance for the audience to interact with the performer, to discuss the performance and the issues it raised.
Once the curtain fell, it clearly was time to think.
The Stage as a Classroom
Today was special, but nothing all that unusual for CCCC students. Bianka Stumpf, CCCC's Social Sciences Lead Instructor who organizes enrichment activities like this one, says students typically attend two or three theatrical performances every year, taking advantage of having Temple Theatre nearby, a professional theater that draws outstanding artists from around the country.
Just a month ago, students were in the same room watching "Tuesdays with Morrie," a play based on the autobiographical story by sportswriter Mitch Albom. Dramatists Play Services describes the plot: "Sixteen years after graduation, Mitch happens to catch Morrie's appearance on a television news program and learns that his old professor is battling Lou Gehrig's Disease. Mitch is reunited with Morrie, and what starts as a simple visit turns into a weekly pilgrimage and a last class in the meaning of life."
Just as in Mike Wiley's performance, the audience included more than thespians. Sitting in the theater were more than a hundred CCCC students studying human services technology and a variety of social sciences -- all examining topics ranging from how people deal with death and grief to how a dramatic scene can be written to intensify its effect.
The experience had an impact. Breanne Priestner, one of the students studying Human Services Technology, found it "rough" to experience the play from a psychological perspective.
"I felt for Morrie and Mitch, and understood where both men were in their handle on what their lives have thrown at them," she wrote after the performance. "I've been in Mitch's shoes; after losing my dad in Iraq, I closed myself off for years. I did not want to be 'touchy feely' or feel much of anything that brought actual feelings.
"I have also been in Morrie's shoes. I know what it is like to be extremely aware that life is short and that being close to death can make someone feel twice as alive. I know that loving someone can hurt, but living is what life is about."
Others viewed the performance from an entirely different perspective. For Daija Terry, it was the opportunity to see how playwrights Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom structured the play and used literary techniques to sharpen its message.
"Watching the performance helped to bring about a better understanding of how to shape my own pieces, such as our 10-minute plays we will be writing this semester," she wrote in a reflective assignment for CCCC Humanities Chair Ty Stumpf's creative writing class. "Stepping into Temple Theatre provided me with more inspiration than the four walls of our classroom could have and allowed our class to think about how to apply themes to our assignments effectively, after observing the actions of the actors and the technical aspects of the showing.
"It illustrated how important it is to make your play feel like it's not a play, but a realistic occasion."
The Power of Theater
Peggy Taphorn, Temple Theatre's Producing Artistic Director, understands the power of theater, especially for young people, which is why the Temple offers special student prices to matinee performances like the ones CCCC attends. It's also why the nonprofit has its own educational outreach with weeklong workshops and a popular summer youth conservatory.
Before taking her position nine years ago, Taphorn was a professional actor and dance captain on some of the world's greatest stages, even appearing in six shows on Broadway. She has seen how theater has a unique ability to draw audiences into an unfamiliar place and help them connect deeply with the wide range of characters they see on stage.
"It is unlike any other form of entertainment as you are asked to lean forward and participate and not just observe," Taphorn explains. "This interaction stirs up emotional responses -- as an individual audience member and for the group as a whole. It adds to the uniqueness of each and every performance."
Theater and ... Numismatics?
Enrichment activities are offered at the college all year long. Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Jose Galvez gave students a peek through his lens and into his life during a lecture and exhibition last April, and author and archaeologist Char Solomon was on campus in October to discuss her encounter with the ancient Maya culture.
And theater has even played a supporting role for some of these events that don't have any direct connection to the stage at all.
In an effort to diversify the faces on American currency, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew announced two years ago that Alexander Hamilton's portrait would be replaced on the 10-dollar bill. That decision didn't go over so well. Not only did Hamilton create the same U.S. Treasury that issues currency and serve as its first secretary, but the hip-hop musical "Hamilton" was performing in New York City and taking the culture by storm.
A frenetic nationwide movement led by "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda saved the portrait and gave Bianka Stumpf an opening. So, she invited Dr. Anthony Harrington to discuss the evolution of currency with students studying American history, business, and economics.
Theater is an academic discipline of its own, but Bianka, Ty, and her colleagues have used the art form to help students of all kinds connect with people and ideas. She recalls running across some research years ago showing how students attending Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" understood the work better than students who merely read the play. They also had more empathy for the characters.
But she believes the power of theater is even greater than that -- especially for those on stage, but also for everyone living the story vicariously in the audience. Theater gives people the chance to go places they don't ordinary go and meet people they don't ordinarily meet. "If you have exposure to the arts, you know the value it has for participants and audiences," Bianka Stumpf says. "Through theater, students can have life experiences they might not otherwise have had."
For more information on Central Carolina Community College, visit the website www.cccc.edu.
Professional actor Mike Wiley (center) visits with CCCC Social Sciences Lead Instructor Bianka Stumpf (left) and Temple Theatre Producing Artistic Director Peggy Taphorn.
Professional actor Mike Wiley performs for Central Carolina Community College students at the Temple Theatre.