New class has African debut

A new Yale Summer Session course that will combine theater and public health in an effort to further HIV/AIDS awareness education will be offered in Swaziland for the first time this summer, administrators announced this week.

The course, “Arts and Public Health in Action: Study of HIV/AIDS in Swaziland,” will take place from June 4 to July 7. It will allow students to spend time in the classroom studying current issues in epidemiology and participating in community theater activities that use acting productions to spread awareness of these epidemic diseases. School of Public Health professor Kaveh Khoshnood and School of Drama professor Rebecca Rugg will co-teach the course with the help of Ugandan artist Ntare Mwine, Summer Session Director William Whobrey said. The two-credit course will be capped at 18 students.

The program is an unprecedented opportunity for students to be active forces for change in both academic and performance spheres, Whobrey said.

“I think two unique aspects [of the program] are that, as with any other course at Yale, they’ll be getting a very good grounding in HIV/AIDS in terms of public health, but they’ll be able to experience it in a way they wouldn’t be able to in New Haven,” he said. “Then the practical aspect is academic in that it’s guided by a Yale instructor, but also with an element of fieldwork that you might associate with an anthropology course … Students will actually experience what the conditions are and how local and national governments are working through theater groups to make sure local populations get the best and most current medical information on HIV/AIDS prevention.”

Whobrey said the course does not require an extensive background in theater, although experience with public presentation is helpful.

The classroom portion of the five weeks will focus on current topics in public health, including mother-child transmission of disease, but will also cover the ways in which theater has effected social change in the past, as through the work of playwright Bertolt Brecht. Outside the classroom, students will engage in workshops with local Swaziland artists to probe the dialogue surrounding the HIV/AIDS pandemic and its effect on communities, drawing parallels to the classroom topics. The course will culminate with a trip to the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in South Africa.

Rugg, who produced a play on HIV/AIDS performed by Mwine in New York, said this more unconventional form of theater will contribute not only to the Swaziland communities, but to students’ individual strength of expression and willingness to experiment with their art.

“I think [this type of acting] is geared for a very different purpose that has to do with social justice and making immediate change in the world,” she said. “Obviously, one hopes that all theater one does will be involved with those things, but I think this is a much more immediate way for this to happen and hopefully will affect the kind of theater that students will do on stage, too.”

The National Arts Festival — the largest arts festival on the African continent — will be an opportunity for the students to showcase some of what they learn, Rugg said.

Khoshnood said the course is a unique opportunity to understand firsthand the extent of the struggle against HIV/AIDS.

“Here at Yale, students are not confronted with the reality of the [HIV/AIDS] epidemic, but through going to the schools, the nongovernmental organizations, the ministry of health, and hospitals, and working with artists who have been trying to bring awareness of this disease to their artwork, I think the students will get much more of an insider perspective,” he said. “I hope it is a transformative experience that will stay with students beyond their years at Yale.”

Several students said they are excited about the opportunity.

Jenny Nissel ’08, a theater studies major who is planning to apply for the class, said the course will allow her to explore her art in new arenas.

“I’m really interested in exploring theater’s power to incite change, and I feel like it would be a good exploration for myself and what I can do eventually through the theater,” she said. “And also, I’ve been sort of stuck in the Western idea of theater for a really long time, and just for myself I’d like to experiment.”

But Rebecca Anastos-Wallen ’09, a Global Health Week organizer and a member of Yale AIDS Watch, said she would prefer to address public health problems through a non-Yale program focused more directly on activism, although the logistics of travel and funding could be more difficult. But she said the new program will likely be effective in appealing to students interested in global health who do not have strong science or math backgrounds

Bix Bettwy ’08, a theater studies major who is planning to apply for the class, said acting in the Swaziland community will be a novel experience for him.

“It’s something that you don’t get to really experience in the theater department at Yale,” he said. “It’s a completely different audience that you have no access to in America, and it’s a great opportunity to do theater that is a force socially rather than just artistically.”

Yale Summer Session will hold an information session for students interested in applying on Feb. 15. The deadline to apply is Apr. 2, and tuition, the program fee, room and board will total $6,400. Students currently receiving Yale financial aid are eligible to apply for the International Summer Award to cover the program’s costs.

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