Artistic activism in India: Wallenberg fellow to explore the power of art to change society
Meredith Starkman says one of the most emotionally trying experiences of her life happened on an education-abroad trip to Rio de Janeiro when she went to a hospital with a group of Brazilian performers to cheer up chemotherapy patients.
Considering how sick the patients were, the University of Michigan theatre student didn’t expect them to be a lively audience. But as soon as her group began singing, the patients came alive. They sat up and began singing along. One man asked for a tambourine. They asked Starkman and her U-M classmates to sing “Stand by Me” over and over again.
“I couldn’t really keep it together. I had never been so emotionally moved,” she said. “Some of those people sit there for three or four hours, sometimes more than that. So it was really beautiful to be able to bring them something—anything. And for them to be so appreciative, it was really lovely.”
The experience helped deepen Starkman’s belief in the power of “artistic activism,” using the arts as tools for improving people’s lives and promoting social justice. It also eventually inspired her plans as the next recipient of the Wallenberg Fellowship. The award is given each spring to a graduating senior with exceptional promise and accomplishment who is committed to service and the public good.
The fellowship will provide Starkman $25,000 to carry out an independent project of learning or exploration anywhere in the world during the year after her graduation. She plans to go to India to work with groups that use music, dance, theatre and the visual arts to improve the lives of people living in the margins of society.
This will be Starkman’s first visit to India, and she’s as frightened as she is excited.
“I’m most scared of being lonely,” said Starkman, graduating with a BFA in theatre performance. “I’ve never stayed in a place this long without knowing people in the country. I only know two people. But anyone I know who has ever been to India or has family in the country has given me names. It’s just a matter of reaching out and finding my own way.”
Art and Activism
Growing up in the Detroit suburbs, Starkman often joined her parents, who are both attorneys, when they volunteered in homeless shelters and soup kitchens in the city.
“I learned to serve that way early and have respect for people who were struggling,” said Starkman, a 2012 graduate of Birmingham Groves High School.
She wanted to continue volunteering when she enrolled in the Department of Theatre and Drama at the School of Music, Theatre and Dance at U-M but found it challenging as she became more immersed in her studies. But during the summer after her freshman year, she got a taste of how she could combine her two passions while working for a summer lunch program for kids in Detroit. Her dual role included organizing sponsors to donate food and programing dance, music and theatre classes for the children.
“That was my first dip into what these two things looked like together—what I can do with art and volunteering—and I loved it,” she said. “I thought it was really powerful. I thought these kids wouldn’t keep coming back if I didn’t engage with them in this other way.”
Still, Starkman was grappling with doubts about the artistic value of performances that seek to advance a social cause. One of her favorite professors argued that he had never seen political theater that was good. He believed that theatre should only ask the questions and the audience should answer them.
“Theater that is trying to give you a point, telling you how to act, telling you how to be moral, actually works against the craft’s purpose,” she said, summarizing her professor’s views. “For a long time, I agreed with him because in the U.S., we don’t have a tradition of activist theatre.”
But she changed her mind after a friend encouraged her to take a class called “Theatre and Incarceration” with Ashley Lucas, an associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Drama and in the Residential College. Starkman started doing a theater workshop once a week on Sundays at the Huron River Women’s Correctional Facility, the only women’s prison in the state.
“It was totally life changing,” she said. “It really taught me that theater isn’t one thing, and it isn’t supposed to be done in one way and that you can ask questions in a purposeful way—in a way I’d say answers them without answering them.”
After the course ended, Starkman joined Lucas and a small group of students who traveled to Rio de Janeiro to study how art can change oppressive systems of power. That’s when she met up with the group performing for chemotherapy patients in hospitals. The students also participated in workshops in prisons and slums, or favelas, in the program funded by U-M’s Brazil Initiative.
“Meredith gives much of herself and works very hard,” Lucas said. “Despite the fact that she speaks no Portuguese, Meredith’s enthusiasm, thoughtfulness and humor won over the Brazilian faculty and students as well as the folks in the workshops. She had never previously visited Brazil, and the newness of everything we encountered was a challenge for her. Nevertheless, she displayed a remarkable ability to respectfully enter unknown spaces and to make others feel seen and supported.”
Meredith Starkman’s Plan for Her Wallenberg Fellowship Year
Each unique experience pushes back against the notion that certain people are not worthy or deserving of artistic expression and capitalizes on the healing, transformative capacity of performance.
Host: Alumna Neha Bhat’s organization, Khula Aasman
Project: Observe and help facilitate, workshops for children with special needs, at-risk communities and inmates.
Hosts: Kolkata Sanved and the Jana Sanskriti Centre for Theatre of the Oppressed
Projects: Share experiences with expressive dance with Kolkata Sanved, which uses dance and movement therapy as a form of rehabilitation for victims of human trafficking and violence. Work with the Theatre of the Oppressed to develop plays that encourage dialogue about social problems.
Hosts: Studio for Movement Arts and Therapies
Project: Join workshops about theatre and dance stories. Create performances that ask low-income students to discuss social challenges and find solutions.
The Wallenberg Fellowship honors one of U-M’s most illustrious graduates—Raoul Wallenberg, who graduated with a degree in architecture in 1935. As a Swedish diplomat during World War II, he saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary, using safe houses and creating special passports for them.
Starkman said her Jewish heritage helps her feel a special bond with Wallenberg. His adventurous spirit and the easy way he connected with people appealed to her. She was also impressed with the way Wallenberg hitchhiked across the country as a student, saying the trips were his first and best lessons in diplomacy.
“The way he approached helping people was so powerful and effective because he didn’t do it for himself,” she said. “I think it was always with other people in mind and always coming from a place of listening and then from a place of giving. I am humbled that the fellowship I have received is in his name.”
Written by William Foreman. Originally published by Global Michigan.