En/Acting Joyful Learning: Bringing Classroom Texts to Life

A Liberal Arts Engagement Hub Residency
Actors from the Mixed Blood Theater group performing in front of students outside of Pillsbury hall on a stairwell

During the 2020-2021 academic year, professional actors from the Mixed Blood Theatre went to class. Via more than 30 different Zoom “performances,” they brought to life the texts being read by students in CLA Department of English classes. 

The virtual encounters sparked meaningful conversations between classmates, instructors, and actors. The performances not only entertained students but also made the texts more pertinent to their modern lives.


The En/Acting Joyful Learning project came about when Professor Andrew Elfenbein, chair of the Department of English, noticed that both actors and students were struggling at the beginning of the pandemic. Theaters were shut down due to safety precautions and students were sitting behind screens for the entirety of their school day. 

Elfenbein thought: why not put them together? He and Communications Specialist Terri Sutton (MFA ‘03) proposed the idea to the theatre, who had hosted a dedicated internship for UMN English majors for several years. And “because we [had] a great relationship with Mixed Blood ... they said yes, yes, yes,” says Sutton.

What’s Happening Next

This project will continue during 2021-22 in-person as one of the residencies in the Liberal Arts Engagement Hub, located in Pillsbury Hall. Mixed Blood Theatre actors will be paid by UMN for their collaboration to implement the virtual medium as a new way for students to experience texts in the classroom. 

“It’s great that we were able to bring people together online, but that’s still not the optimal experience for all of us, we’d rather be in the same room. So we applied for the residency to help us be able to pay the actors better and to extend this program,” says Sutton. 

This autumn, visits have taken place outside of Pillsbury Hall (so the actors could perform unmasked), inside English classrooms, and in the Hub itself, which offers a natural amphitheater and an undisturbed environment. Being in-person has allowed for more movement and engagement between the actors and the students.

Widening the Horizon

Part of Mixed Blood Theatre’s mission is to address “injustices, inequities, and cultural collisions, providing a voice for the unheard.” This is achieved by the diverse group of actors they engage, who aim to preserve histories and cultures through their performances while also challenging those assumptions. Bringing these perspectives to students will foster deep discussions that widen perspectives and enhance learning through community-led teaching. 

Sutton says the actors “love to teach just as much as the instructor. They want to share their knowledge of performing the text and share their knowledge of the context.” 


While the actors deliver performances, the Department of English is able to provide an accessible space for the project, payment for the actors, and the planning it takes for these events to happen. Together, this collaboration will continue to strengthen the bond between University students and Twin Cities cultural communities through mutually fun and meaningful experiences. Based on current success, En/Acting Joyful Learning likely will continue to inspire collaborative learning and conversations throughout years to come. As Sutton put it, “Who’s to say what the next stage is, and that’s kind of exciting.”

The Liberal Arts Engagement Hub

This project is one of The Hub Residencies for the 2021-22 academic year. The Liberal Arts Engagement Hub seeks to facilitate reciprocal and trusting partnerships between humanistic scholars in the arts, humanities, and social sciences and the community to respond to important social challenges.

CLA partners in this project are: Andrew Elfenbein, Department of English and Mixed Blood Theatre; Terri Sutton, communications specialist in Department of English; and Catherine Campbell, production manager for Mixed Blood Theatre


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