California State University, Long Beach
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EPIC Program, Students To Touch On Local Community Issues

Published: October 1, 2013

A new yearlong class that began this fall in CSULB’s Theater Arts Department will create EPIC (Educational Performance in Community), a student-driven community based theater company to fan out into Long Beach, touring performances rooted in local issues to schools and community centers.

EPIC will begin with an investigation of local and statewide water issues.

“In the fall semester, the students will research water-related organizations and issues in the Long Beach community, including how we utilize and celebrate water,” explained Ezra LeBank, a Theater Arts’ faculty member since 2011. “It would be easy to focus solely on water-related problems we encounter in this region. However, I believe it is equally important for our students to discover the successes we’ve accomplished alongside our challenges.” The students will address the water issues through performances in the spring semester.

A key to the program is developing community partners, LeBank explained, including any groups with a direct relation to water. “Partners will include government entities that specifically address water issues, local companies who regulate drinking water, the Port of Long Beach and many others,” he said. “Our students will also contact preservation groups who work with nature preserves and senior communities who will describe how their relationship to water in Long Beach has changed over several decades.”

One of the biggest influences on the new class is the Los Angeles-based Cornerstone Theater Company which has commissioned more than 50 playwrights and produced more than 80 new works since its founding in 1987. LeBank explained that one of the theater company’s most effective tools is community research called “Story Circles” that bring residents together with students to share their experiences. “The students bring that information back to the classroom where we will spend the rest of the fall semester building a performance,” he said. “Then the spring semester will focus primarily on touring.”

Among LeBank’s goals is to encourage his students to see the Long Beach community not just as an audience, but also as collaborators.

“It is an integral step for any theatrical company to understand the community it serves. I want our students to develop their capacity to reach out into the community. I want our students to understand that theater can address difficult and vital issues alongside the greater community,” LeBank said. “I want our students to gain experience working with community partners to investigate issues that lay at the root of how we live. I want our students to see their roles as theater artists to be not only people who stand on stages, but people with the capacity to be influential members of civic life.”

Ezra LeBank performing at EPIC Program
Students at CSU Summer Arts in Ezra LeBank’s dynamic partnering course perform at a farmers’ market in Monterey.

LeBank believes the new class challenges him as an educator. “One of the essential elements of teaching is inspiring students,” he said. “The students need to believe they can accomplish something more expansive than anything they’ve done before. I aim to offer them whatever support they need to develop their capacity. My role is to continue challenging our students when they ask ‘Where can we go from here?’”

LeBank earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy from the State University of New York and his MFA in Theater Arts at Smith College, plus a diploma in Commedia from ArsComica in Italy. LeBank also teaches and practices AcroYoga, a style of partner acrobatics with a yogic consciousness.

“It says a lot about this department that this kind of outreach is being offered,” LeBank said. “I think the existence of this class is phenomenal. And it’s only one of a number of programs in the Theater Arts Department that deals with community outreach. The department is devoting substantial energy to exploring how we participate in the greater community. The more we help students discover what is going on, the closer they are connected to Long Beach.”

LeBank thinks this class will impact both the department and the campus. “I see this class as a way to challenge both our students and myself,” he said. “I encourage them to work from a place of wonder and ask themselves ‘Where can we foster connections and civic dialogue?’ If our students learn to pay attention to the surrounding community, I think they’ll find where they can contribute.”

–Richard Manly