Corn fields and chain restaurants. That was the perception of Muncie, Indiana, in the minds of a handful of sociologyEnglish and theatre students prior to the spring of 2011. Fast forward a semester of research, interviews, and collaborative playwriting to those same students—now deeply vested in the people and rich fabric of shared experiences that has sustained this proud midsize city, nicknamed Middletown, through deindustrialization and rebirth.

Theatre professor Jennifer Blackmer and sociology professor Melinda Messineo teamed up in spring 2011 to offer an immersive learning experience for students from various disciplines to delve into the impetus and implications of the Middletown studies, which sought to identify cultural norms and sociological change during the mid-1920s. The project culminated that September at the Muncie Civic Theatre with a reading of The Middletown Theatre Project, a play born of exhaustive research and heartfelt interviews with Muncie residents.

Theatre student Craig Ester, ’13, was involved in most every aspect of the project, from initial inquiry to his role on stage as Kaleb, a senior determined to fuse the human condition with quantitative research. The Detroit native says the responsibility to write and present the stories of those he interviewed shaped him into a more compassionate actor. It deepened his understanding of his craft and certainly influenced his view of Muncie.

“I have begun to see this place as more than just a college town; and by that I mean, I now see Muncie as a living, breathing organism. There are people, life, and a host of amazing human stories embedded within the community,” Ester says. “Playing Kaleb, I had researched him, I had written him, so by the time it came time to perform him, I had a level of empathy for the character that I hadn’t experienced in my previous work. The challenge became to take that passion I felt for the character and use it to enhance the entire process.”

Beyond the Classroom

This personal and professional self-reflection is one of the many outcomes students identified. Sociology students began to grasp the powerful role storytelling can play in scientific assessment. In turn, theatre and English students improved their science literacy and cultivated a more informed outlook of complex social interaction.

“The students have a greater understanding of the Middletown studies, the causes of poverty and the impact of deindustrialization on small town America, the need to hear unheard voices, and greater appreciation of their community and the people who make it a fantastic place to live,” says Messineo, a Ball State nominee for U.S. Professor of the Year in 2010. “I left with a greater love of my community and a desire to become more involved and provide more opportunities for students to also get involved. I am convinced more than ever that immersive learning courses provide transformative learning experiences.”

All art is interdisciplinary, Blackmer says, and the immersive component of this project required students to plunge themselves into a variety of disciplines to accurately articulate the town’s vibrant and complex history.

“It is through projects like this one that students can gain profound respect and deep understanding for disciplines other than their chosen one,” Blackmer says. “I believe that only through understanding of the world as a conversation between multiple disciplines can we begin to think about solving the problems of our communities.”

English student Andrew Neylon, ’14, says everyone involved in the partnership gained a greater appreciation for underlying forces that shape a community, as the students pushed their creative bounds to convey many of the city’s unheard voices.

“A unique piece of the sociological puzzle was developed here in Muncie, and it was surprising and informative to learn that our town was the home of such revolutionary research,” Neylon says of Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown studies of the 1920s. “The project forced me to put my ideas out there and accept them living on the chopping block. Wearing so many hats was a powerful learning experience.”

A Transformative Performance

Ball State students, parents, and community members packed into the historic Muncie Civic Theatre the night of the first public reading in early September 2011. Blackmer and Messineo opened the event with an unscripted overview of the Middletown studies and project timeline before thanking community partners, such as TEAMwork for Quality Living and Borg Warner Retirees, for their participation in gathering information and arranging interviews that served as the backbone of the play.

Lights faded to blackness. As beams illuminated the stage, students and community actors filed into smartly arranged chairs and began to share Muncie’s history with charm, a little humor, and profoundly touching threads of humanity. For telecommunications major Jessica Hoffmann, ’12, the experience was deeply personal.

“I had the opportunity to give my story to a character. The decision to use my life was easy, but writing down my experience with poverty was difficult,” says the theatrical studies minor, who is directing a documentary about the immersive learning experience. “Every day, I was thrust outside my comfort zone when I listened to the monologue about a hard part of my life. But I learned that I am capable of great things, and that I should not be afraid to express myself artistically and otherwise.”

Following the reading, audience members asked the students and professors about the process, their perceptions of Muncie, and the Lynds’ research. The talkback lasted nearly an hour, as many residents shared their appreciation for being part of the meaningful, authentic project.

“My favorite part of the project was definitely the final staged reading,” says Rebecca Austin, ’14, who is double majoring in theatrical studies and creative writing. “Immersive learning is more than just a textbook, lectures, and homework assignments. You learn because you’re doing it. The result is in your hands. Hearing actors and actresses from the community read the play was a surreal yet enlightening experience, and obviously, getting to finally share our work with the community was amazing.”

Looking to the Future

The script of Middletown Theatre Project will eventually be revised with the intention of performing the piece throughout Muncie and beyond. Theatre major Laura Pittenger, ’12, says she hopes the play inspires other towns to tell their stories.

“I had the pleasure of meeting so many residents who are passionate about their town's identity and making sure that they and their fellow citizens are represented fairly and accurately,” Pittenger says. “The play could be just as spectacle-heavy and gorgeous as The Music Man and with the same amount of heart.”

Related Links:

Immersive Learning

Department of Theatre and Dance

Department of Sociology 

Department of English 

Muncie Civic Theatre