To Stage a Change

Penn State School of Theatre alumna Cynthia Henderson uses performing arts to empower and raise awareness of social issues across the globe.

From a young age, Penn State alumna Cynthia Henderson has wanted to save the world. While growing up in Mobile, Alabama, Henderson had careers goals ranging from becoming a scientist or an astronaut to maybe even the president of the United States. 

Fast-forward a few decades later, and Henderson, 1997 master of fine arts Penn State graduate in theater, is doing her part to save the world—through theater. The Ithaca College professor and social activist recently returned from war-ravaged Cameroon, where she facilitated workshops on peaceful conflict resolution via the performing arts. 

During the last days of her five-week visit, as the war with the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram escalated in the north, Henderson created and facilitated a project about the effects the Boko Haram's attacks were having on the people of Camaroon. That project was turned into a documentary that was recently accepted for the 2016 Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, and is being considered for broadcast on PBS. 

Henderson's trip to Camaroon was funded by a Fulbright grant—her third—and part of her work as founder of Performing Arts for Social Change (PASC), whose mission is to empower people to express themselves and stage their stories, thus raising awareness of societal issues that are often overlooked, such as voting rights, eating disorders, women's empowerment, and AIDS education. 

In her workshops, Henderson leads people of all ages and backgrounds—from elementary school children to politicians to gang members—in creating and developing performance pieces that serve as teaching moments for both those involved in the creative process and the audiences who view the final works. Most of the theater pieces are performed for the public. 

"The things that different people need to express are different flavors of the same experience, because we're all human."

Henderson's "clients" come mainly through word-of-mouth, with people who have participated in a PASC workshop or seen a production spreading the word. She works with schools, nonprofits, and community groups whose members want their voices to be heard. All participants in her workshops are volunteers. 

"That's exactly what I want—it means they will be motivated to share their experiences," explains Henderson. 

And share they have, as evidenced by Henderson's international list of workshop locales, ranging from Ithaca and New York, New York; to  Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador; to Beijing, China. Her recent trip to Cameroon was her second visit to the West African country. 

"The things that different people need to express are different flavors of the same experience, because we're all human," she says. 

"There are women's rights issues everywhere. There are diseases, eating disorders, poverty, PTSD. What PASC offers people is an opportunity to express what they're dealing with through the arts." 

For example, students at an alternative school in Ithaca worked to raise awareness of the challenges faced by those with both visible and invisible disabilities. During Henderson's first visit to Cameroon, villagers used theater to educate people about AIDS. Also in Ithaca, police offers and civilians worked to foster better interaction between them. 

The projects may use theater, but there's no script.

"The first rule of PASC is that we listen and find out what it is participants need to say, and then together we create the pieces," says Henderson.  

While she always had dreams of saving the world, it was not until her teen years that Henderson realized she wanted to work in theater. 

"I never really cared if I became famous. I just fell in love with the art."

Henderson has performed professionally throughout the United States, Europe, and Africa. She earned her bachelor's degree in theater at Troy State University and chose Penn State for graduate school after falling in love with the teachers and students while auditioning. One of her classmates was "Modern Family" star Ty Burrell. 

Since graduating in 1997—the same year she got her Actors' Equity card—she has held teaching positions at Marymount Manhattan College, Hunter College, and California State University at Sacramento. Henderson joined the Ithaca College faculty in 2000. 

In 2003, she was awarded her first Fulbright grant, which took her to Cameroon to teach and to conduct research on theater for development at the University of Yaoundé 1. Four years later, she created Performing Arts for Social Change, building on years of experience of using theater to make a difference in the world. 

"I never really cared if I became famous. I just fell in love with the art."

She got her first taste of theater as a means for social change when she helped her brother learn math. 

"When I asked him what he did in his special education classes, it sounded like he just played. So I decided I was going to 'play school' with him, and ultimately helped him learn everyday math, like how to count change. I remember I was so excited when he was able to tell a cashier in a store that she had given him the wrong change." 

At Penn State, faculty members like Manuel Duque, Bob Leonard, and Charles Dumas not only taught Henderson acting skills, but influenced how she viewed herself as an actress of color. 

"Manuel always told us to get over ourselves—it wasn't about us. Combining that with Charles' lessons about my responsibility to society and underrepresented communities allowed me to bring together my work as an actress and social activist in a more conscious way." 

Immediately after Henderson returned from Cameroon, some of her Ithaca College faculty colleagues asked if she would develop a social change project addressing the racism issues on campus. The project is the focus of a special topics course, "Theatre for Social Change," that she is teaching during the spring 2016 semester. 

Looking ahead, Henderson will work to empower those volunteering for PASC to facilitate their own workshops, thus allowing her to spread the organization's mission even further. 

"My goal has always been to make a change in my own corner of the world. As an actor, you move around a lot, so my corner is pretty extensive. I feel like I have a responsibility to effect positive change, proactively."