Interactive Training Lab Turns Community Meetings into Theater

From the hallway outside room 330 in the University of New Hampshire’s Memorial Union Building, two voices are clearly audible: one firm but frustrated, the other calm but antagonistic. Both are unyielding.

Once inside the room, the reason for the intense debate becomes clear: a group of New Hampshire residents are discussing a re-zoning plan that would allow for the development of affordable housing in their community. A facilitator stands at the center, working hard but struggling to keep the conversation on course.

Then a voice says, “Freeze.”

The action stops, and the people in the audience are given an opportunity to comment, critique and ask questions.

This is the Facilitation Lab, produced in partnership with UNH Cooperative Extension, NH Listens and PowerPlay Interactive Development, part of the UNH Department of Theater and Dance. Currently in its fourth year, the lab was conceived by Molly Donovan, Michelle Holt-Shannon and David Kaye after Donovan and Holt-Shannon attended numerous community meetings that were marred by incivility and rancor.

Since beginning the labs, which are held throughout the state, Donovan says she’s noticed an increase in mutual respect among attendees and fewer individuals or small organized groups hijacking meetings to serve their own agendas. She credits this in part with the facilitators who have been trained to successfully manage diverse personality types and political perspectives.

Twenty-five professional and volunteer facilitators largely from the Seacoast area attended the team’s most recent Facilitation Lab at UNH on December 2.

The Facilitation Labs are funded by a Fellowship in Publically Engaged Humanities from the UNH Center for the Humanities. 


Sarah Schaier
Former Extension Production Editor