“1984” Play Sparks Unique Collaboration Between Humanities and Arts Faculty

by | Apr 29, 2024 | Community Engagement, Featured

Students from SJSU Assistant Professor of Creative Advertising Bélen Moreno’s class participated in a branded content experience to promote the upcoming production of “1984” at the Hammer Theatre. Photo by Robert C. Bain.

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” 

— “1984” by George Orwell

On an overcast afternoon in mid-April, a group of students dressed in black stand in a line across San José State’s Paseo de César Chávez. They stare straight ahead while holding images of red and white eyes, irises composed of intricate QR codes. They wait for passersby to notice their uniformity, much like the characters coerced into worshiping Big Brother in George Orwell’s legendary novel, “1984.”

At a nearby table, sandwiched between a club selling cookies for Second Harvest Food Bank and a student organization hawking iced boba, SJSU Assistant Professor of Creative Advertising Belén Moreno sits (also clad in black) with students giving away cookies. Their fellow Spartans don’t know that the entire scene is choreographed as part of an advertising class project designed to promote the upcoming theatrical adaptation of “1984” at the Hammer Theatre, which is directed by SJSU Theatre Arts Lecturer Scott Cummins and produced by Barnaby Dallas, ’00 MA Theatre Arts, director of production for film and theater.

Once the scavenger hunt was completed, Belén Moreno (left) awarded a lucky student with a prize camera. Photo by Robert C. Bain.

Students from Bélen Moreno’s advertising class participate in a branded content experience to promote the upcoming production of “1984” at the Hammer Theatre. Photo by Robert C. Bain.

The Paseo performance follows an interactive campus-wide scavenger hunt earlier that afternoon in which Moreno and her students offered QR code hints reflecting many of the book’s themes — surveillance, revisionist history, and big government. The overall communications experience is an example of branded content, Moreno’s area of expertise.

“It’s an unconventional kind of advertising in which you develop a campaign that involves engaging people,” says Moreno. “You create awareness about events or ideas through an activity.”

A win for interdisciplinary learning

The scavenger hunt and activities on the Paseo required a lot of planning, says Nicole Cailles, ’25 Creative Advertising. Moreno’s students not only designed stickers and fliers; they also stood stony-faced at each of the campus sites, role-playing as if they were members of the “1984” cast. They wrote the copy for five scavenger hunt hints, created and managed a special Instagram account entitled @BigBrotherSJSU and designed a Google form where participants could upload pictures of each station and submit their answers to be considered for a prize camera. 

Each of the hints sent participants to parts of the university that reflected concepts in the play: the University Police Department, to represent the role of authority; the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, to reflect intellectual freedom; Philz Coffee, to remind readers of “victory coffee” referenced in the novel. 

The branded content activities “work to get people to experience parts of the story,” says Cailles. The week before the scavenger hunt, she attended a rehearsal of the play to meet actors and connect with members of the College of Humanities and the Arts’ student marketing team to coordinate communications.

Moreno is one of several Humanities and the Arts faculty members to partner with Cummins and Dallas to promote the production of “1984.” Funded by a College of Humanities and the Arts’ Artistic Excellence Programming Grant, the play offers Cummins and Dallas the chance to collaborate with fellow faculty on literary themes that apply across disciplines. 

The Theatre Department at SJSU will perform an adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984” May 3-11 at the Hammer Theatre.

“This is probably one of the most blended productions I’ve worked on at SJSU as far as including many disciplines across the college,” says Dallas. “Typically with musicals, we collaborate with the School of Music, and we often work with the Dwight Bentel Hall public relations agency in the School of Journalism. But this experience has been different because so many different classes across the wider university are involved in discussing or promoting ‘1984.’ That’s been really cool.”

Earlier this year, Moreno’s students pitched four different campaigns to Cummins and Shannon Miller, the college dean. The exercise mirrored the experience that many advertising majors might find when working in creative agencies.

“When we went to Belén’s class, they presented to us like we were their clients and they were [advertising execs like] ‘Mad Men,’” says Cummins. “It was great practice for them, and it was great for us. It is really gratifying to see how much the students were able to create so much. It made me feel like I was contributing to a greater good in education.”

“It’s nice when a teacher can learn something,” adds Dallas. “I credit Scott with bringing this play to the college and showing us an approach to play selection that can connect to broader issues. It’s evident, but the fact that we got all these different departments talking about the themes from the play is really great.”

The experience has also underscored the collaborative nature of creating theater, says Cummins, who chose a 1963 adaptation by Robert Owens, Wilton Hall Jr., and William A. Miles, and cast a female lead in a role originally written for a male character. 

“As a director, you don’t prescribe — you inspire,” he says, adding that this year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Orwell’s novel.

The play debuts at the Hammer Theatre on May 3 and runs through May 11. 

Get tickets to see “1984.”