Healing, Teaching through Theatre

Source: Sunday Guardian – Saturday, November 3, 2012

by Desiree Seebaran

The word education conjures up images of blackboards and chalk, dull recitation, exams and grades immortalised in red pen markings. But theatre is different: visual, visceral and intensely physical work where you’re required to think on your feet more than you’re required to parrot facts from a text. The term “theatre in education” then seems like a paradox; it isn’t.

“One of the ways is that theatre achieves learning that is not simply appealing to thought. What the audience is responding to is an emotional connection,” explained Marvin George, artistic director at the UWI St Augustine Arts-in-Action (AiA). AiA is a not-for-profit unit of UWI’s Department of Creative and Festival Arts that uses all the arts, including theatre, in education and development.

“The way good theatre in education works is that it’s interactive. You should not go to any of your audiences and act like the authority. What the theatre work assumes is that we’re all working out the truth at the same time. So the learning is by doing and it deepens what you learn.”

Strictly speaking, theatre in education is a methodology developed in the UK and refers to any theatre work that takes place in schools and is used to augment learning. The Trinidad Theatre Workshop (TTW), founded by Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, is well known for practising this in its strictest sense by touring schools with plays crafted from the literature texts students were reading for exams. Many adults remember texts like Sam Selvon’s novel, A Brighter Sun, and Wole Soyinka’s play The Swamp Dwellers being performed in their school auditoriums.

It was a way of helping students understand the literature as a live, breathing thing, said TTW creative director Albert Laveau. Several working local actors also got their start in this programme. But the groups that practise theatre as an educative tool now do much more. Arts-in-Action is currently working in schools in Toco and Mayaro on a community-based arts project sponsored by BHP Billiton. The project uses the arts to get young people to start career planning and envisioning their futures.

“We are also approaching teachers and parents: teachers, to get them to use arts-based work to support students in classrooms, and getting parents to see how they can interpret and incorporate that work in their parenting,” George said.

Out of the classroom

In large part, local theatre in education has come out of the classroom and is now being used in a variety of different contexts to achieve a similar set of purposes: to help people of all ages learn important life skills and to get youth especially involved in self-discovery and creative output.

TTW assistant creative director Timmia Hearn Feldman wants to continue the organisation’s heritage of educational theatre by doing outreach programmes with marginalised communities like HIV-positive people and women who’ve suffered domestic violence, as well as giving acting classes for at-risk teens through its School for the Arts. “Theatre is a very healing process, and we’d like to do much more teaching and educating,” she said.

Three years ago, Arima-based Steven Edwards established Steven Edwards Productions, a not-for-profit means of using theatre as an alternative outlet for at-risk young people who may be attracted to arms and drug trafficking and the commercial sex trade.

Edwards’ Transformation Through Theatre project works particularly well for troubled youth since it teaches participants that their gifts, talents and purpose are irreplaceable. The programme recently won a grant in the Ministry of Planning and Sustainable Development’s Ideas to Innovation Awards and also snagged the TTCSI’s Best New Service award.

“People keep calling it theatre in education but I say it is education in theatre,” Edwards said. “This programme in particular has been one of the most successful anti-crime initiatives, boasting of the lowest attrition rate and highest service ratios.”

Another programme, Theatre for Tots to Teens, teaches nearly 100 children from three to 12 years about manners and morals, cultural diversity, self-esteem and creativity, all using local culture. “It’s a sheer joy to watch young children sing and dance to good, old calypsoes or to chutney,” Edwards said. “I am seeing a growing trend of these seemingly harmless cartoons telling stories that are not healthy for our children. We should have our own positive stories to tell.”

Hit drama duo Roy and Gloria are well known for the public service skits they recorded for television. But over their 15-year career they’ve been doing much quieter work in helping to rehabilitate young men aged 13-19 years from criminal lifestyles.

“We’ve shifted in the last seven years from schools to the PTAs (Parent-Teachers Associations) because we’ve identified that the real crux of the problem is in the home,” said Hal Greaves, who plays Roy. Dawn Henry plays his wife Gloria.

The San Fernando-based team especially targets fathers along with doing community work based on HIV and Aids, crime and street theatre in hot spot communities. They’ve also incorporated health-based messages into their skits.

Brown Cotton Outreach (BCO) is another group that has taken theatre and made it a teen and adult education tool outside of the classroom. Executive director Louris Lee-Sing began her own theatre career as part of the TTW cast that toured schools. She describes what BCO does as “message delivery theatre: it’s where you want to make people aware of an issue.”

The group has done shows for the Mediation Board of T&T to show participants how the mediation process should work—an enhanced after-school study centre project with at-risk students from areas like Carenage and a MSP (Maximum Security Prison) Theatre and Film project “…a kind of Shakespeare in jail,” she explained.

Why does it work?

Despite its many uses in education and social transformation programmes, George cautions against thinking of theatre and arts work as a panacea for social problems. “But what they do is what every social worker and psychologist is seeking: how to make knowledge something that the audience can understand viscerally.

“Theatre teaches listening and questioning—the skills that make mediation and communication better—and these are skills that I feel that everybody needs to learn,” said Lee-Sing. She’s also a trained mediator and says that theatre led her into this second career. “A lot of us do not explore our convictions. And what theatre forces us to do, as an actor or a participant, is to examine the motivations of a character. If done well, it forces us to re-examine our own perceptions, ask important questions and see ourselves in the cast.”

Once we see ourselves in characters and realise that society needs our help to change, what then? Some theatre groups like Steven Edwards Productions welcome volunteers to assist with their social transformation work. But even if you don’t have the time to put hours into rehearsals and performances, Greaves thinks that there is even more that interested people can do to help.

“Roy and Gloria can’t visit every PTA, every early childhood centre. We need other people getting up, sharing and helping to identify solutions,” he said. “Take part in church youth groups, have a puppet show, write a rap. You don’t have to get up on a stage and be the clown for everybody to laugh at you. You could be the friend so that people could laugh with you.”

For more information on the Trinidad Theatre Workshop School for the Arts, Steven Edwards Productions, Arts-in-Action, Brown Cotton Outreach or Roy and Gloria, please see their Facebook pages.