Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Theatre for Literacy

by Alexsandra Marzocca

Unable to make eye-contact, disinterested in making small talk, this painfully shy young man hid himself away from the group.  We’ll call him Adam.  Adam seemed like the least likely participant in our Theatre for Literacy drama course.  He passed when it came to check-in, and was reluctant to participate in his scene partner work.  But as soon as he got onstage, he came alive!  He was filled with energy and confidence that neither Ciragh, nor myself expected!

Theatre for Literacy is a program formed by two organisations, Frontier College’s ‘Beat the Street’ program and Theatre Ontario’s outreach program. Their aim is to provide a course that empowers students with drama techniques that develop their communication and literacy skills. The learners come to pursue a variety of individual goals that range from education (high school GED, post-secondary, or apprenticeship), to employment, to general literacy skill-building which provides increased independence. In addition to their in-class activities, they are also connected to supports through the Beat the Street Program. The course ran as a trial for four sessions, three hours each session, at Frontier College. Theatre Ontario hired me on to develop the curriculum and teach the course to several participants.

To be honest, I was a little surprised they hired me because I was incapacitated in the interview.  I had all of my wisdom teeth removed the day before, so I was a little high on Oxycontin and could barely speak through my chipmunk cheeks.  Some sort of intellect and personality must have shone through because a week later, and a lot more healed, I met with Katie (the Theatre Ontario Outreach Coordinator) to discuss the expectations they had of me developing the program.
The week leading up to our first class, I developed the four-week course with several goals:
  1. Create a safe, judgement-free space where participants can explore their creativity and self-expression
  2. For the participants to develop their self-confidence and interpersonal skills 
  3. To expand participants’ vocabularies and teach them how to write a scene or monologue 
I was so lucky that one of the other interviewees offered her services as a teaching assistant.  The job seemed a little overwhelming for one person.  Ciragh Lyons and I met at Frontier College during our ‘Adult Literacy Instructor’ training. She is a delightful English soul! She has more of a background in teaching, while I have more of a background in theatre, so the match was serendipitous. 

The students had no idea what they were getting themselves into! Literally. Frontier College didn’t inform them what they were signing up for, as a shrewd tactic that gained us many more participants. Most of the students hadn’t done drama since high school and even then, most of them weren’t so keen on it. These students are at Frontier College to get their GED. Most of them dropped out of high school, and a few of them are now in homeless shelters. Initially, it was hard to sell the value of this course to people who had a lot more on their plate than memorizing a monologue.

A laid-back guy, so chilled he was practically horizontal, was pretty engaged from the beginning. Ben openly talked about his darker life experiences. Although he was active in all our exercises, it was the monologue he wrote that really blew us away. During his final performance, he moved us all to tears. Having a monologue as an assignment allowed him to create a piece of creative writing that is an often overlooked literacy skill. He may not enjoy or be as skilled at writing an essay, but the metaphorical language he used to describe the pain he had felt, and was still struggling with, was powerful.

A quirky introvert (who methinks did protest too much) kept telling Ciragh and I, “I’m shy! I don’t know if I can do this!” But would often be the first volunteer and always the one to brought the laughter to the room. Despite herself, Ally was the most vocal in the group. However she found it challenging to write her own material. During Ben’s first rehearsal, Ally was completely moved and inspired to delve into herself, and find her voice. Her final performance is one that I’ll never forget. She was willing to open some wounds and share her pain using beautiful poetic language. She expressed that this course ignited an interest in pursuing creative writing.

A gentle giant. Softly spoken but with a comforting presence and one of the politest guys you’ll ever meet. George seemed vaguely interested in the course. I couldn’t tell if it was out of politeness or a genuine interest, but he eagerly began participating in activities and partner work. George is a musician who would make everyone else feel at ease but somehow carry that unease on himself. When we would work on posture and presence it was hard for him not to sway from foot to foot, or look away from the floor. When he was given a scene partner suddenly he had the environment where he could make eye contact and stand taller. Over the course of the four weeks, he slowly began to be more present in his own body. It’s amazing how a small thing such as posture can completely overhaul his stage presence as a musician.

It was incredible to see the impact that our short time together had on the participants. From the initial reluctance came an enthusiasm that exceeded my expectations. I felt lucky to have contributed to their development of self-confidence and social skills. I was honoured that they trusted Ciragh and I enough to tell us their stories. Our last session was bittersweet, because everyone did an amazing job of presenting their scene or monologue, but we knew our time together was finished. We all expressed the wish that the course continues so we can spend more time together developing their skills and confidence.

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