If you could step in and change the outcome of a sexual assault, would you? How? What would you do? What would you say? And why?
Thousands of Ontario youth recently had the chance to experience this scenario during Sheatre‘s recent tour of the play, “Far From the Heart”, — an interactive, educational production addressing teen dating violence and abuse, presented to students in Grades 7 to 12 in 20 communities.
“We believe in the power of theatre and art to affect peace and social change,” said Joan Chandler, founding artistic director of Sheatre, a professional community arts company, established in 1985, and located near Owen Sound.
“It’s not just to do a show. It’s to provide kids with information and resources,” she said in a recent interview. “We are using theatre as a tool to have these conversations which are really crucial to have.”
The play, which is shown twice to the same audience, is ‘forum theatre’, a format used to address social issues. It begins with four teens, two girls and two boys, getting ready for a big party. For one character, 15-year-old Felicity, the ability to make decisions is clouded by drinking and inexperience. As the story unfolds, her boyfriend is controlling and abusive, her best friend deserts her, and the guy, who says he wants to help her, rapes her. Inappropriate language regarding women takes place.
But then the play is performed again, and this time, throughout the play, the audience has the opportunity to yell, “Stop”, at any moment and intervene by stepping into the characters’ roles and making different choices. The Joker character guides and discusses the intervention.
Students were able to explore questions such as: what can someone do to improve the situation? what can Felicity do to stand up for herself? and who can help her?
Actor Keshia Palm, 24, who plays Felicity, said it has been fascinating to see the “completely different’ responses by students in different schools each time the play is performed.
“There are infinite possibilities we can explore with the kids, which is the really exciting part of the project — to see what the kids come up with, reflecting their school’s and community’s cultures,” she said.
The program is supported by a comprehensive educational package that includes interactive discussions, an educational guide, teacher training and in-class activities to help deliver the core curriculum in the areas of sexual health and violence prevention.
Debriefing followed each production, with discussions led by community facilitators such as social workers and police.
“It’s really fascinating to see both young men and young women come in and challenge attitudes, and the socially-conditioned responses young men are programmed to have,” added Chandler.
Actor Warren Bain, 30, who plays the Joker, calls the play “a rehearsal for reality”, presented co-operatively in a safe place.
“It’s a collective wake-up. It asks, ‘just because this is the way things are, is that the way things should be’?,” he said. “The whole process is designed really well. It’s honest and open, and leaves students with resources. It assumes they are intelligent and can help each other and that the conversation can keep happening. It opens doors.”
The play was first created 10 years ago, and Chandler says the issue of dating violence is still more important than ever.
“The problem is not getting any better. The issue is still there, and getting worse,” she said. “One of the key things in changing violence against women is to educate boys and girls and young men and young women. This isn’t something they talk about in school very often.”
By Melodie McCullough