ARCHIVE - Using Theatre to Restore Equilibrium (5-23-14)

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One year ago, the East Coast was devastated by Super Storm Sandy. The coastline was reformed, homes were washed out to see, historical landmarks demolished and communities changed irrevocably. In the months that followed, the area was put to the task of getting back to “normal.” That included our schools. The mandate was clear. Too much time had been lost. Testing was coming up. Get back to the curriculum. Get back to teaching. Get back to normal. However, NOTHING was normal. The teachers were dealing with their own personal issues and administration putting pressure on everyone, which just added to the stress.

Super Storm Sandy shut down power, flooded cities and destroyed homes. Some families were wiped out. Some were merely annoyed. But the entire tri-state region was impacted. Gas rationing was a huge issue – with mile long lines and limits on when and how much fuel one was allowed to purchase. Roads were closed and major commute routes were blocked from access. People were without power, water and access to resources tor three or four weeks. In my district there was little physical damage but our students were more diverse than our buildings indicate. Some were impacted minimally. Others lost power for days, had structural damage and struggled in the dark for weeks. Still more have family members who had no homes, no place to turn and are still reeling in shock from the events. Because the impact was as varying on them as it was on the state, this seemed a perfect time to once again get to know each other.

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For me personally, I wanted to reengage, revisit, reconnect, not just for my young people, but for myself. I needed to get back to my world and my work. People need continuity and young people need it more than the adults around them. The weather patterns and other political storms create a sense of uneven footing, a fear and unease about the world in which we live. And our students are reacting and reacting but their struggle to manage the constantly shifting currents of the world in which they find themselves is rarely reflected in the curriculum that is being implemented across the country. With the focus on testing and a homogenous desire for every classroom to be identical – the reality that students are PEOPLE is being lost. And people react – each one reacts differently to things like winter storm after winter storm; or fires that threaten the entire state; or hurricanes that destroy communities and disrupt lives for weeks and months; and tornados, earthquakes and floods (not to mention school shootings).

Counseling Children After Natural Disasters: Guidance for Family Therapists by Jennifer Baggerly And Herbert A. Exum states: “Due to the large number of children that will experience typical symptoms after a natural disaster, family therapists can maximize their efforts by training parents and teachers to provide supportive responses and basic interventions for their children (Harper, Harper, & Stills, 2003). For teenagers, positive coping strategies will include group interventions that process emotions through expressive arts, drama, and rapping/singing” (pp 82, 83). The common symptoms in adolescents noted by the mental health professionals post disaster included: “flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing, avoidance of reminders of the trauma, substance abuse, and depression (NIMH, 2001). They may also experience headaches, stomachaches, risk-taking behaviors, lack of concentration, decline in responsible behavior, apathy, and rebellion at home or school” (p 81).

After the initial days back in school, which included more weather issues, power outages, road conditions and the stress inherent therein, we finally experienced our first full week of school. On the Friday of our initial three days, I had noticed both within my classes and in the halls in general, the students were resistant to attending classes, there were many more outbreaks of bickering and argumentative behavior, name-calling was reaching new levels, and in general the classes were tired, nonresponsive and reluctant to re-engage. I noticed I was struggling to re-engage as well. I was cranky, short tempered, less willing to explore non-confrontational language when speaking with students and overwhelmingly tired of the whole situation. Getting to and from work was an exercise in frustration between gas rationing, traffic, accidents (which seemed to have had tripled) and general malaise.

The realization that there was no acknowledgment from administration that not only the students but also the staff was struggling made me first angry, then depressed, then finally resolved. I needed to figure out what I could do – given my limited resources to help (I couldn’t rebuild homes, I couldn’t get fuel to people). I would use the next class as a new starting point, and see if group theatre work could help refocus my young people and myself.

I thought about what to do that would engage my young people and still provide some aesthetic distance. After a great deal of thought, I choose a game entitled “Good Week, Bad Week” to tackle the students’ experience as a whole with Super Storm Sandy. I allowed them to choose their own groups of four or five people and then asked them to share stories of one good thing about being off for a week and a half, or a good thing about the Super Storm’s impact on their lives. This was a struggle for some. Some students expressed that they couldn’t find a single good thing about the events. I reassured them that this was okay, perhaps as they listened to others a moment would arise, or perhaps they saw a story on television about the aftermath that had resonated for them that they could share. This wasn’t a do or die assignment. So, they went around and started talking about getting time to sleep, bonding with family, games of Uno and Dominos with siblings, lots of social media time due to not losing power, other things that had been good about the storm. We then created tableaux from their good moments and reflected on what we, as the outside group, saw in their pictures. Included in other’s perceptions of the tableaux were sharing, eating, games, solitude, sleeping, pranking friends, social networking and hanging out. These tableaux generated a lot of laughter and dialogue as the students started to share funny moments from the events that many had experienced but hadn’t realized others had as well.

After the tableaux, we went back into our groups and shared a story about something bad from Super Story Sandy. Again, I reassured them it didn’t have to have happened to them, it could be a news story they heard or saw, it could’ve occurred after the storm when they ventured out, it could be little or big. Anything they felt comfortable sharing. Then they created short scenes titled, “The Storm.” They jumped into this portion with more energy and enthusiasm. Everyone had something to say about the storm’s negative impact on their lives. Even those who had only lost power for a day spoke about trees or gas stations. The gas station fights, lines and tensions had clearly had a major impact on these young people. We then put the scenes on their feet and shared them with each other.

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As we reflected afterwards about what we had seen happening and what had worked (and why), personal stories started to emerge. I had anticipated this might be a part of this process. They spoke about the fear when they went outside with no lights in their neighborhood. A normally familiar environment seemed scary with no power. They spoke about the anger at the gas stations – they were not used to seeing adults so out of control. They spoke about bonding with their families and how that was really special for them. They spoke about wanting to come back to school but then returning and it was like being back after summer but there was no vacation. A particularly poignant moment for me was when one young woman spoke of how scary the week was because she was afraid of the dark. The shadows with candles are very different than electricity and the entire week had been enormously stressful. At that point, a large football player in the group spoke up and said, “I’m scared of the dark too. I just hung out with my mom the whole time.” There was this moment of synchronicity and awareness that it was okay to be in high school and afraid of the dark. Many of us are. You are not alone.

I told the students that we would be working on curriculum this week but that we would take some time to reconnect with one another and find our rhythm again. Many of them expressed their appreciation for this concept. They came back the next few days far more focused and kind to each other. It seemed that by taking the time to acknowledge and address the elephant in the room, we had come back together and could find some head room for academia. And we could once again find room in our hearts for patience and listening. It was remarkable difference. We were still tired. But we continued to give ourselves a break – I slowed down the pace on the curriculum. I brought the group together again and again to discuss how we would move forward on the curriculum. I made sure opposing voices were heard, ideas were explored and the students had a voice in the timeline. The stress in the room continued to drop. We had given ourselves time to breathe and permission to fail. Somehow, that made it safe to pass.

As theatre educators, we cannot ever dismiss the power our work has to help our students manage times of uncertainty.

WORKS CITED

Baggerly Jennifer, Exum and Herbert A, Counseling Children After Natural Disasters: Guidance for Family Therapists, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida, USA 2008

 


 

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Jennifer Little spent over fifteen years as a professional actress, performing on Broadway with such luminaries as Harold Prince and in film (with Ron Howard and Penny Marshall) and television. More recently, she turned to working with at-risk students, doing Literacy through the Arts, Guest Artist programs and creating arts programs for inner city schools. In 2005, she began teaching full-time, working on bringing applied theatre to standard curriculum programs within public schools in the U.S. and integrating Social Studies and English into the Arts. She has led workshops with academic and theatre students and professionals across the country on using arts to explore social issues and just returned from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where her applied theatre troupe presented their original, award-winning piece, “Shadows” to sold out audiences. She is currently working with the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards (NCCAS) writing the new national standards for theatre and was a 2014 Jefferson 360 New Jersey State Honoree for Peace and Justice.

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