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By Barbara Black
It’s a Wonderful World is heart-warming entertainment, but it’s also a research report like no other. The performers take to the stage, together or singly, and talk about their fears and hopes, punctuating their words with drumbeats, simple movements and screen projections of their artwork.
Their pleasures are universal: holding a newborn baby, or just going shopping. Their aspirations are touchingly simple: to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, to marry and have children. Their dislikes are straightforward, too. Being called “stupid” or “retarded” is one of the worst.
The Centre for the Arts in Human Development, which works with adults with developmental challenges, is closely allied with Concordia’s Department of Creative Arts Therapies, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. The actors who perform their own material, most recently at the D.B. Clarke Theatre on May 15, are participating in ethnodrama. Their performances are the culmination of a SSHRC-funded research project.
Stephen Snow, the principal investigator, explains. “The essential goal of the project, using the ethnodramatic method, was to see if this kind of performance-based representation of the lives of the participants from the Centre could alter ways of thinking about persons with developmental disabilities.
“What is also so important here is that the locus of control over the ‘research report’ is in the hands of the informants, the participants at the Centre. The research works by constant ‘informant validation.’ We ask repeatedly, Is this true? Is this the way you experience things? Is this important to you? Does this belong in the script?”
Snow was fascinated by the work of Jim Mienczakowski, the Australian educator and ethnographer who invented ethnodrama.
“He sees his work as a form of health education. His own ethnodramas have involved persons with schizophrenia, with brain damage, with substance abuse problems, and also victims of rape. The goal is to help educate the health professionals who work with this clientele. However, a subsidiary goal or result is what he calls ‘emancipatory participation.’”
Snow thought this sounded a lot like therapy that could empower the people who attend creative arts workshops on Concordia’s Loyola Campus. He embarked on a three-year process of encouraging them to talk about their lives and shaping their insights into performances.
Taking his cue from Mienczakowski’s statement that “informants are empowered to consensually reconstruct the meaning of the presentation at any stage of the research process,” Snow let the actors modify a scene about name-calling that was especially troubling for them.
“In the fall we showed the videos from the summer performances to the group and there was some upset around this scene: the derogatory terms, the stigma attached, the anger and fear in it. We asked if it would be more comfortable to do it with masks. Members of the group said yes, so we created a morning workshop to create the masks and process the feelings that went into the masks.
“This has become one of the most powerful scenes. As a theatre director, I think the scene has found its true life and meaning, and the performers really get into it. They are now free to perform this aspect of their experience.”
The participants took It’s a Wonderful World to Ottawa last month, where they got a standing ovation from the students of Lisgar Collegiate Institute. It was a great field trip for the 35 performers, staff members, graduate students and researchers, who enjoyed a night out together at a family restaurant.
A video is being made by Phil Herbison, who made a previous documentary on the Centre called The Alice Project. Herbison has recorded responses from all the audiences the play has been performed for: peers (i.e., others with intellectual and developmental disabilities), elementary school children, high school students and college students.
“We hope to use these responses as evidence that the play changed people’s perspectives in regards to individuals with developmental disabilities.”
Education professor Miranda D’Amico has developed evaluation methods to analyze this material and the experiences of the participants. She is in Washington, D.C., this week, presenting the ethnodrama project to the American Association for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Theatre professor Eric Mongerson is a co-investigator on the project.