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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 4 December 2007

Gained in translation

by Kristine Berey / December 13, 2007

When social worker Lenore Vosberg approached Concordia drama professor Stephen Snow with the suggestion of doing a play featuring her clients, adults with developmental disabilities, she was thinking mostly of their parents. “They needed a chance to be proud of their adult offspring,” Vosberg remembers. “When you have a child with disabilities it can be a source of many things, including a loss of hope that they will have and enjoy their own lives.” Moved by compassion and her love of music and sculpture, she had no way of knowing then that she was to tap into the unlimited healing potential of the creative arts.

Fourteen years later, what began as a trial pairing of Vosberg’s clients with students in Snow’s Drama for Special Populations course has grown into the unique Centre for Arts in Human Development within Concordia’s Fine Arts Department.

Since its creation in 1996, the Centre has provided art, drama and movement therapies to special needs adults, clinical training for students in the ``Graduate Program in Creative Arts Therapies, and has done innovative research exploring the use of the arts in building self esteem and quality of life.

One of the Centre’s stated objectives, and one the team feels particularly passionate about, is to educate the public in order to promote inclusion of special needs adults into the community. Through regular Open Houses, special co-operative projects and a full-length musical performance every two years, participants get to share their work with friends, families and professionals. “Stigmatization is a huge thing,” says Snow, now director and primary investigator at the Centre. “[The developmentally disabled] are one of the most stigmatized people in the world. Words that refer to them are the most pejorative in the English language.”

While the five previous productions were all based on well-known stories with powerful validating messages, this year’s It’s a Wonderful World is part of an ongoing research project spanning three years. The material is drawn from the actors’ lives, transforming their personal stories into theatre, using ethnodrama, a performance-based research method designed to represent the actual lived experience of a particular group of people. “It’s a form of health education where self-reflection is a huge component. No one has done ethnodrama with this group before,” Snow says.

The experience of creating theatre from authentic experience is a journey of discovery shared by both the participants and the therapists working with them. It also creates a bond that is therapeutic, in its own right, for everyone involved.

“Never have I seen the kind of spirit and joy that I’ve seen with this show,” says Shelley Snow, Music Therapy Consultant. “I think it comes from empowering the participants to share their own stories, their own music, their own dances, their own art. It’s a whole other level of recognition of them that has been reached through this process. I think they must really feel that.”

Working with the participants has proven to be artistically enriching as well, says Joanabbey Sack, the Centre’s Dance/Movement Consultant who has been choreographing therapeutic theatre performances for the last 11 years. She states, “This experience links the therapeutic process to the creative process in a very direct way. This journey, which appears to have enriched the lives of clients has most certainly contributed to my continuing growth as a therapist, a person and an artist as well.”

Although the performers have experienced arts in therapy, they knew from the outset that they were preparing for a performance. “Participants, as co-researchers on the project, chose stories from their own lives that they wanted others to know, and developed interrelated images, movement, music and dramatic presentations of these stories in workshop, not therapy settings,” explains Art Therapy Coordinator Elizabeth Anthony.

The recurring themes that grew out of this process are the foundation of the show, says Snow. “We learned how [the performers] wish for intimacy, romance, marriage and of their enormous longing to make a contribution as an adult in society.”

At the moment, the show is a work in progress, but preview performances last summer were a great success. “People came out crying,” Snow recalls. “I’ve never seen people so moved.”

Viewing the DVD of the last performance, it’s easy to understand why. As the performance begins, the participants appear one by one on the stage. Unless one has a family member or friend with a developmental disability, it is the fact that they look, move and sound “different” that is obvious at first. But then, the actors begin to speak, in many languages. They speak simultaneously in sound, colour and movement and their communication becomes all the more powerful for that. As they tell of the joy of holding a new baby, or the pain of being made fun of, or the excitement of a long road trip, the hard veneer of superficial differences dissolves and audience members see their own humanity unfold before their eyes.

Puja Sharma, one of the 18 participants, says she likes everything about being part of the Centre. She mentions the make-up, the clothes, the music and the fact that she likes to sing. “It’s good,” she says. “I have friends here.” n

(c) La Scena Musicale