Gained in translationby 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
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