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Teens with Dramatic Endings

Director David Diamond calls his plays 'theatre as a rehearsal for life.' This one may save lives.

Barbara McLintock 16 Nov

Barbara McLintock, a regular contributor to The Tyee, is a freelance writer and consultant based in Victoria and author of Anorexia’s Fallen Angel.

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David Diamond has a beef with the school system. Despite its efforts to try to address social issues ranging from drug education to bullying, all too often, he says, it doesn't deal with reality. At least not the reality that belongs to far too many of today's youth.

His mantra? "Let's deal with the world the way it is, not the way we wish it was."

So Diamond takes youth into his interactive theatre projects and encourages them to use the experience to reflect the reality of their own lives.

Too often that's not a pretty reality. It encompasses family dysfunction, alcohol and drug abuse, racism, and violence.

And Diamond, the artistic director of Vancouver-based Headlines Theatre, doesn't shy away from any of those topics.
He brought Headlines Theatre's latest project, entitled "Gimme the Keys," to Victoria last week. With the help of local theatre-educator River Chandler, he gathered a group of 13 youth who were prepared to devote the week to looking at issues of drinking, drugs and driving, and to making theatre about those issues. Some of the youth were drama and theatre students, eager to explore a new style of theatre under the direction of the much-acclaimed Diamond. Others were youth who knew firsthand the realities of violence, racism and substance abuse.

No script to begin
"Gimme the Keys" is a national initiative by Headlines Theatre to begin stimulating community-based action on the issues of drinking, drugs and driving across Canada. The theatre company notes that virtually everyone now knows the dangers and risks of driving while drunk or stoned. Yet it continues to happen.

They believe deeper emotional and social issues are at work - and that those issues can better be explored through theatre than through the traditional lecture format.

Diamond came to Victoria with no script in hand. It was up to the youth to write the scripts, based on their own experiences with the issues. After three days of training and theatre games, they moved into small groups and began to invent characters and plots to show their realities.  This weekend they presented them to the public for the first time.

These plays have no happy endings. In one of the three developed in the workshop, the conclusion sees four youths involved in a horrendous car crash as they rush to drive to the hospital one of their number suffering from a drug overdose. A second ends in physical violence between a woman and her younger sister's drug-dealing boyfriend, and the third in a desperately unhappy family fighting about the mother's alcoholism.
After the cast has shown a play once, it's time for the audience members to help to "rewrite history" in the play. Diamond explains to the audience, crowded into a church hall, that this form of theatre, known as "forum theatre," is more like a VCR than a traditional live play. That's because it's possible to re-run the script as many times as you want, from whatever point you want.

'Likes getting stoned too much'
As the youth cast begins to show the same scenario for a second time, the audience members are invited to participate. "We're trying to create safety in this world these characters live in," Diamond explains to the crowd. So when anyone in the audience can think of an intervention that might succeed in creating safety, they're invited to call out "Stop!" Then it's their turn to come up on stage, take the part of the character who they believe could effectively intervene, and try out their idea with the other cast members still responding in character.
Some of the interventions work at least reasonably well. Some don't. That's how it always is, Diamond says. It's why he describes this style of theatre, which Headlines calls "Theatre for Living," as an ongoing experiment. "It's using the theatre as a rehearsal for life," he says.
After the scene has been replayed incorporating the audience intervention, there's a brief discussion with the characters about what the audience member was trying to do, whether they expected the reaction they got from the other characters, and whether the steps they took might have been successful in real life.
He remains insistent that the audience members join the cast in dealing with reality the way it is, not the way they'd like it to be. When two audience members in turn try to avoid the car crash by having one of the drug-abusing teens turn into a responsible designated driver, Diamond shakes his head. "I'm afraid that's wishful thinking," he says.
The youth playing the teen driver nods. "I don't think he'd do that," he says. "He likes getting stoned too much."
Diamond asks the two youth playing the two male passengers in the car if it would change their friendship if the driver became responsible and wouldn't do drugs and alcohol any more. After some thought, they say it probably would, that the friendship is based on doing alcohol and drugs together. They agree, reluctantly, that the thought of losing his friends would also discourage the driver from acting more responsibly.

'Not about playing nice'
Diamond says he found this script one of the most troubling that were developed in the workshop because fatal car crashes involving teens, alcohol and speed are so distressingly common - and an issue that spawns so little dialogue.
"There's a funeral, and then nobody talks about it, and then there's another funeral," he says.
Neither are the audience participants allowed to avoid the themes of violence that penetrate the lives of many of the workshop's characters. Instead, Diamond shows them - just as he showed the youth participants during the week - how to move so that it looks as if punching and kicking are going on without anyone actually getting hurt.
"It's not just about playing nice," he says. And he encourages another group to "take it from where all the shit has just hit the fan … because it does."

And the audience is more than keen to join in. Those who provide interventions range from younger teens to other youth about the same age as the cast, to women who might be the cast's mothers or grandmothers in real life. Sadly, the adults are often the ones most likely to try the "wishful thinking" scenarios.

When the evening is over, there are still no happy endings.

But what there is, is genuine and honest dialogue around topics usually found too disturbing to be explored in such depth.

It is, at least, a start.

Headlines Theatre will be conducting "Gimme the Keys" workshops and performances at Charles Tupper and Windermere secondary schools in Vancouver later this school year.  [Tyee]

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