youth

Confronting Issues That Matter

It’s easy to imagine theater students worrying about costumes and learning lines, rushing to rehearsals, or performing on stage. Students at Quinnipiac University do this all the time. But, as part of their theater program over the past 15 years, they’ve also collaborated with combat veterans, worked with children living in extreme poverty in Nicaragua, explored “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland first-hand, developed plays with at-risk youth in New Haven, and spoken with inmates in Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary.

“Everybody should have to visit a VA hospital; everybody should have to go into a lethal injection chamber,”  Dr. Crystal Brian, Quinnipiac’s professor of theater since 2000, explains. “Once you are there, you can’t deny it. You can pretend to, but the innocence is gone and you can’t ever really be the same again.”

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Dr. Crystal Brian

Brian introduced the concepts of theater for social change to her students and makes the case that theater itself is naturally theater for social change. The Greeks used it as a way of discussing the issues that faced them as a society, and today, when you consciously do theater with the idea that you’re changing yourself or changing the world, you are using theater as a way to understand social issues and engage in your communities.

Brian knows that her early students were an amazing group. They really latched onto this vision of what theater could be and how it connects to all aspects of life.

Allison Clark was one of those students from 2001-2005. She recalled what being involved with the theater meant to her, especially following the events of 9/11:

Not only did theater become a way for us to connect to our own catharsis, but we were asking our community to think and feel and respond to bigger questions as well.

In Clark’s freshman year, she was involved with “The Laramie Project,” a play about the reaction to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who had been beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming.

The following year students produced “The Antigone Project.” They considered the motives behind war and its impact on those involved by interacting and interviewing combat veterans, many of whom had fought in Vietnam. Listening to their experiences and hearing about the negative reactions and lack of support that often greeted their return home, was the moment when most of the students involved really personally connected with a marginalized population for the first time.

“It was profound for everyone involved,” Clark said. “I remember writing in a journal back then, “we held each other’s heartstrings.”

Student Kathryn Monigan was a freshman at Quinnipiac in 2003. Although she loved theater, she was not pursuing it as a major when she arrived on campus. After being cast in the production “The Troubles of Romeo and Juliet” in the spring of 2004, things began to change.

“Dr. Crystal Brian and her vision of Theater for Social Change altered my perspective on theater entirely,” Monigan said. “The concept that theater can carry with it a strong social message, and that the message can have the power to help heal a community, or bring about understanding and change, that to me is so impactful.”

The following spring, Monigan and Clark were among a group of students that traveled with Brian to tour “The Troubles of Romeo and Juliet” in peace and reconciliation centers throughout Northern Ireland. Speaking directly with former combatants and victims who experienced that period of conflict between Catholics and Protestants was an experience both feel fortunate to have had.

“Gaining an understanding of ‘The Troubles’ and seeing real life uses for the art of  drama therapy had a profound impact on my understanding of conflict resolution between groups and individuals,” Monigan said.

During her senior year she was involved in the production of “Dead Man Walking.” The students traveled to New Orleans to meet with Sister Helen Prejean, who authored the book that went on to be adapted to stage and screen by Tim Robbins. They also toured Angola State Penitentiary, including the death house, and interviewed inmates there.

“I hope that we were able to translate some of the reality and sensitivity we now had to the audiences and community of Quinnipiac with our performances and talk backs,” Monigan said. “As a cast member, I can tell you these experiences will linger with me for the rest of my life.”

Brian, who had become friends with Robbins when they were both students at UCLA, arranged for the actor and director to participate in a workshop with students at Quinnipac. A photograph of Robbins with her students holds pride of place in Brian’s office, and the words he shared about the work being done through the Theater and Community program are framed with it:

I hope you understand how important the work you are doing is.

You are creating angels.

Brian believes the program does change the students who participate.

“Some of them are immediately drawn to it and they just realize they want to find a way to use this to make the world a better place,” she said. “But even those who take a bit longer to warm to the course have grasped the idea by the end and become different people because of it.”

This was the case in 2009, when students joined with youth from the New Haven Family Alliance’s Juvenile Review Board to create the play “Whitewashed: In the (Neighbor) ‘Hood.” At first, it seemed like students on both sides were struggling to enjoy the experience.

“But then they began to learn from each other, talking about their families and getting to know one another,” Brian said. “Then it became something.”

The play was performed at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater.

Theater students began taking annual trips to Nicaragua in 2006, in order to work with youngsters living in extreme poverty. During the year, the university’s students would collaborate with the students in Nicaragua to create a play they would workshop and perform during the spring or summer trip.

In 2013, the students, many of whom had no fathers in their lives, wrote a play to express the love and appreciation they had for their mothers. The Nicaraguan students were excited to travel by bus into the city of León to workshop the play. On the final day, their mothers were brought in to see the performance. The kids even learned to sing a song in English for their mothers.

“To see their moms come in to the city, and for them to see their children say how much they care about them and how glad they are to have them – it was beautiful,” Brian said.

Civil unrest has prevented students from traveling to Nicaragua the past two years, but Brian hopes to resume the trips in 2016.

Another project Brian is working to arrange for the 2016 spring semester involves the Lifers Group Youth Initiative at Cheshire Correctional Institute. Working within the prison is an idea she’s had brewing for some time, and she has made contact to arrange a meeting to discuss the project. If it gets the go-ahead, Brian hopes that students and inmates will be able to write and perform a play together.

Amber Hopwood is a criminal justice/psychology double major at Quinnipiac. She is one of several students eager to take part in the Cheshire project in the spring. The idea of rehabilitation was what really hooked her.

Theater can help people in ways that we may not think of or recognize at first, and as an undergraduate, to be able to do something to that extent, even getting to go into the prison and interact, is a big deal.

Hopwood is interested because it is really a way of doing something different. Theater will give inmates something fun and creative to do, an outlet that they can have input into and where it can become whatever they want it to be rather than a solution that is forced on them.

“I hope to come up with a program that sticks,” Hopwood continued. “Something that can open doors into the prison for other classes and programs that can also be effective. That’s the biggest thing – to help the prisoners.”

This kind of long lasting impact has happened for both Clark and Monigan.

Clark has become a Drama Therapist. Over the past 15 years she has worked with people in acute inpatient psychiatric settings, homeless populations, terminally ill children, women who have been physically and sexually abused, and victims of rape and incest.

“I aid in the coping and emotional support of those who believe their voices are not worth hearing, and I help them to understand their voices still need to be heard,” Clark said.. “It’s everything my work with Crystal [Brian] taught me.”

Monigan also uses the ideals and lessons she learned at Quinnipiac in her daily life. She acquired her teaching certification in Theater Arts and works as a high school teacher and director today. She uses a repertoire of shows that challenge social norms and address the larger issues of culture and society.

“I strive to teach my students that the arts can have a profound impact,” Monigan said. “I am forever thankful to Dr. Brian and the opportunities I was provided while at Quinnipiac University.”

Brian is proud that these opportunities help students to grow and develop by engaging with the local, national and global community. They are invaluable in helping to foster the understanding of the role “citizen artists” can play in our complex and sometimes troubled world.

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To hear about the creation of Quinnipiac’s Theater and Community program from Crystal Brian and some of the students watch this clip edited from Kelly Shamburg’s student film, “Theater for Community.”

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Chaeli Mycroft: Hope in Motion

Michaela (Chaeli) Mycroft became the first female quadriplegic to summit Mount Kilimanjaro in September. But this is only one of many interesting facts I learned when I met the 21-year-old South African and her mother Zelda on campus recently.

Chaeli and Zelda were at Quinnipiac University at the invitation of David T. Ives, executive director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute, to speak about Chaeli’s experiences with cerebral palsy and her work as an ability activist.

Chaeli gave her presentation three times before the day was over, the second time without the aid of her slideshow. At the end of each talk, students were given time to meet Chaeli, who is a student herself at the University of Cape Town. These informal interactions were among her favorite parts of the day.

Chaeli spoke about her own desire for mobility and independence as a youngster. Wheelchairs were expensive and fundraising for a motorized wheelchair would wind up being the start of The Chaeli Campaign, a non-profit organization she co-founded as a 10-year-old, along with her older sister Erin and their three best friends, Tarryn, Justine and Chelsea Terry.

In 2004, the five girls came up with an idea to raise money. They would sell cards featuring Erin and Chaeli’s artwork and Sunshine Pots, miniature pot plant kits that included seed and soil. Chaeli got permission from her school to take orders from students and their families, and the girls began to sell. Within seven weeks, the girls had the money for Chaeli’s wheelchair, but orders were still coming in.

Zelda suggested the two families could start a non-profit organization to help other children with disabilities, if the girls wanted to keep being involved. The organization, proud to have been founded by kids, is now in its eleventh year.

The Chaeli Campaign helps about 3,000 South African children a year to receive assistive devices and therapies. It also operates a number of programs designed to create inclusive environments for children with disabilities. A basic tenet of the organization is this:

Physical/intellectual impairment is self-evident and can be dealt with. Disability is created by the way in which society responds to the impairment.

Often, Chaeli said, people with disabilities are seen as a burden within their community, taking up time, energy and space.

“Disability is inconvenient for them to deal with,” Chaeli acknowledged. But it’s important to remember that it is an inconvenience for the disabled person as well.

“Disabled people are still people who have the same needs and the same rights as everyone else,” Chaeli pointed out. “You can’t just give people a wheelchair and think, ‘Cool, my job is done,’”

This is why inclusive environments are so important. They reinforce the message that being different is okay and help to change people’s perceptions about disability and what ability means.

As Chaeli talks about her life, she uses humor to engage her audience. It makes her incredibly relatable, even as she challenges what people might believe are the limitations of a disabled person. Take for example her story about sandboarding.

When she went, no one was sure what would be the best way for Chaeli to ride down the sandy hill. The first option had Chaeli sitting at the front of the board with her ride partner behind.

“It was a bad plan,” Chaeli laughed. “Don’t put a disabled person with balance issues on the front of a sandboard.”

Chaeli had a great time and is thankful to her parents for the bravery they showed in letting her do it, despite the possibility she might get hurt. Like many things in her life, it was tough sometimes, but it helped that her parents always focused on the positives, which fostered her can-do attitude. It’s like Zelda said to me later:

You can’t learn inclusion, you have to live it.

Living a life of inclusion has led Chaeli to many interesting adventures. She gave a few examples, like wheelchair dancing. Chaeli started at the age of 11 and competes with current partner, Damian Michaels.

Or cycling. Her friend, Grant Kruger, introduced her to the idea and she joked about her initial response. “My legs don’t even move; you’re ridiculous,” Chaeli says she told him. “Eventually I was convinced by his face. It was nice.” The pair competed in the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour.

Building on these experiences led to the the idea for something grander in scale, or as Chaeli put it, “a little more epic” – climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

The climb was four years in the planning, and Chaeli needed a custom built wheelchair, and an incredible team to make it happen.

Chaeli celebrated her birthday on day two of the climb. “They made me a cake on a mountain,” she said. “It was phenomenal.”

But on day three she realized what she’d really gotten into. There were many challenges, not least of which was the cold. By day five, she was starting to get frostbite in her feet.

“It’s not like I need my feet, but I like having them,” she laughed.

The group learned many lessons about planning, being creative in the face of problems, bravery and admitting weaknesses. In short, it was an amazing experience.

The whirlwind schedule Chaeli and Zelda have planned for the next couple weeks sounds like it will be pretty amazing as well. They arrived in the U.S. the day before the talks at Quinnipiac, and they were flying out the next day to visit Earth University in Costa Rica.  After that, they are scheduled to take part in workshops at the International Children’s Peace Prize ceremonies in the Netherlands before heading to the 15th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Barcelona.

Chaeli herself won the 2011 International Children’s Peace Prize, and she was also awarded the first ever Peace Summit Medal for Social Activism at the 2012 World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. She has met famous people from Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu to Bill Clinton to Malala Yousafzai, who won the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2013.

But these are not what she is most proud of achieving.

“It’s more the small things,” Chaeli said. She recalls a young boy in a South African township whose bedridden parents had not left their home for seven years. The Chaeli Campaign was able to get wheelchairs for them.

To be able to give something that is a pretty small thing in the big picture … for them it was everything.

The Chaeli Campaign is about changing lives by focusing on mobilizing the minds and bodies of children with disabilities. It is also about hope. Following Chaeli’s lecture, Zelda spoke about some of the programs of The Chaeli Campaign that focus directly on nurturing hope and opportunity.

One is the Pay-It-Forward Ambassadors Program. The program was started in 2009 in order to ensure that The Chaeli Campaign, which was started by kids to address the needs of kids, would be able to maintain the voice of youth leaders as its original founders continued to age.

Children aged between 9 and 14 are invited to invest a year of their time to promote The Chaeli Campaign while learning about social entrepreneurship and how to run their own projects – including fundraising and awareness campaigns within their own communities.

Another program is the Bhabhisana Baby Project. This newly launched independent project is operating under the umbrella of The Chaeli Campaign’s therapies programs.

Their mission is assess babies (0-2 years) who are at risk of developmental delay and disabilities. Where a need is identified, the project aims to provide multi-disciplinary therapy for the child and support and empowerment to family members and carers, so that every baby may reach their individual potential. The Bhabhisana Baby Project saw its first baby on September 29.

Zelda also spoke about The Chaeli Campaign’s Vocation and Rehabilitation Program. Disability is particularly difficult for older children and young adults, she said. Once a disabled person turns 18, they can find themselves in a vacuum where programs that can help with socialization and skill development are absent.

The Chaeli Campaign holds weekly workshops targeted at intellectually and physically disabled young adults to provide them with an opportunity to learn skills and practice them in a work situation.

Sometimes, Zelda said, it can be difficult to raise funds for these ongoing therapeutic programs, but each one is an important piece in helping to change the lives of people living with disabilities and their families.

After listening to Chaeli’s presentation and spending some time speaking to her afterward, Quinnipiac occupational therapy graduate student Samantha Wondsel summed it up nicely.

“[The Chaeli Campaign] takes a holistic approach – bringing in family, leisure, sports and education,” Wondsel said. “It’s really about putting the person first rather than the disability.”

Chaeli Mycroft, her mom Zelda, and David T. Ives, the executive director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute. Photo Credit: Nicki Dakis-Gallagher

Chaeli and Zelda along with David T. Ives on Quinnipiac’s campus. Photo: Nicki Dakis-Gallagher