Insight Theatre: Subverting Media and Popular Culture for Youth Education

Article excerpt

For a quarter of century, Insight Theatre of Planned Parenthood Ottawa has been performing to thousands of senior elementary and secondary students each year in the Ottawa area. Through a grant from the City of Ottawa and proceeds from shows, Insight educates youth by following the Ontario Ministry of Education guidelines for Health and Physical Education - Grades 7 to 9 and focusses on healthy sexuality. For five of the 25 years (1998-2003), I had the privilege to be the Coordinator of this innovative peerto-peer educational theatre program. Touted as by, for and about youth, and ground-breaking in its inception, Insight Theatre draws on the approach to popular theatre of Auguste Boal, author of Theatre of the Oppressed (1974), to develop and present an hourlong theatrical and educational program focussed primarily on sexual health issues. Boal's assertion of the potential of theatre to break free of it's traditional forms is quite simple in it's revolutionary approach to the art form. A Boal-inspired work must see "...all human beings [as] Actors (they act!) and Spectators (they observe!). They are Spect-Actors.... Everything that actors do, we do throughout our lives, always and everywhere. Actors talk, move, dress to suit the setting, express ideas, reveal passions - just as we do in our everyday lives" (Boal,1992).

The innovation of Insight Theatre lies in the process by which each season's show is created, for it's foundations are both education and empowerment. The first step is to assemble a group of teenagers with the skills, interest and determination to create their own body of creative work, but also to engage in the issues that Insight tackles. Those issues are not for the faint of heart. The overarching theme is healthy sexuality and many of the scenes provide information on AIDS/HIV, sexually transmitted infections, contraception, sexual orientation, and unwanted pregnancy options. Health issues, however, are informed by social norms and issues - the three are inextricably intertwined and the media play a big part in informing those expected norms. Consequently, Insight also addresses homophobia, racism and sexism, gender roles, the right to choose, physical and sexual abuse, bullying and peer pressure, family breakdown, depression and suicide, eating disorders and drug and alcohol use. By using popular culture and media references, Insight Theatre members are able to find ways to subvert the media's dominant images of youth in all their diversity and to also find a common vocabulary-often with the use of popular and media references - with their audiences.

Insight's selection and training process is also for the daring. To start, every summer up to 50 youth from all around the city spend two nights auditioning to be a part of the training process. The two nights are filled with group work, discussions and drama exercises and are capped off with a monologue presentation by each participant. From that, the coordinator and drama coach select 15 to 20 successful volunteers to commit two nights a week in training which comprises workshops led by experts in relevant social and health fields and drama workshops, exercises and team-building activities. At the end of the summer the final troupe of a dozen or so individuals is selected.1 The work, however, is still just beginning. For the next six to eight weeks, stage two of this three stage process when the final troupe workshops scenes for the final show. Intensive group discussions, sharing of individual creative material and testing of ideas culminates in a 45-minute show comprised of 10 to 15 short scenes dealing with a full range of social and health issues facing youth today.

Finally, for the third and final stage, this group of thespians, who, along with the show itself, change every year, tour local senior elementary and secondary schools, conferences, social service agencies to the tune of 60 to 70 presentations to a total audience size of upwards of 20,000. …