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Good theatre makes good neighbours

December 1, 2013

The Neighbourhood Theatre class could be called a win-win-win proposition: students, community organizations and Concordia University itself are all benefitting from this course in the Theatre and Development undergraduate program. 

Developed and taught by Theatre professor Edward Little, The Neighbourhood Theatre applies the skills of theatre and the knowledge gained about a particular community to address that community's needs. Along with assigned readings in areas such as oral history and documentary media, students do field research and create individual and collective performance pieces.  

"Theatre and Development [program at Concordia] has a strong element of socially-engaged arts, and we're very interested in getting the students out into the community to gain hands-on experience," says Little.

Sasha Tate-Howarth, a member of the fall 2013 class that wrapped up in early December, appreciated the immersion factor. "The entire class was built so we were doing things that felt worthwhile." 
This was the second year the one-semester course was delivered. In 2012 it focused on the Atwater Library and Computer Centre, discovering and expressing how the downtown Montreal institution has served the community through the decades. Collaborating with the library again, this time students worked with some of its community partners: Jeunes en action in N.D.G. and the Little Burgundy Employment Centre, both of which offer employment counselling.

The class project this year became to develop a theatre workshop piece that would help the audience members - all participants in employment training - polish their job interview skills through theatre exercises for verbal communication, body language and stress management, among other techniques. The process involved visiting the partners' sites so students could get a sense of the place and the audience, generating an individual work based on their impressions, and creating a workshop to deliver at each site.

The highlight of the workshop was a short play about a job interview that went badly for the applicant. The play then started again and this time the audience was encouraged to stop the action whenever they wanted to recommend how the "interviewee" could improve a skill or two - and the play's outcome. With both community groups, the audience took full advantage of the interactive "forum theatre" format to make suggestions. A few even got onstage to take the place of an actor to demonstrate better approaches.

"We had really great feedback from the community partners, and that's because we did our homework," says Eric Craven, Atwater Library's digital literacy project coordinator. 

The liaison between the Concordia theatre class and the community groups, Craven sees many advantages to the partnerships.

"We run on a very tight budget and if I can find a way to give a rewarding experience to students and to offer something different to community groups that's useful to them, then everyone wins," he say. 

The mutual benefits extend even further: Craven has hired some members from the 2012 class. In addition, the course is physically delivered at the Atwater Library, making it a de facto artist's residence. 

Little and Craven hope to continue building on this collaboration to introduce Theatre students to community work, help community groups meet their needs, and in the process, allow both Concordia and the Atwater Library to fulfill their mandate to be engaged in the community at large.

And if current students' enthusiasm is anything to go by, this may well happen.

"I loved it," says Marie-Hélène Rinfret, who wants to pursue a career in drama therapy. "It's a nice way to experience the real world we're going to be working in."

Watch a short video the 2013 class produced that documents its work.

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