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Coming soon to a theatre near you: amazing adventures in a taboo subject

A new ethnodrama at Concordia’s Centre for the Arts in Human Development explores sexuality among the developmentally and intellectually disabled
June 4, 2014
By Christian Durand

Creative Arts Therapies professor Stephen Snow (right) leads the performers through a rehearsal of The Amazing Adventures of Relationships.
Creative Arts Therapies professor Stephen Snow (right) leads the performers through a rehearsal of The Amazing Adventures of Relationships. | Photo courtesy of Stephen Snow.

“I am a woman! I have a vagina, and I’m proud of it!” Julie Myhr declares. And thus kicks off a rousing rehearsal for The Amazing Adventures of Relationships, a production presented by Concordia’s Centre for the Arts in Human Development (CAHD).

This is not your typical play. Myhr is one of 18 performers with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are sharing their personal experiences of love, intimacy and relationships in what is known as a musical ethnodrama.

“An ethnodrama combines art and therapy in an attempt to bring research from the page to the stage,” says Stephen Snow, professor and chair of the Department of Creative Arts Therapies. “It is a form of health education that offers new perspectives on challenging issues through the lived experience of the actors.”

The Amazing Adventures of Relationships — Snow’s third ethnodrama in six years — tackles the traditionally taboo topic of sex and relationships among people with developmental disabilities and intellectual disabilities (DDID).

The production aims to serve a social purpose: the need to better understand how individuals with DDIDs experience intimacy and relationships is key to creating more suitable sex-education programs for a group whose sexuality is often disregarded.

While working with the participants from the CAHD, Snow and his colleagues realized that many were confused or misinformed about sexuality and couldn’t express their feelings about the issue.

“It is estimated that 82 per cent of women with DDIDs are sexually abused at one point in their lives, so it is really important to find new ways of dealing with this subject to better protect this population.”


A search for authenticity

The ultimate goal of Snow’s ethnodramas is authenticity. In the course of a six-month process, he brings out the voices of the actors in several stages.

This means first building trust among the group through improvisation and playful exercises: activities that form bonds and elicit personal stories of relationships with friends and family. Participants then attend art, music and dance groups as another outlet for self-expression — something particularly important for non-verbal group members.

Afterwards, Snow conducts extensive one-on-one interviews with each participant during which their personal stories are recorded. Once everyone is interviewed, he condenses these anecdotes into an hour-long play, keeping the dialogue as faithful to the source conversations as possible.

The result, in the case of The Amazing Adventures of Relationships, is a series of vignettes and songs addressing everything from friendships and parental bonds to steamier, more romantic topics. In one scene, several actors discuss the classic metaphor of sex and baseball, debating what, exactly, each base signifies.

The CAHD participants attended sexual education workshops as well.

“I learned you can’t get STIs from a toilet seat and to also be careful in relationships because people can take you for granted,” says Claudia Serravelle.

Anna Fraser, another performer, learned the importance of using protection during sexual activity — even though she’s single and has no plans to start a relationship. “Boyfriends nag you and are a lot of work. I’m glad I don’t have one!”

Catalyzing further research

Snow hopes that this production will spur further questions and lead to a more in-depth conversation on sex and relationships among the intellectually and developmentally disabled.

Those who attend The Amazing Adventures of Relationships — peers, parents, researchers and professionals in the field — will essentially be asked one question: what role does sexuality play in the lives of the actors?

“We are not trying to promote sex, but rather to figure out what works for individuals,” Snow says.

What works for Fraser when it comes to relationships — platonic or otherwise — is time-honoured.

“Make sure you find someone who cares about you and will stick by you through thick and thin,” she says.

The Centre for the Arts in Human Development’s
The Amazing Adventures of Relationships will be performed on June 12 and 13 (tickets are $20) and June 14 (tickets are $25 with refreshments)at Montreal’s Saint-Ignatius of Loyola Parish (4455 W. Broadway St.).  Reserve today.


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