The­atre project shines light on is­sue of chil­dren in care

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - KEVIN PROKOSH

MARIE Christian takes no credit for ini­ti­at­ing a the­atre piece about Man­i­toba chil­dren in foster care that opens just as the is­sue ex­plodes again in the me­dia. Christian, the pro­gram di­rec­tor of Voices: Man­i­toba Youth in Care Net­work, ap­proached Sarasvàti Pro­duc­tions 18 months ago about de­vel­op­ing an in­ter­ac­tive drama based on the real-life ex­pe­ri­ences of chil­dren who have been ap­pre­hended by the prov­ince. Giv­ing Voice opens Wed­nes­day at Miles Mac­donell Col­le­giate, which be­gins a six-week tour of area schools. “It’s per­fect tim­ing to open when ev­ery­thing is blow­ing up,” says Christian, the day after it was an­nounced that, for the first time, more than 10,000 chil­dren are in foster care in Man­i­toba. “I think it is right on time, be­cause it en­cour­ages the con­ver­sa­tion even fur­ther in a con­struc­tive way. We don’t need peo­ple go­ing to another rally, or shak­ing their fists or, worse, sit­ting in their liv­ing room cry­ing. We ap­pre­ci­ate the sen­ti­ment, but we need to take th­ese feel­ings and move them into ac­tion.” Giv­ing Voice is an ex­am­ple of the­atre for so­cial change. It is pre­sented in fo­rum style, which en­cour­ages au­di­ence mem­bers to stop the ac­tion when they think it nec­es­sary to sug­gest a dif­fer­ent ac­tion. It is a tech­nique de­vel­oped in the 1970s by Brazil­ian di­rec­tor and ac­tivist Au­gusto Boal. The aim is to present shared prob­lems and to try to find so­lu­tions. Christian was in­spired after wit­ness­ing Sarasvàti’s 2012 pro­duc­tion of Diss, a fo­rum piece that pre­sented worst-case sce­nar­ios about re­cruit­ment into gang life. The op­por­tu­nity to give a voice to young peo­ple in Man­i­toba Child and Fam­ily Ser­vices care, and to dra­ma­tize their world, was too good for her group to pass up. “I want the pub­lic to be able to step into the ac­tion and the life of a young per­son and im­pact the tra­jec­to­ries of their lives,” Christian says. Giv­ing Voice was as­sem­bled through the sto­ries of about 30 peo­ple who have come through the CFS sys­tem. The fo­cus is on two 11-year-olds: Sally, who re­quests to be re­moved from her fam­ily; and Josh, who has a rough time in care. The nar­ra­tor warns the au­di­ence at the out­set that it will wit­ness the worst-case sce­nar­ios. “It’s pretty bad,” says Christian. “It might feel shock­ing and un­real to peo­ple who are watch­ing, but it is re­al­ity.” Sarasvàti artis­tic di­rec­tor Hope McIn­tyre was part of the cre­ative team and found most of the par­tic­i­pants were mo­ti­vated to come for­ward to tell their story and re­veal what the sys­tem felt like from the inside. “The ma­jor thing they wanted us to deal with in the play was how be­ing in care af­fects them, as a re­sult of the stigma and bul­ly­ing they ex­pe­ri­ence from their peers,” says McIn­tyre, who au­thored the 2013 play Jail Baby, about in­car­cer­ated moth­ers. She said what she learned in re­search re­flected what she was read­ing about — a dys­func­tional sys­tem where kids are quar­tered in ho­tel rooms and re­ceive lit­tle su­per­vi­sion or care. “It un­der­lined what we knew, that the sys­tem is over­loaded,” McIn­tyre says. “One kid in one year was as­signed four dif­fer­ent (case) work­ers. So there is case over­load and nowhere to put the youth. Some youth are in emer­gency shel­ters where they have no pri­vacy, no sense of home. We heard from the kids that the sys­tem is over­whelmed.” To use the­atre to ad­vo­cate change in a so­cial prob­lem as com­plex as foster care would seem to be akin to hunt­ing an ele­phant with a pop gun, but the power of the stage, McIn­tyre says, is the em­pow­er­ment felt by the kids, who nor­mally don’t have much of a say. “They wanted other youth who are go­ing through stuff at home to know they are not alone,” she says The character of Josh is a com­pi­la­tion of sev­eral kids, in­clud­ing one who par­tic­i­pated in Sarasvàti work­shops but got in­volved in a vi­o­lent in­ci­dent in his emer­gency shel­ter and was taken into po­lice cus­tody. “For me, this was one of the most painful parts of this project, to see this kid with so much po­ten­tial get into trou­ble,” McIn­tyre says. The need for a show like Giv­ing Voice is played out ev­ery day as young Man­i­to­bans in foster care con­tinue to come for­ward to re­late sto­ries about their sys­temic ne­glect. “It’s a sad re­al­ity,” McIn­tyre says. “It’s al­ways been an is­sue. The Phoenix Sinclair in­quiry had gone on for sev­eral years when we started this project. Un­for­tu­nately, two years later it was on the radar again be­cause of Tina Fon­taine. It’s an on­go­ing is­sue.”

MICHELLE SIU / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Sloan’s Jay Fer­gu­son, left, and Chris Murphy in their Toronto re­hearsal space.

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