Theatre project shines light on issue of children in care
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.”
Sloan’s Jay Ferguson, left, and Chris Murphy in their Toronto rehearsal space.