Half Full: The Glass as Mirror

Half Full is the creation of Mixed Company Theatre and focuses on the experience of students with anxiety – students who may have never told anyone about their anxieties and fears. This presentation will deliver a uniquely engaging form of experiential peer-led public education to reduce the stigma of mental health and find ways to support students and peers.

At a recent stage reading of Half Full, for the Toronto Catholic District School Board and their campaign ‘Stop the Stigma’, students and teachers were given the opportunity to experience Half Full and give their thoughts and feedback on its content, approach, language, and delivery. Throughout the reading there were deep silences and head nods as students and teachers alike connected with the struggles of the lead character Joshua, and laughter as he made those all too familiar fumbles toward finding his confidence, voice, and strength to reach out and ask for help.

At the end of the reading students were tentative to volunteer their thoughts on the show, and our Artistic Director Simon Malbogat expertly facilitated the dialogue on the winning aspects of the play and areas for new perspectives and growth. As more students gained confidence to speak there was a wellspring of positive thoughts about why Half Full is so essential, especially in a high school environment where it can often be difficult to speak up and speak out against the stigma of anxiety and mental health. In this moment teachers were able to really hear their students on an even plane where Simon mediated disagreements in views and approaches for how teachers connect with students needing support, and how students want to be supported.

It takes courage to be kind to ourselves, to voice our concerns and have the strength to ask for what we need. It is important that we push through the discomfort, embarrassment, shame and awkward feelings to address our anxiety. This is the only way we break down the walls of stigma, and help ourselves and others freely talk about and access the resources we need to deal with anxiety and other mental health struggles.

The biggest first step is acknowledging that we are struggling and need help. It takes a lot of bravery and determination to stop the stigma surrounding mental health, but it is possible one conversation at a time. We can end the stigma by: finding the strength to ask for help, being a support to someone struggling, choosing to highlight the good in others instead of having fun at their expense, and by being considerate and patient with one another. As we begin to talk about our struggles and help others through their own we come to see that the glass is never empty, at the very least it’s half full.

Volunteers in the Spotlight! – Meg Shannon

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Tell us about your self: Where are you from? What are your interests?

I’m a lifelong student and lover of the arts. I’ve been involved with music and theatre since I was a child, and have since found myself working as an arts administrator and communications professional in the theatre industry. I’m also a writer and love playing around with short stories, social media, and blogging. Next up I plan to learn how to write a great play.

I’m from Kingston, where there is more community theatre than you can shake a stick at. With so many groups creating great theatre it was easy to fall in love with the artform. I’ve also lived in Guelph, both Londons (here in Ontario and the UK), and have made Toronto my home for the last five years.

When I’m not working in, seeing, or writing about theatre you can find me travelling, playing soccer, cooking a new recipe or enjoying a great glass of wine.

What made you want to volunteer for MCT?
I wanted to get more involved in the Toronto theatre community, and to use my communications and social media skills to do it. I heard that Mixed Company Theatre was looking for people to help with exactly that and jumped at the chance. I love that MCT uses theatre to effect social change – theatre can be a transformative experience and MCT is living proof of that!

What kind of change are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about any kind of social change that allows people to live their truest lives. Lately this has taken the form of reproductive and pay equity rights for women and queer and trans rights. I really do believe that the world will be a better place if we all just give each other room to live their lives as they see fit.

Using your skills, how can you make change in the community?
Give me words (any words!) and I’ll craft you a message that will help fulfill your goals. Whether it’s in a press release, a blog post, a Twitter or Facebook message, or newsletter article, if you have something to say, I can help get it out there. The pen is mightier than the sword, right?

Thanks Meg!

Get to Know Us! – MCT’s International Intern

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1. Could you give a brief background of yourself – where you are from, your interests and passions, and your past experience in the performing arts?

I come from Switzerland. (I was born in the Swiss German part but have done most of my education in the Swiss French part). I have a lot of interests and passions and I sometimes find it a bit difficult to match all of them together! I really love outdoor activities, like hiking and climbing. Of course I have always been interested in the Arts too. I started with music: I played the piano and sang in a choir as a kid and a teenager. I started theatre quite late, when I was 20. At the time, I was doing an internship in an institution for people with disabilities and helping out in the creation of a play with the beneficiaries of the centre. At the same time, I was also taking theatre classes in Lausanne. A couple of months later, I decided to join a pre-professional theatre course. Right at the same time I started University in Social Work and chose to specialize in Community Work and Arts.

2. What initially attracted you to working with Mixed Company Theatre? Where/how did you hear of it?

I am in the last year of my University program, which includes a 6 month internship. I had to choose where I was going to realize this second practical period. As I love travelling, I decided I would do it abroad. I did my first practice in Cambodia, in an artistic school, working on “theatre for awareness”. This technique would generate discussions but it was set in a very formal way, with a “questions and answers” at the end of the play. I wasn’t fully convinced by this method of trying to engage the audience and wanted something more active. That is why I decided to look for a Forum Theatre Company for my practice. I read about Mixed Company Theatre online, when I was looking at the International Theatre of the Oppressed Organisation website. I wanted to experience what it means to work with Theatre and Communities in a diverse city like Toronto.

3. Have you done any other community theatre work in the past in other countries? How do these experiences compare with what you have experienced here with MCT?

As mentioned in the above, I worked in Battambang, with Phare Ponleu Selpak, which means the Brightness of the Art in Cambodian. It was a very interesting experience, where I was able to explore the reality of trying to implement Theatre for Development in a difficult environment. Before coming to Toronto, I thought that my experience over here would be very different, especially taking obstacles into account. However, I have realized that the constraints, such as limited time and resources, are very common to a lot of companies engaged in social and political theatre throughout the world. Also, another similarity is the experience of working with a translator, which I have had the chance to reiterate again here, working with the Chinese Community at Scadding Court Community Centre.

4. What has been the most memorable experience with MCT so far?

Mmm, that’s a very difficult question! I think that one thing I will keep in memory for sure is the experience I have been able to share with seniors, both with the Intergenerational project and Scadding Court Community Centre. I loved listening to their stories and learning from their knowledge and wisdom.

5. What has been the biggest challenge for you at MCT so far?

Organizing MCT’s fundraiser event! It was my first time having to plan, coordinate and supervise an event from A to Z!
I had worked for bigger events in the past, like music festivals, etc., but I was always assigned to a specific department and never had to oversee every little detail.

6. How has it been for you living in Toronto? What have been the challenges and highlights about living and interning in Toronto? How has Toronto compared to other cities you have lived in?

When I first arrived in Toronto, it really took me a while to be able to settle. I struggled to find proper accommodation and had a hard time feeling “at home”. I have to say that the weather was pretty unfriendly when I arrived (in February) and that it didn’t help me socialize, discover and explore! I also missed being surrounded by nature and realized how lucky I was back in Switzerland, in a country where the public transport is very efficient and the entire country bike friendly. I have to admit I am really not a big fan of the North American Car Passion! One of the highlights of Toronto is definitely its diversity. I have been able to exchange with so many cultures, with MCT, but also at home, since I have been living with roommates from 6 different cultures!

Thank you Amelie!

growing old with new leaves: Cross-cultural and intergenerational experiences in forum theatre

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A group of older adults have been participating in workshops at Scadding Court Community Centre, near one of Toronto’s Chinatown communities. MCT facilitators, Simon, Kristin, and Amelie are working collaboratively with Stephen and Jenny, from Aiding Dramatic Change in Development (ADCID) using CrossGEN (a method for facilitating cross-cultural understanding) to build on MCT’s interGEN and forum theatre programming for the predominantly Chinese Canadian participants.

Supported by a Mandarin translator, the older adults are guided to pay attention to movement, facial expressions, and creative ways of communicating, across cultures. The facilitators continuously guide the participants to pay attention to the journey, and the process: to enjoy the time that is being spent exploring identity and connecting their experiences.

One older adult, who is new to Toronto, shared that “It’s beautiful because you get to explore what is inside of us. We’re actually using the creativity part of our brain. You really have to think in the moment and we’re not trained actors so we really need to think about what to do.”

In one exercise, all of the older adults danced around the room, making sure that their movements and mood reflected the type of music being played. Their body language and movements illustrated the different ways they interpreted the sounds they heard, yet all seemed to move in sync. The intention of the CrossGen and interGEN programming is to stimulate cross-cultural communication and understanding, across and within difference— a verbal dialogue is not always necessary to stimulate awareness of different perspectives. In another exercise, through the construction of sculptures, both the participants and facilitators realized how differently they would interpret body postures. Simon sculpted two of the participants back to back, as an image of disconnection. Yet, the participants sculpted a similar image, of two people sitting back to back, as one of connection, explaining how couples would take this romantic pose, back in their day, in China.

In another activity, the participants chose a picture from a table covered with a range of images from around the world. In a sharing circle, each participant had the opportunity to share their photo and how they felt connected to it. Some shared in English, but most spoke in Mandarin and through the translator, everyone heard each other’s stories: trees that represented the struggle to survive and the idea of growing old with new leaves, were some of the images that conjured through this dialogue.

The image of the bicycle came up over and over again; everyone appeared to have a bicycle story, and it sparked an emotional reflection on what was then, and what is now. In the 1920s and 30s, bicycles were initially reserved for the upper class or for those who had spent time abroad. By the late 1930s when China began to mass-produce bicycles, many people in China began to utilize this new form of transportation. The bicycle is called zi xing che (自行车) in Chinese, meaning, self-driven transport. Currently, there are approximately 430 million bicycle owners in China.

Clearly, the bicycle represents autonomy in transportation. However, in China, most of these older adults had to experience great challenges to acquire bicycles – they shared their struggles with having to get a code prior to attempting to purchase a bicycle. The structural limitations around acquiring this commodity made for a powerful reflection on what was ‘then’ and what is ‘now.’

Lots of photos and stories emerged around the circle, but all were connected – each one gave someone in the room deep insight and connection to themselves, to each other and to the world. A lot of people connected to earlier time in their life: a memory, a special moment, a feeling or experience. Discovering such connections is part of intergenerational programming does – by providing space to make meaning of such experiences. The workshops are ongoing twice a week, and will culminate in a performance at Ryerson University’s 50+ Festival, where this group of older adults will perform moments from their lives, on Thursday June 4th.

The blog entry was contributed by Christina Parker (MCT’s volunteer researcher) and Amelie Sterchi (MCT’s international intern from Switzerland).

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