MCT and Sefton Jackson: MicroSkills Workshops

About MicroSkills

Community MicroSkills Development Centre is a multi-cultural, non-profit, community-based organization committed to assisting the unemployed, with priority to women, racial minorities, youth, and immigrants. Recognizing barriers that immigrants, racial minorities, youth, and women face in their efforts towards self-sufficiency, MicroSkills aims to enable these groups to participate more fully in Canadian society, and assist them in acquiring the skills needed to achieve self-determination and economic, social, and political equality.

The programs are designed to assist the unemployed achieve career and personal goals. Clients can choose as many services as required to help them on their way to becoming self-reliant and economically self-sufficient.

Sefton, Mixed Company Theatre, and MicroSkills

Sefton Jackson is a graduate from the Humber College theatre program, and was washing windows for corporate buildings when he met Waawaate Fobister. Waawaate was one of the actors at Mixed Company Theatre (MCT) in Cobblestone, a show that reflected the stories of youth living on the streets and in shelters. Waawaate saw in Sefton a kindred spirit for the performing arts whose talents were better served on the stage, not washing windows. He encouraged Sefton to check out MCT and recommended him to the artistic director, Simon Malbogat.

Sefton later interviewed with Simon, who saw his raw talent and passion for acting, and thought that he would be a perfect addition to the Cobblestone show. Sefton started acting in Cobblestone in 2006, then moved on to Showdown and Showdown 2.0. He continued touring with Showdown 2.0 through high schools and public schools for a number of years. During this time Sefton began exploring roles outside of acting, and began facilitating workshops with Mixed Company Theatre. The most recent workshop he has facilitated has been in partnership with the Community MicroSkills Development Centre, delivering workshops looking at gender differences at North Albion Collegiate.

The workshops were designed to be homework drop-in sessions, where students spent time getting help with their homework, and participated in the MCT and MicroSkills workshops. Initially, the workshops were catered to male students, but later were opened to include female students. The students were comprised of Grade 9-12 youth who faced difficulties keeping up in the classroom. Sefton used games as a way of entering into deeper conversations about the power dynamics between genders, equality, and how to build more respectful peer communities.

These workshops were developed to encourage learning in both directions, from the facilitator to the students, and vice versa. Some of the things that Sefton learned were a couple of new phrases that he had never heard before. These included “Curing AIDS”: the idea that anything could be cured by having sex, and “Girl Clowning” or simply “GC”: to go online and act nicely or flirt with someone, then behave in the exact opposite way in person in front of their peers, essentially shaming them (usually a boy behaving this way to a girl).

Sefton used the opportunity of the youth sharing and explaining these phrases to engage in a discussion about the impact of the behaviour, and the power dynamics of the actions that these phrases elicit. He worked with the students to identify who the power wielders were in instances of Girl Clowning, the power dynamics between men and women, and the unfair and negative implications. Through this informative dialogue, Sefton was able to help the students understand how these phrases and actions deteriorate relationships between the genders, and demean female students.

MCT and MicroSkills Workshop Philosophy

Each workshop started by going around the circle and sharing everyone’s names, since there were different students each week. In addition to sharing names, students were asked to check-in with how they were feeling that day, and in that moment. This ensured that Sefton, as well as the other students, were aware if someone was having a bad day and needed extra support or empathy. Sefton encouraged an environment where there were no right or wrong answers, so that students could speak frankly without judgement. Students were allowed to share their views freely, using language that they were comfortable using. The workshops began with Sefton identifying that he was not an expert, but a facilitator, open to learning with the students. If someone required services beyond Sefton’s abilities he would then refer them to other resources.

Student Feedback/Outcome

Students came to the workshop identifying each other by their gender, with a distinct separation between boys and girls, and all the stereotypes that went with it. At the end of the workshop, students left seeing each other as human beings and equals. In the beginning, students entered and sat by themselves, not knowing anyone, and not wanting to sit next to anyone. By the end they developed friendships, sat together, shared jokes, and played games. Sefton also used games to show the students the shift that had happened in their social interactions with one another, and at the end they were able to understand the benefits of nurturing a communal and friendly culture of equality and respect.

Sefton’s Feedback/Outcome

Sefton was able to engage with the students in a way that allowed learning to happen. One teacher, after observing Sefton’s first workshop, was worried that the rest of the workshops would just be repeating the same games and format, and that students wouldn’t be learning anything new. He asked Sefton to include ways of addressing and building perseverance, and helping youth deal with their inner relationship with themselves (How do I deal with me?). Sefton was able to adapt the workshops to include inspirational quotes from famous figures such as Martin Luther King and Einstein. He had students create three images to go with the quotes that most resonated with them. The images were meant to be visual representations of perseverance highlighted in the quotes.

Unexpected Learnings

Sefton didn’t expect to become so attached to the students, since he had only spent five sessions with them over two months. He really enjoyed keeping up with and learning their various slangs, and felt that the kids not only accepted him as a peer, but fully respected him as a facilitator. Facilitating workshops with Mixed Company Theatre has helped Sefton realize that he enjoys engaging in the arts as a facilitator working with youth through different themes and issues.

What keeps him connected to Mixed Company Theatre

In his own words, “To be honest it’s Simon.” This is an answer that several participants of MCT programming have mentioned. For Sefton, he has learned many lessons from Simon, lessons about people, life, and the various ways that we manipulate and are manipulated by others in the arts sector and in general. With each and every show and workshop that he has worked on with MCT, there is always a culture of learning: learning from each other from participants, and from the audience. This has helped Sefton, as an actor, to be prepared to adapt and be open to recommendations and feedback. Each performance is different, which allows him to really sharpen his improvisational skills. Sefton tells us that when you’re an actor with MCT, you learn to do many things beyond acting; you learn to put up and tear down your sets and pitch in with the rest of the team to ensure that you all give the best performance possible, and that has prepared him for the wider world of performing arts.

MCT and Catherine Frid: The Emergence of Half Full

Catherine Frid is one of the playwrights in residence at Mixed Company Theatre (MCT). She first met Simon Malbogat, the Artistic Director of MCT, through a forum theatre workshop that he delivered at York University in 2014. She approached Simon about volunteering with Mixed Company Theatre, and they explored ways to utilize her playwriting expertise. Together they decided to jointly apply for an OAC Playwright Residency program grant to create a show for students that focused on mental health and anxiety. Upon receiving the grant, Catherine began conducting her research, and met with therapists, psychiatrists, teachers, and young adults to learn more about the effects of anxiety, whose stories would eventually become the basis for the school production Half Full.

It is expected that everyone will experience anxiety and stress in their lifetimes, but it may never reach a debilitating level, such as that experienced by those suffering with an anxiety disorder. The Anxiety Disorder Association of Canada defines anxiety disorder as follows:

“An anxiety disorder… is diagnosed when various symptoms of anxiety people experience create significant distress and some degree of functional impairment in their daily living. A person with an anxiety disorder may find it difficult to function in areas of life such as social interactions, family relationships, work or school. Often, different anxiety disorders occur together or with other conditions such as depression or substance abuse.”[1]

From the definition above, we can see that anxiety disorder, like any other mental health disorder, is complex, and often occurs in tandem with other conditions. Because the term ‘anxiety’ is often used by the general public in relation to the stresses of everyday life and social interactions, there can be little sympathy given to individuals who identify as having an anxiety disorder, an illness far more debilitating than the fleeting stresses and anxiety of everyday life.

The Mood Disorders Society of Canada, in their Quick Facts: Mental illness and addiction in Canada, 3rd Edition, states that the number of Canadian children and youth affected by mental illness at any given point in time is 15% of the youth population, or 1.2 million, and the most common problem among children and youth is anxiety, which affects 6.5% of youth in Canada.[2]

In 2015, Simon and Catherine ran six workshops exploring anxiety: with Aboriginal youth, on- and off-reserve, in Brantford; Grade 7-10 youth with anxiety in the East Metro Youth Services program in Scarborough; a Grade 11-12 youth drama class at Harbord Collegiate; Horizons for Youth Emergency Shelter; and with a small TDSB class. In these workshops, Catherine was able to get the first hand stories of youth struggling with anxiety, learn how they experience it, and the various things that cause anxiety, from social media to peer relationships.

Previous to her work developing Half Full, Catherine had no experience with or knowledge about the anxiety epidemic affecting youth in Ontario. Her research gathered from her workshops and interviews with mental health experts, educators, and youth living with anxiety helped her understand the deep, pervasive, and overwhelming nature of anxiety, and the impact on those suffering from it. This was the reason that the decision was made to make anxiety a character, called ‘Anx,’ in Half Full, representing the reality of its effects and impact. Half Full is meant to help students understand that they are not alone in their struggles with anxiety.

Catherine also deepened her research into youth anxiety by consulting with youth mental health professionals. These included a child psychologist, a child therapist, a youth counselor, and a TDSB teacher. She also consulted with other youth health professionals from the TDSB Mental Health Committee, Prologue Arts, East Metro Youth Services, and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. Her research and consultations also extended to youth living with anxiety, to ensure that she had multiple perspectives of the real impact that anxiety can have.

Half Full was further developed with input from table reads of the first draft of the play with MCT staff and the public at OISE. Catherine grew her knowledge of youth mental health and learned more about anxiety at two great conferences: HEADSTRONG—Youth Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Summit, sponsored by the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario and the Mental Health Commission of Canada; and the Ignite4Youth Conference.

Researching anxiety included doing interviews and workshops with experts and youth struggling with anxiety, and has deepened her understanding on the topic and made her more empathetic to those struggling with it. She has learned to be more aware of the signals of anxiety sufferers, and the ways to engage with them, and this has made her more present in her interactions with people in the world around her.

Initially Half Full was not meant to focus on cyber bullying, and the anxiety induced from using social media. Catherine learned that the internet and social media were key triggers for youth anxiety. Youth can’t simply not go on social media, turn it off, or disengage from it fully. The internet and social media are the key channels through which youth communicate and engage with one another. In the workshops with students, youth identified what they saw as the benefits and hindrances of the internet. They saw that the internet has made it possible to find a vast amount of information about a wide range of things that used to be inaccessible. You can find out anything you want to know. The immediacy of the internet is also seen as a big positive for youth. However, this also means that things good and bad can be uploaded and shared quickly, and have the power to impact social relationships amongst youth.

Catherine did not realize how severe and paralyzing it can be to suffer with anxiety. This is why it was important to show viewers what anxiety looks like from the inside: the heart palpitations, hyperventilation, and sense of intense panic that individuals experience. The Half Full school tour runs from April 4th-29th, 2016, and will be delivered to students in the GTA and surrounding areas.

 

[1]Anxiety Canada, About Anxiety Disorders http://www.anxietycanada.ca/english/

[2] Mood Disorder Canada, Quick Facts: Mental illness and addiction in Canada November 2009, 3rd Edition http://www.mooddisorderscanada.ca/documents/Media%20Room/Quick%20Facts%203rd%20Edition%20Referenced%20Plain%20Text.pdf

Showdown & Mixed Messages: Theatre for Social Change

The Facts

What is bullying and why has it been such an important topic for so long in schools? In 2012 Ontario became the third province in Canada to implement anti-bullying legislation. A study done around the same time by the Public Health Agency Canada revealed that nearly 20% of students report being bullied, while 40% of students report being both victims and bullies[1]. The Public Health Agency of Canada defines bullying as follows:

“Bullying is a relationship problem. It is a form of repeated aggression where there is an imbalance of power between the young person who is bullying and the young person who is victimized. Power can be achieved through physical, psychological, social, or systemic advantage, or by knowing another’s vulnerability (e.g., obesity, learning problem, sexual orientation, family background) and using that knowledge to cause distress.”[2]

The above definition expands our understanding of bullying beyond physical violence; it looks at the deeper power dynamics between and among youth, and the numerous ways through which power is achieved. The organization Promoting Relationships & Eliminating Violence Network (PREVNet) states that bullying rates in Canada are higher than 2/3 of OECD countries, and the bullying doesn’t stop when students leave school. Some more facts from PREVNet include: Over 1/3 of Canadian teens have seen cyberbullying take place, 1 in 5 teenagers now report being victimized electronically, and 80% of teens have seen racist or sexist content online.[3] What this data reveals is that bullying is a complex problem that requires a dynamic approach and solution.

ShowdownScriptWordcloudwithLogo

We Listen

In 2002 the idea for Showdown began with Simon Malbogat, the Artistic Director at Mixed Company Theatre, as he delivered workshops to schools in North York, York, and Scarborough. Through his work with these schools, Simon realized that bullying was not only a common issue, but also a daily occurrence in the lives of students. He decided to work with students and teachers to create a show and workshop, using Forum Theatre to address issues of physical and emotional bullying, isolation, manipulation, and bullying between genders.

MCT applied to Crime Prevention and received funding to create and perform the workshop and show. Support from such a well-known organization helped Mixed Company Theatre to build trust with school communities, and raised awareness about the efficacy of Showdown. The Toronto Catholic District School Board (TDSB) heard positive reviews of the production, and helped bring it to more classrooms, through the provision of subsidies. Other school boards also started to request the show. Simon had hit upon crucial social issues through listening to the needs of the schools, teachers, and students, and Showdown was in demand, and was eventually seen by over 350,000 students and educators.

This ability to pay attention to the needs and feedback of students and teachers led to a turning point for Showdown in 2011. The internet and online social platforms were quickly becoming new places for bullying to occur. Mixed Company Theatre realized that Showdown was not keeping up with this shift and would soon be outdated if the company didn’t adapt. Thus was born Showdown 2.0, an updated version of Showdown, which included technology and ways of dealing with cyberbullying.

Through the positive reviews and feedback about Showdown, and our amazing funders and partners like Crime Prevention and the TCDSB, Mixed Company Theatre was able to tour two versions of the show: one version for younger grades, and another version for secondary schools. In 2009 The Bullying Show with Morro & Jasp was also developed to respond to the need for an anti-bullying show for students in Grade 2-5. Through these shows, we were able to reach audiences of over 30, 000 per year from 2004 to 2014. With the funding received through Crime Prevention, Mixed Company Theatre was able to add the production and aesthetic values which gleaned a DORA nomination.

We Feel

Showdown wasn’t born solely from Simon’s experience giving workshops in various school districts; Simon was personally affected by bullying. More specifically, his son experienced physical and psychological bullying at school. Simon did what any parent would do: he went into the schools and spoke with his son’s teachers. His teachers promised to deal with the situation, but the bullying persisted. Simon then reached out to the principal to help put an end to the bullying, and separate his son from the bully. The teachers and principal did little to help, and his son continued to come home bruised, bleeding, and defeated.

This is when Simon realized that he had to take matters into his own hands. The school system wasn’t addressing a serious issue, and continued to place his son in harm’s way. Simon wrote letters to the head of the district school board, the trustee and superintendent of the board, and anyone that would have more power to help his son, and ensure that bullying would be taken more seriously within the education system. Despite the fact that the principal did not take drastic actions to resolve the bullying, Simon was admonished for going over her head, and it took five months before the principal dealt with the situation. People eventually started to listen to Simon’s plight, recognize the broken chain of care within the education system in dealing with physical and psychological bullying, and see its impact on those that fell victim to the violent behavior.

People started speaking up about their own experiences with bullying in their schools, from teachers and guidance counsellors to students, principals, and politicians. This input from principals, teachers, students, the mayor, and other leaders, all catalyzed the development of Showdown, Showdown 2.0, and Mixed Messages. It also ensured that Mixed Company Theatre was continually aware of their audience and adapting to changing needs and issues.

Mixed Messages Wordcloud with logo

We Change

Now that the demand for Showdown and our more recent production Mixed Messages is waning, how will Mixed Company Theatre adapt to our audience? We know that it is still necessary, more than ever, to teach our kids the difference between coercion (bullying, manipulation, and rape culture) and consent, as well as the difference between the escalation and de-escalation of a situation. We know that in the past a Forum Theatre play, followed directly by an interactive forum and intervention session has really resonated with teachers and students alike. But what changed and how can we adapt to the shifting demands for the educational curriculum, especially in a time where it seems like mental health is taking centre stage? From the research mentioned at the beginning of this article, it would be fair to say that mental health is without a doubt part of the complex issue of bullying, and thus was born our new school tour, Half Full. No matter which issues are in vogue, whether bullying, consent, or mental health, one thing is for sure: Mixed Company Theatre’s approach using Forum Theatre will always lead to positive engagement and dialogue on how to create positive social change.

Testimonials

“Showdown provided a unique opportunity for staff to have fun while they learned and engaged with the topic of violence, in a credible and realistic manner. Showdown’s ability to provide hope and positive solutions for the very complex problems of violence and bullying was heartening, and clearly emphasized the resilience of youth. The material was all the more poignant presented through the voices of youth, challenging the audience to consider the experience of violence and bullying from the youth’s perspective.”

Edwina Godden, Central Region Youth Justice Trainer, Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services

“I have been able to use Mixed Company presentations, and some materials from your teaching guide, to continue to use lessons from the story, and make students think about their own lives and involvement with peer pressure. My students loved the performance and were very much engaged.”

Teacher, TDSB

“It was a pleasure having Mixed Company Theatre perform at Riddell. They were able to successfully plan and implement an anti-bullying performance that included all of the key messages and strategies for dealing with bullying. It was an interactive presentation with students participating and problem-solving throughout the performance. It was Grades 4-6 age-appropriate and connected very well to discussing our own school climate and how all of us have a responsibility to make Riddell the safest place to learn and achieve our full potential.”

Wes Hahn, Principal, R A Riddell

[1] 2012, K. Dearden. Canada: Ontario’s Anti-Bullying Legislation Is Now In Effect.
[2] W. Craig, H. McCuaig Edge. The health of Canada’s Young People: a mental health focus.
[3] PREVNet Bullying. The Facts.

 

Conscious Theatre with Heart and Purpose: 2015 A Year in Review

What a year it has been for Mixed Company Theatre! In 2015 we worked on several amazing projects including: developing our Inter-Gen Program, creating a new high school tour called Half Full, touring Mixed Messages to high schools and universities across the GTA, building Out of the Illusion – a play with the JustUs Group of seniors from the Six Nations Reserve, delivering workshops to several community organizations including the MicroSkills Youth Centre, and the last show of 2015 – A Day on the Shore – developed in collaboration with Lakeshore residents.

This will be the third year developing our Inter-Gen Program. We have led interactive workshops with participants from our partnering organizations including UrbanArts, Heritage York Members at Historical Lambton House, and Scadding Court Community Centre. These workshops brought together people across generations to create theatrical presentations to bridge the gap between generational and cultural realities, issues, and concerns. In the upcoming year, the project will culminate with the stories of two communities – Weston/Mount Dennis and Alexandra Park/Chinatown – and MCT will build two productions showcased within a Toronto theatre venue. Stay tuned for more details!

In February we workshopped Half Full, our newest high school show to break the stigma on mental health. The process was led by the Mixed Company Theatre playwright Catherine Frid, who developed the script with the input of those who live with anxiety, including students, teachers, and mental health and educational institutions. We also toured our well received production Mixed Messages to High Schools this past May and in Universities in August. We received tremendous positive feedback from the student and teacher audience members in the various schools, and we will continue to reach schools across the GTA this coming year.

With Microskills Youth Centre – the Dixie Road location – we ran workshops with youth to raise awareness of gender and equity issues and the effects of cyber bullying. The workshops were delivered as an after school program to a group of local youth. Other workshops offered this past year were our Summer Professional Development workshop series which included our Introduction to Forum Theatre, Masks of Manipulation, Rainbow of Desire, and Facilitator/Joker Training.

This fall Mixed Company Theatre, in partnership with Scadding Court Community Centre and The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University, worked with the JustUs: an amazingly talented First Nation’s Senior group from the Six Nations Reserve. Through interactive theatre and community arts activities, participants explored intergenerational stories, issues and concerns. This forum theatre presentation, Out of the Illusion, tackled the subject of breaking the cycle of violence through the perspective of the senior participants and the voices of their community. Out of the Illusion was well received by audiences at Ohsweken’s Great Theatre and Toronto’s Ryerson University. All were able to unpack current social issues and engage in essential dialogue using forum theatre techniques with local community participants. We hope to continue to develop and share this important production with a wider audience in 2016.

Our final show this year, A Day on the Shore, was supported by the Toronto Arts Council’s Artists in the Library program, and the Toronto Pearson Airport’s Propeller Program. Mixed Company Theatre was this year’s artist in residence at the Mimico Centennial Library. This show was a beautiful mosaic of community building, art making and designing, music and soundscape development, storytelling and live theatre performances. Many of the performers were local residents of the Lakeshore neighbourhood. The script was developed in consultation with local residents, and showcased their shared stories and lived experiences of the neighbourhood. These community members were also involved in every aspect of development of the production, including puppet making, instrument building, soundscape production, costume and prop making, and performing in the show. We were able to capture their joy, the new participants connections made, as well as be witness to the artistic transformation that occurred by being part of A Day on the Shore. It was truly a lovely way to wrap up the year!

We would like to thank our company funders who helped us to realize all of the great work we accomplished this year. Thank you to: the RBC Children’s Mental Health Project, Scotiabank’s J.P Bickell Foundation, the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the Toronto Arts Council, the Ontario Arts Council, the Toronto Pearson Airport’s Propeller Project, the Catherine and Maxwell Meighen Foundation, the Ontario Government Seniors Community Grant Program, and the Ontario Arts Endowment Fund.

A big thank you also to our community partners who have been amazing hosts and collaborators. Thank you to: Scadding Court Community Centre, Heritage York (Located in the Historical Lambton House), UrbanArts, the Toronto District School Board, the Toronto Catholic District School Board, the Toronto Public Library, Ryerson University’s G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing EducationLakeshore Arts, and the South Etobicoke Youth Assembly.

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