June 5, 2010
“As progressives we have come to believe that if people address the issue of human development—in direct and practical ways—we might indeed change the world.”
So reads the title page of a booklet the East Side Institute put out several years ago on our history, philosophy and programs. I was reminded of this during the week when I was reading the dialogue among our faculty (myself, Chris Helm, Carrie Lobman and Fred Newman) and students in the Institute’s Social Therapeutics Online certificate program. The 20-week course is winding down and people are revisiting what we’ve read, written and said in reflecting together on the impact (or not) on our lives of what we’ve been doing. The conversation is too rich to keep private and, with the permission of the students and the rest of the faculty, I will share some of it on this site.
Alex is a theatre director and on the drama faculty at a university in South Africa. She’s been involved in community theatre and performance work with adults and young people for years. Throughout the course, she’s been sharing the performance work she’s doing with men in prison, and here she tells us of their conversation at the end of the program.
I had the most amazing group conversation with a small group of the men I have been working with in prison. It was part of an evaluation of our process, and also part of my research (as a university teacher, I do need to always ‘explain’ what I do), and also part of our process together as we talked about what we believed drama and performance mean for us. What they talked about was an enactment of all the things that social therapy says is developmental, growthful, educational, about group building through performance.
This group has certainly not been framed or established as a therepeutic group, yet each person talked about how therepeutic their involvement with the group and our activities had been. I need some more time to listen to the conversation again (which I recorded) and process it all – there were just so many beautiful gems which dialogue with the theory we have been reading in Vygotsky at Work and Play. In particular, I have just read the last sentance of chapter 2 – “my proposal goes in the opposite direction, namely, that education could be advanced if we consider the teacher as therapist”. My work with this group has always been constructed educationally – yet, when we had our conversation yesterday, most of the participants ‘learning’ was articulated therepeutically, or socially.
For example, they all talked about how drama had helped them understand others better far more than any other programme, that through becoming another person through performance, they were able to leave the stress of their everyday lives behind and play with new possibilities, it helped them work well with others, communicate better, and most of all, understand themselves and their futures in new ways. All of them reflected on how performing had helped them with anger and to understand their emotions differently, particularly relationally: so that they found different strategies when dealing with conflict or understanding where other people had come from. One of the participants talked about how he had to go and receive a certficate for something but was nervous, and thought that he would just perform confidence, stuck his chest out and collected it with pride. “A”, who is a passionate leader and initiator in the group, talked about how he is now always performing – both on and off stage, as he learns new ways to ‘be’ (and become, although these are my words, not his). He seemed to see himself as what Lois says about “people are primarily performers, not thinkers or knowers”.
Drama always claims that it does these things that the group reflected on, but this is the first time I have heard a group talk about the effect of their work together in this way. It was a thrilling hour. When I think about it and the creative activities we have been involved in over the past few months, I start to understand what Lois talks about as the ZPD not being a zone, but an activity.