jump to content
In the Network: Media Co-op Dominion   Locals: HalifaxTorontoVancouverMontreal

Acting It Out

  • warning: Creating default object from empty value in /var/alternc/html/f/ftm/drupal-6.9/sites/www.dominionpaper.ca/modules/img_assist/img_assist.module on line 1747.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter_date::exposed_validate() should be compatible with views_handler::exposed_validate(&$form, &$form_state) in /var/alternc/html/f/ftm/drupal-6.9/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter_date.inc on line 0.
Section: Arts Geography: Ontario Toronto Topics: violence, performance art

February 17, 2008

Acting It Out

Youth overcome adversity at the Children's Peace Theatre

by Suzanne Taylor Muzzin

Children use theatre to deal with conflict, keeping in mind the three 'c's: courage, compassion and creativity. Photo: Children's Peace Theatre

Sixteen-year-old Drew Stewart was stabbed to death at a bar in Toronto’s east end in December 2003, trying to protect a pregnant friend from a group of attacking teens. His friends were shocked, devastated, and angry, and with scant family lives of their own, many of them continued to hang out at his house, grieving alongside Stewart’s mother and struggling with their loss.

Community safety meetings were organized in response to Stewart’s murder and the ensuing bouts of violence between his group of friends and his attackers. At one of these meetings, someone suggested that Stewart’s friends get involved with the Children’s Peace Theatre, a small organization offering school workshops and a children’s summer camp within the community. In a large heritage house once owned by the Massey family, the Children’s Peace Theatre uses theatre to teach kids how to deal with conflict using “the three Cs”: courage, compassion, and creativity. Though older youth had never participated before, co-founder Robert Morgan contacted Stewart’s friends and offered to help them put together a memorial performance to honour their friend. They jumped at the chance.

About a dozen of Stewart’s friends started coming to the theatre once or twice a week to have dinner, talk about their struggles and work on the performance. “It was very difficult and emotional,” says 26-year-old Mandy Arsenault, who was close with Stewart. “We had a few blowups. We would just get so tense and frustrated.”

Artistic director Karen Emerson saw first-hand how hard it was for the kids to embrace the concept of peace and forgiveness. “These were kids who were really struggling, who had really difficult lives.” In the end, Arsenault says, “We all stuck together and supported each other.”

Drew’s Group, as they came to be known, put on their memorial performance for an audience of 300 people, and eventually took it to City Hall and various community events. Afterward, the theatre offered to continue working with the group. “They had really formed a bond with us,” says Emerson, 44. “It had kind of become a real home to them and they had found a safe place that they had never found before.” Together they started what would become an annual program that runs throughout the school year and culminates in a springtime performance dealing with whatever issues the youth are facing. Arsenault continues to participate in the program when she can – she has a four-year-old son to look after – but she knows the people at the theatre are there for her. “They’ve been a big part of my life,” she says. “They have given me tremendous support and love and confidence.”

Arsenault is just one of nearly 1,000 children and youth the Children’s Peace Theatre will work with this year. In addition to its after-school program, the theatre offers three-day “Peace Leader” workshops to students at local schools. Once a week for three weeks, classes in Grades 4-12 come to the theatre to play games, explore the meaning of peace and talk about what conflicts they face. Jason Johnston, the educational program coordinator and one of only three full-time staff at the theatre, works with a team of volunteers to deliver the workshops. While a big part of the program is about having fun, there are plenty of serious discussions about bullying, racism, gun violence – whatever issues the kids are dealing with. “The program is just the skeleton; it’s the kids who put the meat on it,” says Johnston, 28. The theatre hopes to expand its offerings, though with an annual budget of $200,000 that relies almost exclusively on grants, funding remains a challenge.

Even on that modest budget, the theatre’s summer peace camp remains a highlight. For three weeks in July, several dozen children from the community work with artists to put together a performance they create themselves using music, visual arts and theatre. “Everything that we did was all based on their input and whatever they wanted to do,” says visual artist Anand Rajaram, 35. He worked on last summer’s show, which included a haunting ballad for the fallen trees in the forest surrounding the theatre, a tongue-in-cheek musical number about climate change set to the tune of That’s Amore and titled Just Ignore It, and a powerful scene about the alienation of the economically disadvantaged.

“I hope they learn that there’s no idea too small and that every idea has its worth,” says Rajaram. One of the ideas that camper Malan Macz has taken away from the peace camp is that there are better ways for dealing with bullying than lashing out. The 13-year-old, who, last summer, attended the camp for the fifth time last summer, is often teased by his classmates. “The first year I came, I had some anger management problems. But this has helped me a whole lot,” he says. “I try to deal with things as non-violently as possible, like giving an intelligent argument. Otherwise, I just ignore it.”

It’s that kind of change that energizes the staff, says Emerson. “It can be really challenging. But when you work for a whole year and you see the struggles that those kids – like the kids in Drew’s Group – go through, and then at the end of the year one of them says to you, ‘You’ve really changed my life. I just don’t know who I’d be without you guys,’ then you just can’t give up.”

For more information about Children's Peace Theatre, visit their website

Own your media. Support the Dominion. Join the Media Co-op today.


Archived Site

This is a site that stopped updating in 2016. It's here for archival purposes.

The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

»Where to buy the Dominion