Youth, Death, and Drama

Youth and death are two words we never want to see joined together, but all too often they are, evoking terms we commonly associate with art–dramatic, tragic. The shooting death of 9-year old Christina Green (and five other innocent bystanders) yesterday at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ public speaking event in Tucson, AZ drives home this fact. Death can be difficult to accept even when the deceased is elderly and the bereaved are old and mature enough to cope with the loss. Understanding and coping with death can be that much more difficult to bear if the deceased or bereaved is a young person.

Each life is unique and irreplaceable, and each life will inevitably end in death. Appreciating the former and accepting the latter are two central aspects of the youth drama workshop series that I am currently developing as an innovative community outreach initiative for a South Florida hospice corporation. Neither topic is particularly easy to interest young people in discussing; however, my hope is that drama and performance will help make the subject matter more accessible, palatable, and even fun. The workshop series will begin this February and run bi-weekly for five months, culminating in an original play to be performed by members of the newly formed Treasuring Life Youth Troupe, a group of 75 adolescents ages 11-18.

My preliminary research using key terms such as “youth,” “drama,” “workshop,” “death/mortality” yielded very little useful information. (Any recommendations?) In fact, the sole concept from my research that I’ve incorporated into the initiative is something called Playback Theatre, which was conceived and developed in the 1970’s by Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas. This theatre practice rests on the idea of building community through the sharing and enacting of  personal narratives.  It involves dividing a group of individuals into actors and audience, having a ‘conductor’ (a director of sorts) pose an issue or topic for audience members or ‘tellers’ to share anecdotes about, and then having the actors (using minimal props and only moments to prepare) perform the audience’s stories.  Beyond the Playback method, I am drawing on classic and contemporary works, from Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Jacques’ ‘seven ages of man’ soliloquy) and Hamlet to Constance Congdon‘s Losing Father’s Body and Brian Harniteaux’s hospice play, Vesta, to provide the youth with examples of how grief and mortality can be expressed through drama. The participants will also interview a friend or family member on a death experience and develop the interview into a brief monologue or dialogue. All of the ideas generated in the initial six workshops will be documented in a process journal and used as potential material for the youth-centered play that I will help the participants compose and stage in June.

*Fun Fact: Hamlet was Polish pianist Andre Tchaikowsky’s favorite play, and he bequeathed his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company with the hope that it would be used for the graveyard scene.  Tennant is, indeed, holding Tchaikowsky’s skull in the featured image.

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