Web Supplement to
Teen Theatre for Grief Work
Re-Posted, September 4, 2007
Drama can be used to facilitate grief work in teens. I have worked with three groups, in Portland, Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, and San Diego, and have found that the youths' participation in the process both is healing for them and for their audiences. The format is similar to the teen groups mentioned in the recent anthology, Interactive and Improvisational Drama, especially Staci Block's program (Block, 2007). It is a combination of theatre-in-education and devising theatre, with improvisation and interactivity as important elements. (Supplement to Block's Chapter).
The death of an immediate family member is one of the most difficult life stressors and it can continue to have effects throughout the lifespan (Tonkins & Lambert, 1996). When an adolescent experiences the death of an immediate family member, the normal changes and transitions of adolescence are compounded by this additional life altering event.
Research shows that expression of emotions and difficult experiences is beneficial for emotional and physical health (Pennebaker, 1997). Pennebaker (1997) reports, “Good narratives or stories, then, organize seemingly infinite facets of overwhelming events. Once organized, the events are often smaller and easier to deal with." (p.103) The purpose of this paper is to introduce a theatre program that supports adolescents to express themselves as they navigate the rocky terrain of grief after the death of an immediate family member.
The Theatre Troupe Concept
Bereaved teens who have attended peer support groups at the host bereavement center or host hospice create an original performance in which they share their personal stories and perspectives about loss and grief. Participation in the troupe enables teens to explore and express their grief and provides an opportunity for them to transform their grief into something positive by helping audience members gain understanding of the experiences of grieving youth. They offer insight, hope, and validation to other grieving youth and the adults that support them. Participants become empowered as agents of change working to dismantle societal taboos surrounding grief. The troupe meets weekly to engage in trust building activities, improvisation games, storytelling, and writing exercises that support the development of a cohesive ensemble. Various aspects of death and grief are freely explored and eventually shared through poetry, music, movement, and drama.
In 2000, Lola Broomberg, Director of The Boldness Institute in Eugene, Oregon, started the first theatre troupe of this kind, with Courageous Kids, a grief support program for children and teens. The Program Director of Courageous Kids, Cheryl Coughran, recruited teens who had participated in Courageous Kids support groups and/or Courageous Kids Camp, teens who already had support in processing their grief. Cheryl was the liaison between the troupe and the schools the troupe participants’ attended. Lola gathered with the teens and shared her vision: to support them in devising an original performance about their experiences and feelings about death and grief that they could present to their peers at local schools.
The troupe season is the academic year, and each fall, previous troupe members who wanted to continue their participation joined together with new recruits to form a new troupe. Lola directed the Courageous Kids theatre troupe for three seasons and I directed for one season.
Most recently, I served as a consultant to the Center for Grief Care and Education at San Diego Hospice & Palliative Care while they developed a teen theatre troupe program. I have started a program as the intern at The Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families in Portland, Oregon. For The Dougy Center troupe, I have served as director and liaison, unlike the original format of the Courageous Kids troupe.
The details described below are based on my experiences and knowledge as a past participant and former director of the Courageous Kids troupe, as the director of The Dougy Center troupe, and as a consultant to the San Diego troupe. Of course, specifics vary from troupe to troupe.
Formation of the Troupe
Troupes have been composed of five to ten teens. Seven to nine is an ideal number of participants. With seven to nine participants, it’s big enough that “the show can go on” if one person can’t make it. Seven to nine is small enough that everyone’s voice is heard and it is less likely for subgroups or cliques to form. In each troupe, it has turned out that there have been more female participants than male participants. Participants are typically 13-18 years old, but there have been exceptions. Before I directed the Courageous Kids troupe, I participated at age twenty-five. In San Diego, there is an extremely creative and articulate ten year old participant. The group dynamics in both of these troupes have not been compromised by the age disparity. The ethnic composition of the troupes reflects the ethnic composition of the geographical location of the troupes in Oregon and California. In Oregon, participants all have identified as Caucasian. In San Diego, seven teens identify as Caucasian, one identifies as mixed heritage, and one identifies as Latino.
When the teens are recruited, either in person or by letter, they are invited to attend an informational meeting to learn more details about the troupe. At the meeting, which is typically held over pizza, discussion includes a general overview of the program, logistics about rehearsal dates and times, expectations of commitment, and time for teens to share why they are interested in the troupe and to ask questions. After the meeting, the director has a conversation in person or over the phone with each teen to reiterate what was covered in the meeting, answer questions, and find out if the teen wants to participate.
Retreat and Rehearsals
The weekend retreat is the foundation for the entire season. Staci Block (Chapter 6, 2007), the creator and director of Reflections, a New Jersey based teen improvisation theatre troupe that has been addressing adolescent issues since 1990, states, “It has been extremely beneficial to do some kind of an overnight trip in September or October so that connections amongst the group members form rather quickly” (p. 62). I have found that eating pancakes while still dressed in pajamas somehow brings the group closer. The teens get to know each other deeply through the games and discussion and also have time to just be together without an agenda. The Dougy Center did not permit the teens to spend the night due to liability concerns, so the teens left Saturday evening and returned midday on Sunday. The teens have bonded over time, but I do think breaking up the continuity of the weekend had an impact on the formation of connections.
The retreat ideally takes place no more than a month after the informational meeting so the conversations from the meeting are still fresh in participants’ minds. The retreat may be held at a private home, typically donated for the weekend by an individual affiliated with the bereavement center (the house of a volunteer or a connection through an employee). The home has at least one large open area so the teens can participate in physical theater activities without feeling restricted. Ideally, the teens arrive at noon on Saturday, stay overnight, and go home at noon on Sunday. The teens are invited to bring photos of the person(s) who died and memorabilia, and any poetry, art, music, or other special items that relate to their loss. They are asked to bring a journal if they own one, and assured there will be journals available.
weekend starts with a talk circle, in which everyone, including the
director, sits in a circle and shares a bit about themselves.
Each participant is invited to share a detail about him/her, for
example, favorite food, dream vacation destination, or favorite
color. For some groups, this initial talk circle is an
appropriate time for participants to introduce the person(s) who died,
and some groups require more time together to feel comfortable sharing.
Following introductions the troupe generates and agrees on group values in order to create a safe space where participants feel comfortable sharing. This is an important conversation to have at the beginning of the season for the safety and foundation of the troupe. Group values are written down and can evolve as the group sees fit. Some of the values that typically surface are open-mindedness, active listening, and confidentiality.
After the talk circle, I lead the group through a few quick ice breakers to get them laughing, loosened up, and to ease their anxiety about being in a new group. Ice breakers are followed by more involved games to warm up imaginations, voices, and bodies, and to help them become focused and present in the room. These exercises are low-risk and do not single anyone out or put anyone on the spot in front of the group. Spontaneity and playfulness are cultivated, with an emphasis on interaction. Next, I take the group through a series of games and activities to build trust, and to introduce them to storytelling and improvisation – all key elements towards creating a comfortable group dynamic and a collaborative ensemble that will devise the performance together.
In some of the storytelling and improvisation games, the teens are asked to draw on memories and personal stories related to their loss. These activities encourage teens to share in greater detail, and the sharing helps to generate material to be used in performance pieces. After these activities, participants are given time to write or draw in their journals or on big sheets of butcher block paper that is laid out on the floor. I ask them to write about what has been most helpful for them during their grief, what has been most challenging, and what they believe is important for the audiences to know about their experiences.
When all of the teens are done writing and drawing, we come back together and they share what they have written and drawn. They find similarities and differences in their experiences, and tend to get animated and excited when they discover their commonalities. During this dialogue, I take detailed notes about what themes emerge, and topics that seem to be important for individuals, for some teens, and for the whole group. We start to brainstorm how to convey the themes and messages on stage. We talk about different staging techniques: monologues, realistic portrayals of situations in scenes, the use of metaphor and more abstract representations, physical pieces that include no talking (a picture speaks 1000 words!). Some of the activities the teens already engaged in can translate into structures for performance pieces. After this brainstorming session, the group decides to work together on one idea or split into smaller groups and work on different pieces.
After working on performance pieces, and solidifying two or three ideas, the teens have free time in which they are not focused on their stories. They hang out, listen to music, play cards, write, draw, or help cook dinner. Time spent together in this casual way helps strengthen relationships. Once dinner is over, the teens can continue having down time together or watch a movie (I rent a light comedy). If they aren’t too exhausted, which is sometimes difficult to gauge, I lead a candle lighting ceremony, modeled after the Courageous Kids Camp candle lighting ritual. Since much of the first day of the retreat is focused on expressing feelings and thoughts, but not actually feeling those feelings or thoughts, this ritual provides a space for the teens to feel. They have spent the day getting to know each other, and at this point, often teens are willing to be more vulnerable with each other.
If the teens are spending the night, they get ready for bed and end up chatting along the way. If they are going home for the night, I facilitate a discussion about self-care, and ask them to envision what it will be like to get in the car and go home and how it will be to interact with the people they will see.
The second day of the retreat (after breakfast, if the teens have spent the night at the retreat site) begins with a check-in, warm-up games, and then the teens launch back into devising performance pieces. The last activity of the retreat is a closing circle during which each participant tells the person next to them in the circle something they appreciate or like about them. A ritual can be offered here, for example, the first person to offer an appreciation can hold a ball of yarn and then pass it to the next person, while holding onto the loose end. The ball of yarn unwinds as it is passed around the circle. When the ball of yarn returns to me, and the circle is complete, I make a comment about how we have connected to each other over the weekend. Then I go around the circle with scissors, and cut each individual the piece of yarn in front of him or her to take home. In the San Diego troupe, one of the teens had her piece of yarn tied around her ponytail at the few next rehearsals.
Rehearsals start the week after the retreat and are typically held weekly for two hours. The format is similar to the second day of the retreat. After a check-in, the teens engage in warm-up games, and then work on generating material, devising performance pieces, and rehearsing performance pieces. At the end of the two hours, we save five to ten minutes for feedback and debriefing. The opening and closing circle provides predictable structure and ritual to the rehearsals.
Performance themes vary from troupe to troupe and from show to show. The following are salient themes and messages that have been presented in various ways:
- There is no one right way to grieve; everyone grieves differently.
- The feeling of loneliness and feeling like no one understands.
- The reactions people have when they find out about the death and the well-intended but misguided or insensitive statements they make and advice they offer.
- Changes in family dynamics after the death.
- What it was like to return to school
- Being triggered by events, words, smells…
- Pretending to be happy so that other people don’t feel awkward.
“Many adolescents feel changed for the better (after a death), show strength and maturity through loss, and draw upon their personal and social resources in effective ways” (Noppe & Noppe, 2004, p. 167). In one troupe, a performance piece developed out of the question, “Would you give up what you have learned and gained since the death to have the person back?” All seven teens agreed they would not, that they were, indeed, changed for the better.
The length of performances has varied from twenty-five to forty-five minutes, with time for the audience members to ask the teens questions after the show. Certain performance pieces are scripted, for example, some performers will memorize and recite poetry. Other pieces are improvised - the teens know the general message of certain scenes but will not work from a script.
Troupes perform in a variety of venues for diverse audiences including at the host organization for staff, volunteers, and families; middle schools and high schools (for one class in a classroom, for one grade level or the entire school in a gym, cafeteria, or auditorium); school district conferences for teachers who are part of tragedy response teams; medical conferences; as a fundraiser for the host organization; public performances at a hospital and a bookstore.
Benefits for Teen Participants
The Report on Grief and Bereavement Research (Genevro, Marshall, & Miller, 2003) indicates there is much research exploring the grief and interventions for parentally bereaved children, but there is a general lack of research on adolescent grief and interventions. Tedeschi (1996) shares that there is little attention paid to bereavement support groups for adolescents in the professional literature and states, “there are indications of positive outcome for participants in adolescent bereavement support groups based on surveys and anecdotal evidence from group members.” (pp. 310-311). I have implemented informal surveys and have gathered anecdotal evidence and have found that teen participants benefit in many ways. How they benefit and to what degree they benefit varies from participant to participant.
The following are some benefits that will likely be emerge: continued peer support for increased validation and normalization of feelings, connection with peers, empowerment, increased self-esteem, communication skills, collaboration skills, perseverance, enhanced imagination, planning skills, empathy, trust, creative abandon, risk taking, perspective (seeing world in different ways), critical thinking, decision making skills, self-awareness, self-reflection team work, and leadership skills. This list was generated in a dialogue led by Sojourn Theatre Artistic Director Michael Rohd, with a group of educators and community workers that use theater with youth and are benefits that often result through theatrical work with teens. Evidence for these benefits comes from the experiences of the participants of that dialogue, and my own experiences, knowing what teen participants in troupes have reported and based on my observation of their growth.
Some teens have reported that being in troupe has made them reflect and think about their experiences around the death in their family in new and deeper ways and that this has felt good. Some teens find healing as they create the performance while other teens find it helpful to become a teacher for others. A parent of one of the participants said, “I’m so glad for this opportunity for her, I can already see a difference in (my daughter). She is beginning to share more, it’s so healing.” Some teens say they are excited to help teens that will see the show and teens that may benefit from knowing an adult who has learned from seeing the show. Teens in the San Diego troupe and The Dougy Center troupe have reported improved academic performance after joining the troupe. The following are quotes from participants:
“I never really had such an effective way of expressing my thoughts and feelings towards death until I became involved in this. As soon as the group gets together, there’s a sort of immediate connection that I’m sure comes from the common experience of having a loved one die. This connection is invaluable and becomes the foundation for a profound experience in which many aspects of death and grief are freely explored and eventually shared.” (A.F.)
"After one show, an eighth grader approached me in tears, speaking about how her father had died of cancer. The show had triggered things for her and I gave her some advice on how to get through it. It felt so good to have made an impact." (C.L.)
“It has been an amazing experience and I have learned a huge amount about myself, my grief, and how to deal with the hardships in life, as well as the great feeling of knowing that other people are going through a lot of the same things.” (J.B.)
Benefits for Audiences
The International Work Group in Death, Dying, and Bereavement (1999) claims that a challenge is “To develop and implement death education programs for educators, students, and their families” (p. 462). When audiences hear narratives and see stories enacted by teens, they learn in a very different manner than if they were to read information from a book or learn from a professional. This type of live performance could be included in death education programs, in addition to the aforementioned audiences.
Audiences are moved by the profound and educational performance and have a richer understanding of the experiences of grieving youth. In the long run, hopefully this will positively effect their interactions with grieving youth. The following quotations are from audience members (from shows of different troupes):
“Great! Beautiful! Needed service! So inspiring! Powerful!” (High School Counselor)
“I appreciated seeing a different way to present grief to the public. The courage, honesty, and willingness the troupe has in sharing their stories is amazing. Some of the stories were difficult to listen to but this is informative for me.” (Program Coordinator for a Children’s Grief Group)
“I liked all of it. It was very open and I didn’t feel like I wasn’t supposed to listen.” (High School Student)
“Death is often thought of as a taboo topic in our culture. Not discussing it while we are still grieving can cause many unresolved conflicts and problems later in life. Using creative expression, they are able to be both givers and receivers of emotional therapy. Through various vignettes, they are able to not only tell the story of the death of the parent, but also how it has affected them over the years. Those of us watching can learn how we can respond appropriately to someone who has lost a loved one, but when it reaches someone who is still grieving, the true power of this program is reached." (Medical Doctor)
According to Erikson (1959), the peer group is of great importance during the developmental stage of adolescence. The landmark Child Bereavement Study demonstrated the importance of peer relationships to adolescents and provided evidence that like most adolescents, bereaved adolescents do not want to stand out from their peers (Worden, 1996). Therefore, spending time with peers who have experienced the death of a family member may be beneficial. Peer support groups provide a forum in which bereaved adolescents can express their feelings and talk about their experiences with individuals who share the commonality of experiencing a death. “Hearing the stories and grief journeys of peers (and adults) provides an opportunity for teens to: understand the nature of grief; learn about alternative coping skills; explore the adaptive methods of others; normalize one’s own experiences surrounding the death” (The Dougy Center for Grieving Children, 2004, p. 42).
Erikson (1959) viewed adolescence as a time for individuals to try on different roles in search for identity. Peer support groups offer peer interaction, and when combined with theatre, a new dynamic is born, one that provides a unique environment conducive for teens to explore the ways their identity has changed since the death and how that plays out in their life. For adolescents, the combination of drama and grief work seems to be a natural fit for such exploration.
Dramatic activities are often playful, utilize metaphor, and can be verbal and non-verbal. Curtis (1999) asserts “Physical movement breaks down mental barriers, allowing the freedom to respond emotionally” (p. 187). Teens are typically self-conscious about what their peers will think of them, and drama provides a buffer – teens can express themselves in character so the fear of judgment and rejection is dissolved. “Theatre specializes in things which are hard to say…Aesthetic distance is able to create a more welcoming world.” (Grainger, 2005, p. 3).
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1983) stated, “Those who learn to know death rather than to fear and fight it, become our teachers about life. There are thousands of children who know death, far beyond the knowledge adults have” (p. xvii). Theatre provides a forum for bereaved teens to embody the role of the expert, and to become empowered as teachers of grief. “For those who are oppressed by the terrors and failures of life, theatre can be the best kind of play; any kind of theatre opens us up towards the possibility of an alternative way of being. Any kind of theatre involves us in an experiment in transformation” (Grainger, 2005, p. 7). Balk (1996) shares, “My research and the independent work of several colleagues has convinced me that most adolescents emerge from their bereavement more emotionally and interpersonally mature than their unaffected peers of their own age…Their own personal experiences with and adaptations to grief have enabled them to feel competent to help others” (p. 369). Performing theatre enables and empowers bereaved teens to help others by sharing the wisdom they have gained from their experiences.
The Executive Director of The Dougy Center, The National Center for Grieving Children and Families, Dr. Schuurman (2003), asserts that grieving youth need “a safe place to express or not express, their thoughts and feelings” (p. 84) and “avenues to express” (p. 86) their thoughts and feelings. The theatre troupe program offers bereaved teens safe space and many “avenues” of expression within one program. Off stage and on stage, participants have the permission and opportunity to share in their own style, and in turn, those witnessing the teens’ courageousness will benefit as well.
For more information, see the
chapter Lauren authored: Drama and Theater, in The Art of Grief: The
Use of Expressive Arts in a Grief Support Group, J.E. Rogers (Ed.), Routledge Press,
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