Living the Mission

Touching Lives Through Theatre

For more than a decade, theatre students have had the opportunity to spend their summers in London, where they’d take several academic courses, attend professional theatre productions, and visit historical sites.

This year’s study-abroad program gave the students an added dimension: using devised theatre projects to work with mentally and physically challenged adults and children.

The idea was developed with the assistance of Lauren Arena-McCann, ’04, a freelance applied dramatist living in Cornwall, England. Lauren,who received a master’s degree from England’s University of Exeter in applied theatre, had visited NU’s study-abroad students in London the year before to discuss her career and to offer “insider” tips on making the most of their international experience. She so inspired the students and British faculty member Valerie Doulton that Valerie invited her to develop an applied theatre module for the following year’s group of students.

“The reason to incorporate applied drama was to extend the students’ experience of how drama can be used,” Valerie explains. “Applied drama leads to diverse career opportunities. With this knowledge, a student need not only think of a performance career, but could think of using performance in a very broad context.”

Lauren tapped into her varied resources to create a curriculum that enabled students to participate in a variety of therapeutic settings and activities, including a visual arts drop-in session for adults with mental health problems, a theatre workshop that explored issues of stress and anxiety, and dance and movement sessions for both adults with learning disabilities and children. They also led two mini-workshops for people with dementia and their caregivers at a Memory Café.

The programs were coordinated through Arts for Health Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, one of the United Kingdom’s leading arts and health organizations.

“I wanted them to see that the method of applied drama/theatre exists outside the commercial heart of London,” Lauren says. “I wanted to show them that singing, rhythm and music are prevalent throughout the English countryside as a way for at-risk children and adults to build relationships, explore new ways of emotional expression and learn how to fit in their own environment.”

The students conducted research for background and best practice information that aided them in preparing for their activities. After, they wrote reflection papers on their experiences and how what they did affected the people with whom they worked.

Michael Wachowiak, ’13, Grace Turner, ’13, and Andrew Adolf, ’13, found that their work with applied drama was a mutually beneficial experience.

“When we began this project two months ago, none of us really knew anything about applied drama, especially nothing about the marginalized groups we would be working with,” they wrote in their paper. “Over those two months we became informed and excited about these groups and getting to work with them. Through our work with them, we also became more informed about ourselves.”

Brianna Lanoye, ’13, also discovered that applied drama had as much of an impact on her as it did the people with whom she worked.

“After this experience I felt like I finally gained some concept of what I am ultimately intended to do with my life,” she says. “Planning and researching how to execute a workshop we created and then finally acting on it and seeing it help others was an amazing feeling; one that I would love to have in my life every day.”

Because this first-time program was so successful, future theatre study-abroad sessions will incorporate the applied drama module.

“I think it’s a great component to have, and it’s also in keeping with Niagara’s mission,” says Dr. Sharon Watkinson, '66, who, along with Valerie Doulton and Stacie Withers, another member of the British faculty, developed the theatre London study-abroad program. “This is one other area where our students could use their theatre skills to do something for the world.”