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RSS FeedThe Creative Process and Personal Liberation: Why Art Matters For All Of Us
Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014 10:28 AM

by Anita Dacanay

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” 
― Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

The above quote from famed Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Friere speaks to the reasons that those of us who engage in arts education and outreach programming can never think of this work as tangential or trivial. We see evidence that it is not. We see evidence that, in fact, just one experience in quality arts programming can change the trajectory of an individual’s life.  Engaging at-risk populations in the critical thinking and community building which is inherent to creating and producing theater heaps multiple benefits upon the minds and hearts of those who are ripe for the experience.

If we contemplate the quote further, we see how Friere associates the “practice of freedom” with “the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”  This description accurately outlines the approach taken with many successful theater arts outreach programs, including Still Point’s Imagination Workshop and Persephone Project.

Stanford University Professor Shirley Brice Heath has conducted extensive research on the effects of after school programs for youth. One important study discovered that arts programs are more effective than any other type of programming at positively altering the course of children’s lives. They were more effective than sports programs, community service programs, or academic programs. The reasons given for these findings, in my opinion, support my belief that arts programming can be enormously beneficial for any and all populations, particularly at-risk populations. One of the reasons cited in the study involves the benefits of healthy risk-taking. Youth, it was shown, benefitted from putting their hearts and minds on the line in their artistic endeavors. Rather than simply following pre-ordained rules, the artists had to create their own structures; they had to analyze how to best express their thoughts and feelings, and then imagine how the audience would perceive them.  Read more about this study here:

When Lead Facilitator Laura Callahan-Hazard asks a group of adults with developmental disabilities to imagine a scenario in which a person with a disability is treated poorly, and then to re-imagine and act out a scene in which the situation is corrected to show the same individual being treated with respect, there is much more going on than a simple recreational activity.  When Laura or another Facilitator provides a structure through which critical thinking arrives at the imagining and acting out of a more just world, a powerful chemistry is at play. It is truly a kind of alchemy – the turning of lead into gold.

The widespread underestimating of adults with developmental disabilities often results in a lack of meaningful challenge and risk in the opportunities presented to them. At Still Point, we start with the assumption that people with D.D. are whole, valuable human beings with completely unique gifts to share.  This should go without saying - but unfortunately, in our society, it often does not. I have seen Imagination Workshop programs become a safe space for many individuals to engage in meaningful personal growth. The benchmarks vary greatly. For some participants, just learning to speak up in a group and offer original ideas and opinions is a huge landmark. For others, they have absolutely run with the opportunity to develop and express true artistic talent that might otherwise have remained undiscovered or undeveloped.  These individuals have fostered talents not only in performing, but also in developing and directing original work.  The effects of such achievements on an individual’s self-esteem are often profound. When Andy T. says, confidently, “I am the Director” – he is claiming an identity as an artist and a leader. This is not only beneficial to him, but to all of us, as the breaking of stereotypes allows for greater freedom of expression all around.

Likewise, the Persephone Project offers important opportunities for growth to women in jail. Writing exercises are utilized throughout the 12 week process that we use when working with women who are incarcerated. From the beginning, participants are asked to examine themselves and their inner and outer lives. The safe container that is forged by the Facilitator supports that process.  The healthy risk-taking begins as soon as a participant puts pen to paper to express real thoughts and feelings that are intended to be shared. The risk-taking continues in the actual sharing of those thoughts and feelings within the group. Critical thinking fosters the process of analyzing and assessing those thoughts and feelings, and how to best express them.  Emotional bravery is required in the final step of performing their original work for other inmates, jail staff, and guests. The entire process encourages the women to “deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

The Still Point motto that I am referencing in the title of this blog is this:”We all matter, and art matters for all of us.” In closing, let me expand on the importance of the “all of us” part. This means that those of us who perform administrative work for the company need to have our souls fed through developing our own creative lives and our own artistic work, as the vast majority of us are artists also. This means that the service performed when we tour our work across the country, and occasionally beyond, is as important as the outreach work we do. We are all “special” populations. We are all vital parts of a whole. It is my belief that widespread creative expression is an integral part of any healthy society and an inherent human need.  Art, at its best, paves a road to liberation.

Imagination Workshop: photo by Chris Carollo

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