In my life as a drama teacher, there have been many times when I have experienced the “art mirrors life” phenomenon.
I have had students working on scenes about marital break up while they have been going through one at home. I have had students working on scenes about bullying while they, themselves, have been experiencing it in a very real and visceral way. Perhaps not surprisingly, I have had students preparing shows on the intricacies of teen romance while trying to navigate those particularly choppy waters in their own haphazard way. I even had my very own “Rizzo and Kenickie” romance blossom backstage during one production of GREASE. (Last I heard, they had four little greasers of their own and were living happily ever after.)
However, as I wind my way through what it means to be in the cold grip of a world-wide pandemic, I have to admit to being constantly reminded of one particular unit of theatre that has been a staple of my grade 10 drama program for a great many years.
The general idea of the unit is to present the students with a non-fiction text and ask them to pull the individual stories of the characters involved off the page and onto the stage. In explaining the purpose of the assignment, I would often refer to a movie like Titanic, where the storytellers try to narrow that tragedy down to a relatable size. Because we get to know Jack and Rose, we care about what happens to them. This draws us into a story of an event which is, otherwise, rather hard to wrap our heads around.
Whenever a drama teacher decides to wander into these realms of reality, there is always a cautionary tone to be taken. I am a firm believer in the unique power of drama to help students navigate the ups and downs of teenage life, specifically because of its capacity to create distance. Kids whose parents may be splitting up can tackle the complexities of the emotions they may be feeling through a character, as opposed to personally, providing for some emotional separation.
At the same time, I am very much aware that I am not a trained counselor. Although having students deal with their own issues through drama is not uncommon, I am nothing if not pragmatic when it comes to the kids. I always strive to provide a safe place for my students to explore complex topics. Knowing how much to blur the line between the stage and real life is a key component to ensuring that safety.
So, for many years, in order to keep my students safe but still allow for them to explore the complexities of a major international tragedy, I used an event that I knew was well outside any of their direct experiences. I pulled a non-fiction excerpt from a book written in 1983 by one Eileen Pettigrew entitled The Silent Enemy: Canada and the Deadly Flu of 1918.
Yes, I had my students pull apart the story of the great Spanish flu pandemic, dissecting the events, looking for the individual stories, finding the dramatic experiences behind the numbers, because I legitimately thought it was always, always going to be a safe topic.
I can’t take credit for birthing the idea. The article itself was contained in a provincially approved drama textbook entitled Improvisation, which was, and still is, an exceptional resource for drama teachers. The excerpt was quite informative; full of dramatic moments the students could explore. Soldiers returning from overseas during WWI were unable to disembark from trains for risk of infecting loved ones. Towns set up roadblocks to stop traffic on the roads. Some provinces implemented total quarantines. Rumours were running rampant at the time, with origin stories ranging from the dispensation of disease ridden blankets amongst First Nations communities to tales of the infection being intentionally released by enemy U-boat crews.
There were stories of personal trials and tribulations; of how people working in the arts were hit particularly hard when theatres closed down, of how poolrooms and other businesses were shuttered, and of how “travelling players” were struggling to make ends meet. A great deal of attention was paid to the terrific toll the pandemic took on First Nations communities, stories which elicited far more shows from my students than any other aspect of the tale.
There was reference to good news stories as well. Of people volunteering, of communities banding together, of the courage of front-line health care workers. All-in-all, as I sit here typing out these lines, the thumb worn text book perched precariously on my lap, the similarities between that moment in history and our current situation are strikingly surreal.
I didn’t use the unit every year. Like many teachers it was one of a battery of units I would choose from each time I was preparing for a new batch of students. As well, the unit went through a fair number of overhauls and revisions, with bits added and taken away as curriculum ebbed and flowed. However, at its very core, much remained the same over the years. The story of a global pandemic, broken down into digestible chunks by young students, using art to make sense of an event which, at the time, was a universe away from their current reality.
I think a great deal about those students these days. I wonder how many of them remember that show, which for some is now twenty years gone, and the significance of the moment. I wonder if they are feeling a new found empathy for the characters they created, and, perhaps, seeing them in an entirely different light.
Although it is a bit early to look out the other side of the COVID crisis, it is hard for me not to be rather stricken by the notion that a hundred years from now, a group of drama students may very well be tasked with creating a scene to deal with the great pandemic of 2020.
I can’t help but find myself wondering how our great, great grandchildren will someday be using art to makes some sense of what is right now, very much, our story.