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The Resistible Rise of Kevin

A back to school image so oddly evocative of our LARAMIE PROJECT poster, we just couldn't resist

A back to school image so oddly evocative of our LARAMIE PROJECT poster, we just couldn’t resist

A quick walk through the mall leads me to wonder, did Back-to-School sales always start so early? It feels like the school year just ended and yet the shelves are filled with protractors, compasses and myriad other items I haven’t had the need for since grade nine. With another school year on the horizon, it seems as good a time as any to reflect on our work with students over the past theatrical season. Thanks to growing financial support from individual and corporate donors, our Studio 180 IN CLASS program has expanded beyond a production based model to include custom workshops targeted to specific issues of concern for students and educators. It’s been an incredibly successful year, full of insight, invigorating discussion, impressive student creations and an intriguing motif.

Our workshops often involve the creation of characters with a strong point of view on a particular issue. Sometimes we’re just meeting the character briefly in a “hot seat” exercise, at other times, characters with contrasting points of view are thrust into a scene to explore both sides of an issue with the goal of developing empathy for the diverse arguments that may arise. The students always impress with their ability to take ownership of a character, to speak from the “I” and to challenge themselves to explore points of view that are not their own. But there’s a fascinating trend that emerges when you start exploring characters in this context, particularly in schools with a diverse cultural population.

All the characters are named Johnny.

Or Kevin. Or Shelly. Or Debbie.

While I recognize the import of creating names that are easy to recall in an improv scenario, it’s more than a little surprising that generic North American monikers are the norm in classes where Mohammeds and Ajunas are in greater supply than Mikes and Annas. Is this indicative of an innate devaluing of one’s own heritage, an unsettling concession to the dominant story-telling culture, or is it quite simply, the easiest thing to come up with on the spot?

One suspects it’s a little of columns a, b and c. One thing is for sure, this is not an isolated occurrence. It’s a phenomenon that recurs, to varying degrees, in virtually every class we visit. Of course, students are encouraged to explore characters outside their realm of experience and no one is obligated to present a character that is tied to, or illuminates, their own cultural background, but it does invite us to consider the lack of diversity in characters presented in contemporary performance.

 

  • A co-founder of Studio 180, Mark is a Toronto-based actor, writer and producer. As a member of our Core Artistic Team, Mark coordinates the company’s new play development initiatives and is one of our Studio 180 IN CLASS workshop leaders. More posts by Mark McGrinder

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