Consent- A Chat with Mieko Ouchi, Concrete Theatre

A few weeks ago at La Cité Francophone, Concrete Theatre let the public in on their school tour shows Consent and Paper Songs. It was a weekend of theatre and conversation that engaged theatre professionals, public figures and audiences in a vital dialogue about how our younger generations experience sexual education and how our teachers and education system participate in that education. It was a wonderful if fleeting opportunity for the public to share this exciting work, but soon it was time for the two shows to get on the road again and back into more schools.

AB Theatre Guide caught up with playwright Mieko Ouchi who was kind enough to answer a few questions, giving us her perspective on Concrete’s work:

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The cast of Consent, photo by Epic Photography

What made you want to create a piece of theatre around the themes of Consent?

I became interested in writing a piece for young people in Junior and Senior High around the topic of sexual consent about four years ago, as larger conversations began to build around the topic around the country and the world. We had already toured another play called Are We There Yet? by Jane Heather for 15 years in Alberta Junior Highs which taught the sex ed curriculum, so we had quite a bit of experience working in this area. Since retiring that show, schools have continued to ask us about creating a new show around sexual education, so the topic seemed like the perfect way into talking about respectful relationships. Since that time, I did a lot of research, and Concrete Theatre built strong relationships with two amazing community partners: The Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton and Compass Centre for Sexual Wellness who worked with us to develop the script, and are working with us to support the show and students and teachers after they see a performance.

What were the important conversations you had with the company members during rehearsals and how have the performers contributed to the piece?

Of course anytime you work on a play which tackles challenging subject matter, as responsible theatre makers, we make sure we make time in rehearsal to talk about the larger issues that we are exploring, and how they relate to our lives. We also did a full day of training with The Sexual Assault Centre in how to receive disclosures from any young people who may come and share their stories with us, and practiced how to bring the trained sexual educator, who is on tour with us, into the conversation to offer expert help and support. SACE also led us through a self-care exercise where we identified ways we could release stress and take extra good care of ourselves. Finally, throughout the tour, we meet once a week for a group meeting to talk about how the tour is going and offer the team a chance to talk about disclosures. As we know from our previous experience touring issue based theatre for children and teens, this kind of ongoing check in and support is really critical.

How have young audiences been reacting to Consent and how is that feedback impacting your creative team?

The response to the show from our student and public audiences has been fantastic. People of all ages are very moved by the story. Several have commented on how powerful it is to hear the boy’s perspective, as this side of the story has not been explored much to date. Others have mentioned how helpful it is to see a teacher receiving a disclosure, so we are very happy that educators are getting the chance to see someone model ways teachers can talk to young people about this topic. Many teachers have also commented on how engaged the students are during the performance. We have noticed that as well. We feel like they are very much with us during the show. We truly hope the play is a tool for schools and students to open up discussions about this important topic and learn more about respectful relationships.

Tell us a bit about your community partners, Compass and SACE, who are touring with you. The impression I got was that they are there to support the young audience members, teachers, and actors, which I find really exciting. Is their presence an extension of the positive impact you’re hoping to have with the performance itself?

Concrete Theatre really believes in connecting our work and ultimately connecting young people with the amazing community resources we have in our city and our province. This kind of deep collaboration helps us as a theatre company to bring expertise in many diverse topics and best practice to our shows, and helps connect social service organizations with the schools and young people that we serve. We also really believe in the idea of having a long term impact on youth, so we love to have things like the educators on tour with us when we can, professionally built Study Guides full of pre and post show activities and additional resources, and in the case of Consent, follow up workshops available to schools to do more exploration of the topic after the play is done. That helps our positive impact last much longer than the duration of the show!

And you’ve mentioned your sponsors- How have they been involved?

We actually have three fantastic funders on this project: Alberta Status of Women, led by Minister Stephanie McLean, The Edmonton Community Foundation Vital Signs Program and the Wuchien Michael Than Foundation in Ontario. Minister McLean, actually saw our play Are We There Yet? when she was in Grade 9, and has commented on how much it means to her to be able to help fund the next generation’s sexual health education through the power of theatre. Alberta Status of Women gave us $80,000 to help subsidize the cost of the show to schools, and in particular to pay for travel costs for the show to go to many rural, and remote north and south corners of the province as well as the major cities, as well as develop the follow up workshops going into schools. The ECF gave us funding for three of our teen shows including Consent, as part of a grant that supports our Character Building program: three plays for teens that explore healthy relationships. Their ongoing support of our work is so appreciated, in particular their help sustaining our preventative models and our community collaborations. Finally, the Wuchien Michael Than Foundation is an exceptional national organization based in Toronto that funds professional Japanese-Canadian artists to create new plays. They came on board to help fund my commission to write the play and we are so thankful for their support!

This production has company members from varied backgrounds working together, and many of your major creatives are women. Balance in creative teams and in what\who we see on stage is a hot topic across the theatre world. Does Concrete Theatre make a conscious effort to create balanced creative teams\casts?

Concrete Theatre absolutely believes in gender equity and has since we became a not for profit in 1989, started by five women! As we’ve grown, equity (along with diversity, relevance and excellence) has remained one of the cornerstones of our company mandate. To that end, we work hard each year to make sure our staff, board and creative teams are as diverse and as balanced as we can be in terms of gender, cultural background, ability and all the other amazing things that make us all so different and beautiful. We believe this richness in perspectives helps strengthen our company and mirrors the beautiful diversity we see in the schools and community that we live in and tour to. This year, we are going even further by developing a chapter of new program called The 3.7% Initiative, based on a program built by Boca del Lupo Theatre in Vancouver. The program aims to build leadership skills in ethnically diverse women and non-binary people, who currently make up 3.7% of the current artistic leadership in Canadian theatres. We just had a fantastic first meeting of the group in January, and we look forward to building this program and mentoring more women and non-binary artists in the future.

It’s fantastic to have such accomplished theatre makers sharing high quality productions with those young audiences who maybe haven’t seen much theatre. Do you think of yourselves as “ambassadors for the arts” and does that affect how you create these school touring projects?

We are very proud that the people that we work with are such highly accomplished and talented artists. And we believe that children and youth deserve to see theatre made by professionals just for them. We truly believe that young people shouldn’t just be seen as an afterthought or add-on audience to adults, or in “training” to become adult audiences, but truly worthwhile audiences just as they are right now! We absolutely see ourselves as ambassadors and role models, and we know from our many years of touring, that many young emerging artists became interested in pursuing the arts after seeing one of our productions. It’s interesting, Richard Lee Hsi, who is starring in our current two productions, saw our production of Are We There Yet? when he was in Grade 9 at Riverbend Junior High. He has spoken about the effect seeing that show had on him as a young person, especially seeing actors of colour on stage. We always make space for audiences to come and talk to us about what it is we do… sometimes that is about acting, but also about writing, directing, designing and all the technical aspects that we bring into the school. Who knows what seeds we may be planting!

 We’re happy to report that the tour has been extended due to high demand, and I know I’m hoping that will mean another public performance some time soon! I want to express my thanks to Mieko for answering our questions. Also a huge congratulations to Concrete Theatre- thank you for offering such excellent theatre experiences for young people, as well as excellent equal opportunities for artists!

 

To learn more about Concrete Theatre, including how to book these shows in your school, visit www.concretetheatre.ca

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And check out the sponsors and organizations working with Concrete to bring this project to life by clicking the links below:

Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE)

Compass Centre for Sexual Wellness

The Government of Alberta’s Ministry for the Status of Women 

Edmonton Community Foundation Vital Signs Program

The Wuchien Michael Than Foundation

Boca del Lupo’s “The 3.7% Initiative”

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