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This Exit, No Return

By Joy Cowdery
WebMD Feature from “Exceptional Parent” Magazine

Using Art to Advocate and Empower Parents

Advocacy begins with an assumption that if a number of community members are suffering, then there must be something wrong, not with the individual members, but with the community as a whole; therefore, the community must be changed to help alleviate that suffering (Kahn 1997, 109). Advocacy creates a platform for change by allowing individuals to begin the process of improvement through finding their voice and believing their voice can produce change.  Advocacy is essential for parents to address the imbalance of power and control when their child has a disability and the community and schools see their child, not as different, but as deficient. Traditional formats for advocacy have included multiple public discourses. One of the most powerful forms of public discourse for producing change can be achieved through performing arts. This medium transforms feelings, thoughts, and images into aesthetic persuasion that allows participants and audience members to experience a phenomenon in a new way and to ask questions that might not have been asked (Barone, T. & Eisner, E. 2006, 96).

Performing stories has been a means of connecting audiences to lived experiences in the language of ordinary people since the beginning of mankind (Lawrence, R. et. al 2006). Readers’ theatre is “a form of group story-telling in which two of more readers present a piece of literature by reading aloud from hand-held scripts” (Robertson 1990, 2). The strength of a readers’ theatre performance “lies in the transformation of each participant as she or he engages in conversation, reflection, and action in community with others.” (Lawrence, R. et. al 2006). Because the “action” of the story takes place, not on a stage, but in the minds of the audience as enhanced by the vocal and facial expressions of the readers, the staging can be as simple as stools and ladders in a cafeteria, library, or classroom or as elaborate as a stage supplemented by lighting and levels. The “set” then is limited only by each audience member’s imagination. No extensive rehearsal is required, and the performers can be both the actors and the audience. By bringing in audience members to participate, the performance urges a suggested attitude toward the text and effectively advocates for the cause. A “ we” feeling is created.

Readers’ theatre has been used extensively for advocating for various causes, the most popular in recent times has been the Tectonic Theatre’s Laramie Project (Kaufman 2001) about the slaying of a gay student in Wyoming. This play has traveled community and college circuits for the last nine years, converting more dispositions toward tolerance than all the news articles could accomplish. Many other plays for many other social issues have been successful in their advocacy for the people directly involved through discrimination (Knowles, G. & Cole A. 2008, Denzine, N. 2003, Grey, R. & Sinding, C. 2002).

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