By: Maya Osterman, Program Coordinator

I feel like this last month has been filled by me telling anyone and everyone who will listen that I am officially a full time Applied Theatre practitioner! I have had the honor of working with Mirror Image Arts for the past two years, and feel so lucky to call this organization my permanent home. My first month as the Mirror Image Arts Program Coordinator in true miARTS fashion has been jampacked. Since July, I have been in the field facilitating five “Finding Your Voice” 6-8 wk programs and four “Your Voice Matters” 90 minute programs, interviewing community members and devising a theatre experience for our Speak Up, Speak Out! project, and learning the in’s and out’s of the organization. I also just returned from my first American Alliance Theatre and Education (AATE) conference where Meghann and I presented on the value and process of evaluation. A common theme that kept coming up at this conference was “Why do you do this work?” so I thought I would take this opportunity to share my personal journey with Applied Theatre and why I do this work.

In the simplest form I do this work because it feeds my soul. With every experience, every moment, I get just as much out of it if not more than I put into it. It pushes me to think, feel, and be a deeper, more compassionate person to myself and others. It is exhausting and energizing, difficult and easy all at the same time. Even on days like today where I sit in a coffee shop pounding away at the keyboard all day, I have discovered something new about my work and how I view the world around me.

I was a “late bloomer” to theatre, only finding it at the end of my high school years. I grew up in a family of strong women who are huge advocates of Planned Parenthood. The local Planned Parenthood in Fort Myers Florida had a high school theatre troupe called The Source that performed plays on teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS awareness throughout local high schools. Not only did we go around and perform this play but we would have meetings at Planned Parenthood to make sure we were educated on the topics we were sharing with other students. I was in this troupe for a year and then for my last year of high school went to Idyllwild Arts Academy (a performing arts boarding school in California) to become a “serious actor”.  I decided to continue my theatre studies receiving my BFA at the University of Colorado – Boulder. However my real education was through the Interactive Theatre Project (ITP), an on-campus social justice theatre company I had the honor of being a part of all four years of college and was able to come back on as an Assistant Director for two more years after.

I will never forget my first encounter with ITP and the methodology of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. It was first year orientation and a few hundred of us piled into a large room. A group of actors performed a very disturbing play that ended with a drunk college girl going upstairs with a boy and inevitably being raped. The facilitators explained that we the audience now had the chance to ask the characters (the girl who had been raped, her best friend, the boy who had raped her, and his best friend) questions. For the next twenty minutes, the audience was in heated debate with each other and with the characters over the play they had just witnessed. I had never seen a group of strangers so activated and engaged, I was hooked. After the session I immediately went up to the facilitators and asked them how I could get involved. Trent and Rebecca became my greatest teachers, my awe inspiring mentors that opened up the world of Applied Theatre to me. There was no subject matter, no theme or idea we couldn’t and wouldn’t explore. What I so appreciated was the thought and care that went into exploring such triggering content for the actors and the audience. Theatre was a safe place that made space for the silenced, the marginalized.

Applied Theatre is an ephemeral experience with everlasting impact. Everyday is a brand new exploration that keeps you on your toes ready…hungry for more. It uplifts and highlights the importance of every voice and perspective. It pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you think in a way you never knew you were capable of. There is no better feeling in the world as a facilitator of this work than when you see a light bulb go off in one of your participants whether that be because they have just discovered something new or have finally been validated in the way they feel. Applied Theatre is how I can be an ARTivist (artist and activist), miARTS is the space in which I get to be an Artivist everyday, and for that I am forever grateful.

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By: Maya Osterman, Lead Facilitator 

With our current political climate, I find myself constantly questioning am I doing enough. I wonder if I am complacent. Why do I not feel anger like others? I am conflicted and saddened…nervous even. Am I doing everything I can including using my privilege to advocate and elevate the voices of the unheard?

Many days I feel like I am definitely not doing enough but on days when I lead Mirror Image Arts’ programs, I always leave grounded in the fact that we are doing real grassroots work. We are, creating space for young people to feel empowered in their own ability to use their voice and actions to make change in their lives and the lives of their community.

One of our newest endeavors has been working with the New America School in Aurora. The mission of The New America Schools is, to empower new immigrants, English language learners, and academically underserved students with the educational tools and support they need to maximize their potential, succeed and live the American dream.

More and more we find ourselves working with students who have immigrated to America with their families in search of a better life. The demographic of our New America program consists of a largely Latino/Latina population and recent Somali immigrants. Our Somali immigrant participants are all female and all wear hijabs. This past week’s program session, we started unpacking what bullying looks like in the their lives; whether it is something they have partaken in either as the person doing the bullying, the person being bullied, or the person witnessing the bullying (Bystander). I gave each group a few minutes to share their stories of bullying. I, then, asked them to pick one story to present to the rest of the class through a style of theatre called Image Theatre – participants create a still picture using their bodies/faces to tell a story.

All three images told a different story of what it is like to be a Muslim female who wears a hijab in America: the uncomfortable and angry person who tries to pull off her hijab, a more modern Muslim judging her for still wearing a hijab even after moving to America, and the push and pull from inside and outside perspectives around who a Muslim woman wearing a hijab should be. As we processed these images one of the girls expressed that this was the first time she had talked about her hijab and her fears now living in this country with anyone outside of her immediate friends and very close family. The other two girls expressed it was the same for them. I asked them what it was like to share these experiences with the group. They all said at first it was really scary but that they were relieved and happy to be able to share their feelings outside of their homes, they had not realized how much they wanted to talk about it with other people.

I turned to everyone else in the group and asked them what it was like to hear these stories, and then have to place themselves in these images with women wearing hijabs. The participants who had to play the characters in the story participating in the bullying behavior said it was really hard to have to play that role especially because they had to look into the eyes of the individual they were putting down. They all agreed that they did not fully understand what it meant to be a Muslim woman in America until doing this exercise…that they were surprised by how this activity made them feel.

We later moved into an activity where each participant wrote an I Am poem.  It is a self-reflective poem about who they are as a person: what personal accomplishments and character strengths they feel proud of, what their hopes and dreams are, and how they see themselves fitting into the world around them. The idea behind the poem is that we first need to feel confident and courageous in who we are before we are able to feel brave enough to stand up for ourselves or for someone else. They, then, divided into two smaller groups and had to transform their I Am poem into a We Are poem to emphasize the community they all want to be a part of. They were asked to repeat one line at the beginning and at the end of the poem. Their repeated lines were: 

We are Strong. We are Equal.

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I have been a part of this organization for nine years. As I write this post, I find myself needing to take a moment to reflect on that number. Wow! The time has really flown, and there is still so much more opportunity to explore. It’s thrilling!

Through the years I have held a variety of different positions…everything from Actor to Cast Manager to Artistic Director and to my most recent role as Executive Director. I have witnessed so much potential and possibilities for our world by working with young people. They are incredibly inspirational and have so much to say around their given circumstances. I am honored to be a part of an organization doing this work. I am still humbled every time I see a program and bear witness to the growth young people experience within themselves when an environment is built where they feel safe to question, reflect, and explore. Most recently, I was introduced to a story of a young person named Lupita. I felt so inspired by her, I wanted to share her story with you.

After experiencing the 2nd session of our 6 wk program, “Finding Your Voice”, Lupita approached our lead facilitators, Maya and Allyx, and thanked them for creating a space where she finally felt like she belonged; a place where she had a voice. She shared with them that up until that day, she had felt invisible at her school…like a ghost. People mostly didn’t see her and definitely didn’t speak to her. She shared that if people did see her, it was only to make fun of her. The actions of other students made her feel as if she wasn’t enough and she had never known how to change that. She, then, shared that even though that was the way it had always been at her school for as long as she could remember, she was beginning to feel differently. The more she practiced speaking up and using her voice in the program, the stronger her voice was getting and the stronger she was feeling.

After the 3rd session, the facilitators checked back in with her. She said she was feeling even more confident and shared that she appreciated that day’s session the most…how it had explored empathy and how to practice it. She was excited because now she knew how to be empathetic for others and that she might be able to helps others be empathetic too.

I was able to drop by this school for the 4th session of the program and after it concluded, the school counselor stopped by so excited to share a story with me. It was a story about Lupita. The counselor prefaced the story by telling us that Lupita was a student that tried very hard to not speak up in class. She was usually withdrawn with such low confidence that even when she did say something, it was difficult to hear her. The counselor went on to tell us that just before the program that day, Lupita had seized a moment to expand on a lesson in literature class. She stood up and shared that she identified with the isolation and loneliness the character was experiencing in the book they were reading. She, then, told her story. By the end, students in the class were tearing up and apologizing for making her feel that way. She further shared that she had just learned about empathy, and she was challenging herself to practice it more in her life and hoped they would consider doing the same. Lupita came to the school counselor immediately after class to tell her what happened because she was so proud of herself and so happy to see what had happened with her classmates.

As I shared in the beginning of this post, I am humbled to be a part of this work with young people who deserve to be heard and to feel proud of who they are. Afterall, isn’t that the journey to realizing our greatest individual potential. But, I also realized that Lupita’s story is an opportunity for me to reflect on my own relationships and personal journey. Where have I not challenged myself in the same way to have empathy for others…those who trigger me…who I disagree with…some who I may even be fearful of? Thank you Lupita for showing me not only what’s possible for my organization’s work but the courage and potential I have in my own life. I am humbled and in awe. It is time, and I can now see the power in what’s available to us right now. Empathy is empowerment.

Will you join myself and Lupita? We need it now more than ever.

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This week we had an amazing 6th day of our “Finding You Voice” program. The complex and honest stories of the characters are the heart of this program, and are the key to getting our participants to engage. One of our activities, Forum Theatre, allows youth to step into the shoes of the characters in the play and act out a different choice that affects the final outcome for the character.

The Scene from the Play: Alex is booing Frankie during her performance in the talent show, and trying to get the youth participants in the audience to join him.  TJ, another character, is also sitting in the audience…he has become a bystander.

The Rehearsal for Reality: During the replay of the scene, one of our youth stepped in as TJ and began cheering each time Alex booed. Alex continued to boo, but was visibly surprised, and Frankie, the character performing in the talent show, felt encouraged to push through the song. Our facilitator stopped the action of the scene and asked, “Did that choice change the outcome the way you expected it too?”.  The students decided that while it was a strong, empathetic choice, it didn’t have the effect that they expected on the person doing the bullying. The character of Frankie then shared with them that it made a big difference to her. She shared that she felt more supported and appreciated that her friend was standing up for her. The facilitator asked, “Let’s see what happens if we replay this scene again, and see if the TJ character can make a another choice in this moment.”  This time, one student stood up to play TJ, and started clapping for Frankie as soon as Alex started booing. Then, a second student stood up and started clapping. The next thing we knew, the whole room was standing, clapping and cheering for Frankie. This action made it impossible for Frankie to hear the jeering from Alex, and Alex eventually gave up.

I have to admit, even as a developer of this program I would have never imagined having students use this tactic.  It was so powerful. In this moment they were practicing upstanding for someone. They were also experiencing the positive feelings that occur when a group of people come together to accomplish a goal, and they were ACTING!

It’s why theatre is our tool.  It connects us, empowers us, and reflects our world back to us. It allows us to ask ourselves, “If I was this person, and if I was in this situation, what would I do?”. Most importantly it provides a way to talk about our own lives through the experiences of the characters. These rehearsal moments allow us space to try bold, new choices that may or may not work. They might feel uncomfortable at first, but as we experiment and take risks we are shaped into the “character” we want to become, so that when it is time to stand up…
we can perform.

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As I transition into my new role as the Programs and Partnerships Director I am experiencing many “firsts” this fall; meeting our clients and partners; building our first two year residency program,”Speak Up, Speak Out!”, piloting a new 6 week follow up to our current bullying prevention program, and on-boarding our newest miARTIST.

Each of these “firsts” reminds me of why I am passionate about what we do at Mirror Image Arts. The work feels like a perfect fit. Each day I am able to utilize my experience administrating with my creative drive and desire to engage on a personal level with our community. But, I am realizing the greatest joy lies in listening and connecting with people. There is, of course, lots of talk about logistics of our program and the theories we use in our facilitation, but more importantly we also dive into what motivates us and how our experiences with bullying and empathy can assist us in connecting with youth. These moments, particularly when navigating this time of transition, remind me of the power of storytelling. It connects, refreshes, and heals. It allows me to use my past, and the wisdom of others to tackle this season of “firsts”.

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There are special moments in the program where I, as a teaching artist, feel as if I am truly making an impact and a difference in my community.

Recently, there was a moment during the 5th session of our 7 week program, Finding Your Voice, where we were working with youth to identify ways they can go from being a Bystander to an Upstander in their lives. We were using a theatre technique called Image Theatre to help us work through this. During this activity in the program, participants create a frozen image of a bullying situation that includes all three roles: the person doing the bullying, the person being bullied, and the bystander(s). I was picked by the youth to be the person being bullied. When two girls in the group were asked to be the bystanders, they said they didn’t want to be a bystander because it was too hard for them to do nothing in that situation. Instead, they wanted to be an Upstander. I was really affected by that. In that moment, I understood how much this program is doing for them, and how this work is really making them understand the value of who they are and what they can do for others. It really was a moment when I felt they understood their voice matters. They want to stand up when something is wrong or someone is being bullied. They want to be that Upstander that makes a difference, and that is just beautiful. That is what our work is truly doing for them!

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What is passion? No, really, what does it mean to have passion, to be passionate, to show compassion? These words are always defined but it’s impossible to truly understand real passion until it knocks at your door. I never really saw myself in this type of work; I barely knew it existed. However, when I stepped into the world of MiArts I felt passion–it became a vehicle for my compassion. It has grown to become a a need, a burning desire to act. The really beautiful thing about this passion, is that it is not a solo venture, but an ensemble, collaborating together.

Besides igniting passion, Mirror Image Arts has pushed me to step out of my comfort zone, explore my identity, and question my assumptions. Who I was when I first walked into rehearsal, until now, just a year and a half later, is someone very different. When I look in the mirror, I see a budding leader, ready to take others on an exploration of what it means to be an empathic, critical thinking individual.

Without Mirror Images Arts, I would still be shrouded in fear and uncertainty–too close to the mirror to see anything else. I was encouraged to take a step back from the mirror and see my whole. I was encouraged to keep backing up until I could see my loved ones, until I could see my community. I am finding my voice in Mirror Image Arts, and with this, I will help others find theirs.