David Molnar has been a part of the Mirror Image Arts team for the past 4 years. As our pro-bono evaluation specialist he has deepened our work by helping us track and prove that youth who participate in our program have cognitive empathy growth. He also continuously pushes us to think in new and innovative ways. When our Executive Director, Andrea Rabold first met David he was very skeptical of theatre especially as an art form that could elicit real change in an individual. This past semester David joined us out in the field to sit in on a session from our Finding Your Voice program and the follow up program, Shaping Your Voice. Below are his thoughts on these experiences.

One of the first goals and greatest achievements of Mirror Image Arts is creating a safe space. Safe space is a precondition for achieving the other goals. Creating a safe space is a collaborative effort between the teaching artists and the students. While schools, homes and other institutions prioritize physical safety, the emphasis here is on emotional and social safety. A safe environment is something that some students have rarely felt.


Participation is one element of a safe space. The teaching artists use theater techniques to help manage a potentially rowdy bunch of very young children. Participation assures the children become co-creators of a safe space rather than mere observers. Experiencing their power to create a safe space is an element in their transformation from passive bystanders into active upstanders. So begins their rehearsal for reality! A powerful element of participation is the emphasis put on students making a choice. We are a nation of victims where adults say, “I have to” or “I can’t” rather than taking responsibility for their choices. Teaching artists call on students to “make another choice.” Here there can be poor choices, but not bad kids. Even if this were Mirror Image Arts’ only achievement, it would be transformational in the lives of these children.

Respect is a second element of a safe space. Students show respect verbally, but also with body language and facial expression—another contribution of theater techniques. These children are learning to use their bodies to communicate. Actually, they are learning through their bodies—an opportunity I never had despite my privileged education. Through these visible, physical signs of respect, students can build trust in this environment. Without this high level of trust, how could they have the courage to experiment with “making another choice” or challenging their bullying stereotypes?

Perhaps the most important element of a safe space is that promises are kept. Ground rules are clearly stated and students are called to actively affirm these agreements. Here there is no such thing as silent consent. These agreements are consistently enforced as promised, but enforcement doesn’t feel punitive. When necessary, the teaching artists engage a child as distressed—not as a “bad kid.” The teaching artists are modeling empathy. Together with trust being established, promise-keeping creates a predictable environment. Safety is a treasure when you live in the vortex of a cyclone at home and in school!

Having established the precondition of a safe space, the teaching artists can focus on achieving other program goals. Students go on to learn what distinguishes bullying from a mean moment or just joking. By the conclusion of this program, students have learned how to identify a physically, emotionally and socially safe environment. By “rehearsing for life” students develop communication skills and conflict resolution skills.

By Mitch Marquez, miARTS Teaching Artist

 

I’m very lucky to have stumbled upon Mirror Image Arts. I wasn’t looking for anything even in this realm of work. I wasn’t really looking for work in theater, I definitely wasn’t looking for anything having to do with education or working with people in the community. I was kind of just slowly wandering through the Denver film scene. A friend from an acting class mentioned this opportunity and honestly I didn’t understand much about it beyond that it was a chance to act. The more I learned, the more interested I was and I couldn’t find any reason not to try it out. I turned out to be a strong believer in what the program was doing. It’s so important to address community issues and work to build social skills at a young age. The arts have the ability to do that in a very effective way.

I had very little experience with kids. I don’t think I had ever performed for a child before starting with Mirror Image Arts. I really didn’t know how perceptive kids could be. The aspects of humanity that translate between adults and children are staggering. Life is life. It’s cool to me that we can live so differently day to day but when it comes to dealing with people, we are the same. The kids are able to engage with these characters and empathize with them in such an impressive way; they always want to help. I love during our program when I am in character as TJ or Alex and I have the chance answer the kids questions or hear their advice. It’s always really satisfying to have a kid hone in on an issue you’re having and work it out with you.

The work is hard. It’s not the type of thing I feel I can show up and just go through the motions, kids see through the facade and will easily check out. I feel like I’m constantly going outside of my comfort zone. Interacting with people doesn’t come easily for me and having to perform at the same time is a serious challenge for me. Life can be so isolating and the fact that I have so much in common with kids from all walks of life is a nice way to step off the island back to humanity. My biggest gain from my experience so far is how special the feeling of community is. It’s something I was aware I was missing but didn’t realize how important it was.

I feel lucky for this experience, it truly inspires me. I needed to do something that was based on something other than myself. Ironically it’s helped me in a lot of ways. It provides me a regular chance to practice my craft while teaching me things that have helped ground me. I’m very thankful for that.