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.