There's a lot of say about the value of theatre in the lives of young people. Here's a letter sent to us from Brazil where actions speak louder than words. The final line of sums up the writer's determination perfectly and reminds me that we should not rest on our laurels regarding ensuring access to the arts for all.

A letter from Mariana Mendes

"Dear Digital Theatre Plus,

I've decided to write a letter as anything else would just feel like a boring report.

My name is Mariana Mendes. I've been a psychologist for 15 years and devoted much of that time to the world of policies and strategies for the profession. Our meeting is part of a set of mysterious circumstances that includes how I came to be a volunteer activity leader with a group of children and teens at risk and how we came to use Digital Theatre Plus together.

When my father died I joined a group called the International Association of Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, where my mother was already a volunteer.

The International Association of Charities is a global network to act against poverty. Founded by St. Vincent, its mission is to fight against all forms of poverty and exclusion through creative initiatives and transforming projects. Present in 150 countries, the structure of AIC is very simple: each country has a national coordination centre and several regional centres.

In Brazil the regional centre for the project is located in Piau state, one of the poorest in the country. The Queen of the Apostles group (that's the name of our centre) has been developing activities since the 1990s, working with groups of teenagers first and from 2010 'til now, working with seniors and children too.

The work of the groups of volunteers is divided into three fronts:

  • Young pregnant women
  • Seniors
  • Children/Teens

The project that we are developing with the group of children/teens consists of guided activities in the following items:

  • Self-knowledge
  • Notions of citizenship
  • Group concept and group cooperation
  • Spirituality
  • Interpersonal development

All of the above guide the planning of our activities.

Our activities are organised in this way:

  • Reading Club
  • Drawing workshops
  • Educational games

It's not always easy and there are always difficulties to deal with.

  • Lack of belief of teens in themselves and in the project (they are always suspicious that we'll leave them soon)
  • Poor conditions of structure and support material (basically we buy all the material we use)
  • Lack of technical preparation of the volunteers (which would lead me to contact Digital, as I'll explain more ahead)

Economic and social poverty is at a very high level here: lack of resources to acquire material necessary for a dignified life; lives in rudimentary housing; suffer from unemployment because they are disqualified; are illiterate or semi-literate, have lack of interest and motivation for the development itself; lack of participation in society; generally have symptoms of poor nutrition, addictions; disturbed family life and co-existence with violence.

I've been determined to think of proposals that could be performed with these kids that have creative and artistic content as they are quite resistant to very complex content but react well to proposals involving art; painting, collages, games, dynamics group (based on literature on group therapy, art therapy and community therapy), music and drama. Theatre is proving to be the most valuable to us. Why?

I believe in the important social role that theatre can have in education and its use here as a tool for autonomy. We want to enable our community to exercise their citizenship through responsibility, leadership and self-confidence. Theatre is a form of access to both the development of their social skills and to cultural experiences that can lead these young people to different choices of those which life apparently intended for them.

Adolescence is a vulnerable space characterised by internal conflicts and doubts in both identity and relationships with family and society. Consider the situation of our teenagers who live on the margins of society, without references, family or social parameters to call upon. Their stories have few proud chapters and many of them don't even know a happy ending.

In my search to find theatre that I could make use of at the centre, I found the Digital Theatre Plus site. While I was reading the content of the site, I felt that it was exactly what I needed: a theatre resource, made by those who know much about theatre, with development exercises for teens and I could do it from Brazil, in a reasonably quick time. The cost was a challenge: the Brazilian currency is four times smaller than the English currency, but I was determined to grab the only chance of help available.

But as I started the registration, I realised that it was a environment for universities and schools teachers ... and I did not have a university behind me, only the interest of a sociology professor who proposed me to work this experience, in a master's degree project. Even so, I decided to risk completing the registration, putting in place of a university name the AIC name under which this project develops.

It was really surprising when, 24 hours later, I received an email from a very kind lady, apparently intrigued by the information I sent, trying to understand what I wanted to do there. I tried to clarify the project the best I could and explain my aim of developing theatre workshops, reading group and group dynamics as a way to develop social, cognitive and cultural to those kids) and I defended it bravely.

The real surprise was when I received a proposal that gave me six months to study the basics of Digital material and to dive into the experience (depending of the good mood of my connection, but everything went well).

I can now make some statements about my 6 months experience with Digital Theatre Plus, which was fundamental to the realisation of the theatre workshop that I created that is now at the heart of our project.

The experience helped me to:

  • Understand the mounting dynamics of a play and the elements that compose it
  • Understand technical processes of costumes and makeup from a more practical perspective, which allows adaptations to your specific group or available material
  • Understand texts on broader levels, learning to think the way that the speeches develop (which makes easier the adaptation of stories, if you need to), how the characters are connected etc.
  • Understand that even for someone who has no training in art or theatre, the contact with this universe in a simple and didactic way is possible to give the power of develop your work, according with your specific needs
  • Listen to professionals about their own impressions of their creative processes, which helps even more who are not professional to take this knowledge to various areas and public, with dedication and appropriate methodology

I think that one of the biggest virtues of Digital Theatre Plus is to turn a complex process of preparation and study of a theatrical text and all the technical part about this process into something simple, creating an understanding of the process itself that allows people from around the world, with less theatrical culture to able to make adjustments and thus develop a work with your target audience.

The resource was important for me to develop activity for extremely poor youth who did not respond well to school and who have no other personal development options to enable them to choose other possibilities for life than those that will, inevitably, take them to a marginal life. The course gave me the full basement to think about my work with material and talent that we have available.

Inside my methodological approach, I chose to start classes with warm-up exercises (using the exercises seen on the site) and develop activities of body language. As theatrical knowledge here is virtually nil, we have come seeking the basic concepts of theatrical art and here, again, the knowledge acquired in Digital has been fundamental to help my own preparation, I'm a psychologist and fashion designer, not an actress or professional artist.

Whenever possible, we also intend to take the kids to watch free plays in the community and invite local actors to develop small presentations to kids to see first-hand the performance, the costumes, the makeup and the whole attitude that the actor will show. None of our kids had the opportunity to stand on stage before and the feeling of contemplation and joy will be an important motivating factor in this project.

We believe that the theatrical performance will help them to sublimate their own conflicts and to express themselves in more healthy and constructive ways.

Final considerations

If we show young people the way of culture then they can recreate and rewrite the future that they don't imagine they can have without condemning what they know, and if we give choices for new and constructive things, their life can be different. The choice is theirs and always will be; I cannot choose it for them, but I can show them the conditions to choose something else. Everyone expects them to fail. It's a tough battle for me and for them. But I believe that knowledge and culture never can be stolen from someone.

I believe Digital Theatre Plus can offer support to similar projects, I really do. Perhaps the team may not have focused on this yet but know that the work that you guys are developing is even more necessary with the most challenging public than the collaborative students you may have in other parts of the world.

The resource helped me immensely and specifically to start my journey, so think about embrace the necessary craziness to think about this challenge.

It is a big challenge, yes; but what is life if you don't live it passionately?

Mariana Mendes"