Inclusive Theatre Program is Changing Arts Education in Regina
Sophia Yannitsos has ushered in a whole new concept of inclusion to Regina Catholic Schools. Part mentorship, part creative learning, part theatrical expression, and part extra-curricular activity, That’s Possible Theatre provides Michael A. Riffel Catholic High School students with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to explore emotional literacy as well as personal awareness and development through theatre. It’s an incredible program, and why Inclusion Saskatchewan named Sophia our 2018 Inclusive Teacher of the Year.
HOW IT WORKS
The program works much like any other high school level drama program. The students choose a play to perform, then work together over a series of rehearsals to bring everything together. Sophia, however, has added a student-with-student mentoring component. At the beginning of the year, students apply to be mentors or actors. Once selected, mentors are paired up with a child with an intellectual disability to provide guidance throughout the process.
Together, all of the participants go through the motions of play production: memorizing lines, blocking out the action on the stage, and rehearsing parts of the play. “We want our students to be able to engage in reading, dialogue, and taking part in different parts of the theatre experience,” says Sophia. The program culminates with a performance of the play to a live audience, and students walk away with the experience of a lifetime.
ARTS EDUCATION FOR ALL
For Sophia, the Arts Education Consultant for Regina Catholic Schools, arts education is more than just a job or a passion - it’s a mission. “My agenda is to make sure that the arts are getting to all of the students at every level,” says Sophia. “I want to do everything I can to make sure that our teachers are supported to teach music, drama, dance, and visual art to every single child.” Part of this mission is ensuring that ALL students, especially those with intellectual disabilities are not only included but also welcomed and accepted. “I don’t want any child to feel like they have to be integrated, I want them to feel like they belong,” she says.
THE POWER OF THEATRE
Theatre can be a powerful experience for students. Throughout the course of a production, students will have an opportunity to discover themselves as artists, learn how to work as team, become confident in their abilities, and form friendships that last a lifetime. This experience is something that Sophia knows all too well.
When Sophia was just a high school senior at A.E. Peacock High School in Moose Jaw, she suffered a devastating loss - her mother passed away suddenly. Losing a parent at any stage in life is impossibly heartbreaking, but to have it happen at such a young age and in the often tumultuous high school environment is unthinkable. As a result, Sophia went mute. She didn’t speak for 6 months. No one, not her family, doctor, or even herself, knew what to do.
And then Sophia discovered theatre. Under the guidance of Lyle Johnson, her drama teacher, Sophia was welcomed in a safe and creatively stimulating environment. It was an experience that was entirely new and wonderful. “The experience shocked my system,” she says. “It shook me to my core.” In time, Sophia began to speak, rebuilt herself, and even performed for an audience. The experience changed her forever, and served as the inspiration for her inclusive theatre program.
And then Sophia discovered theatre. Under the guidance of Lyle Johnson, her drama teacher, Sophia was welcomed in a safe and creatively stimulating environment. It was an experience that was entirely new and wonderful. “The experience shocked my system,” she says. “It shook me to my core.” In time, Sophia began to speak, rebuilt herself, and even performed for an audience. The experience changed her forever and served as the inspiration for her inclusive theatre program.
For students involved in Sophia’s program, it’s a transformative experience for both mentors as well as their partners. “The mentors are learning about themselves as people. They are learning to give, and what it means to be a leader,” says Sophia. “The mentors learn that they are needed in society. They learn that they can make something better in the world.” There are a lot of logistics in putting on a theatrical production, so the program helps the kids with self-management.
In regards to the kids with intellectual disabilities, Sophia has watched them grow in similar ways as she did when she first entered a drama program. “We’ve had students who were hesitant about speaking lines at the beginning of the program who are now talking, and ones who are dancing and leading, solo even,” Sophia explains. “We just had one student who spoke for the first time in her life.”
Looking to the future, Sophia hopes she expand the program beyond Riffel High School, and even into public schools. Sophia feels that the arts are an often overlooked and unappreciated component of education. She’s made some changes with her theatre program but feels that she still has a long way to go. As for the kids, they are grateful to have an opportunity to experience what it is to put on a theatrical production. It is, in essence, therapy by way of theatre - a sacred space where students can learn essential life skills, make friends and discover what’s possible for themselves.