Participatory play for teens awarded SSHRC funding

(Feb 4, 2005) - A unique drama project that helps teens learn about relationship issues is getting a boost from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Are We There Yet? is a participatory play for youths aged 14 - 16 by U of A alumnus and sessional instructor Jane Heather, developed in partnership with Edmonton's Concrete Theatre and Planned Parenthood Edmonton.

“The actors set up a scene that ends with a problem and the participants, who are teenagers, advise them and help them through a sticky situation, help them say what they are feeling to somebody. It’s sexuality education – from how to meet someone through to determining your boundaries and communicating those to the other person,” said Jan Selman, chair of the U of A’s Department of Drama. “It’s followed by a workshop with Planned Parenthood and they do a lot of the information about keeping safe and exercises that help kids determine where their boundaries are, what kind of relationship they want to have.”

Selman said the emphasis of the project is not to impart information or promote a particular viewpoint, but to provide teens with ways of communicating about a sensitive topic and to involve them in problem-solving that prepares them to face issues they’re bound to deal with in their own lives.

“Teenagers know almost everything they need to know about how to have both safe sex and safe intimate relationships, but they don’t necessarily act on that,” Selman said. “That’s where the theatre comes in. You let characters have the problems and the teenage audience helps the characters get through the problem, and in doing that they’re teaching themselves as well.”

The project has been a huge success in the eyes of the partners who present it, but Selman said an objective assessment would help pinpoint its strengths, determine how it could be improved and adapt it for use in different communities. Now, through funding from SSHRC’s Community-University Research Alliances (CURA) program, the project will receive $946,986 over five years to achieve its goals.

“The project has played in its current state for five years in a whole variety of situations, and once it’s played at a school, they’re invited back. We know it’s a great project, we have lots of anecdotal evidence that kids really open up and learn a lot, but we don’t have proof of that – we just see it happening. CURA is really set up for exactly this sort of thing,” Selman said. “We want to assess it, we want to know why it works and could it work better. We need skilled program assessment people to do that. We want to develop the project so it can be used in different settings with different culture groups. And how do we do that? Well, our partners must be other theatre companies and other health organizations from communities like that.”

The CURA funding will be used to create new versions of the play for different cultural and regional settings, including urban, rural and aboriginal communities across the country. Though the project has its roots in Edmonton, partnerships have been formed with organizations in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nova Scotia.

“We’re thrilled about the networking of theatre companies and health groups across the country,” Selman said. “We have three universities and four communities right across the country involved in this, so it’s got great big scope.”

The drama department “doesn’t usually get this kind of money, so it’s a very big deal,” Selman added. “This fits with SSHRC because it’s really interdisciplinary – we have people from human ecology, social work, family studies and theatre involved. So it’s the crossover where all these meet, then meet with a community need.”

Selman said this interdisciplinary approach will be a benefit to more than just the present project, and may open the door to other drama-based community initiatives.

“I’m a fan of this project – I believe in it, I believe it’s the kind of work we need to do in Canada for teenagers and their parents and teachers. So I start from there, then I say, how can we make this the best ever, and how do we spread the word and develop similar and as effective projects in other communities?”

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) is an arm's-length federal agency that promotes and supports university-based research and training in the social sciences and humanities. 

The U of A Department of Drama website:

The Concrete Theatre website:

The Planned Parenthood Alberta website:

The SSHRC website: