Often the taboo nature of sex and sexuality cause a vicious cycle of unresolved questions and spiralling social problems resulting in sexually transmitted infections (STIs), unwanted teenage pregnancies, and sexual violence and harassment. All are very real dilemmas and the source of uncertainty for many young people and adolescents in TT.
Creating a forum and welcoming space for discussion about these subjects is one of the aims of the teen-focused participatory play and workshop, Are We There Yet?
The interactive drama, performed by 14-16-year-olds re-imagining some of these sensitive topics, is contained in the book Theatre, Teens, Sex Ed co-authored by Canadians Jane Heather and Jan Selman.
With support from the Tobago House of Assembly Youth Department, Tobago Aids Co-Coordinating Committee, Tobago Youth Council and the Canadian High Commission in TT, the première is set for 5 pm on Friday at the Scarborough Library Facility’s Anne Mitchell Gift Auditorium, followed by two performances (10 am and 5 pm) on Saturday at the same venue. All the viewings are by invitation only.
Showcased in Canada between 1998 and 2011 the play seems to be a perfect fit for local producers, the Tobago THETA (transforming, healing and empowering through the arts) Company, who have adapted Jane Heather’s script for a Tobago audience.
Founded by Onika Henry, Jared Prima, and Olimall Gordon-Holder in 2012, the versatile performing arts company declared their ambition to “transform, heal, empower and entertain through the arts; to help define, develop and promote a cultural form that is inherently Tobagonian; provide a programme of quality educational experiences in all aspects of theatre for youths and adults and to engage in theatrical work that is experimental and/or challenging in content, in an attempt to stimulate thought and provoke change.”
During the intense countdown to the play’s opening, Tobago THETA Company director Henry is occupied with rehearsals, readings, workshops, and test shows.
The multi-tasking arts and theatre specialist took time out of the rehearsals schedule to share her thoughts on why the themes dramatised in the play are important, the role of theatre in encouraging discussion, and the cast and their preparations.
Describing how the groundbreaking work has come to be produced in Tobago, Henry, who is also a renowned sex therapist and consultant, said she discovered the influential book and it’s advice for sex education follow-up work with teenagers, whilst researching for her day job.
"I was completely sold on the programme – the goals, the content and the principles were thoroughly backed up by years of research and actual feedback by actors, directors, communities, and audiences," she said.
The University of the West Indies (UWI) Theatre Arts and Psychology alumna is motivated by an approach to theatre she defines as "creative and groundbreaking" which uses the art form for behavioural and social change.
"THETA is responsible for producing the programme, from start to actualisation. We have trained the cast and crew in both sex education and the Theatre-in-Education (TIE) techniques specific to this programme."
In collaboration with the well-connected Department of Youth Affairs she expects the production to be as enlightening and informative as it is entertaining.
Preparations for the Tobago première have been underway for several weeks and as anticipation grows, so too first night nerves and performance anxiety. As an experienced public speaker and post-graduate student of creative and expressive arts, Henry is prepared and enthusiastic. Having listened to positive feedback from the young cast and the production crew, as well as from test audiences, she said, "We expect the experience to be eye-opening, inspiring and life-changing for our audience, and tons of fun."
Although there may be socio-cultural similarities between Canada and Trinidad, it will be interesting to see how the work would translate to Tobago’s distinct environment.
Pointing out that many of the issues are universal, the play’s author Jane Heather emphasised in an e-mail exchange that "the key thing is that the play can and should be adapted to local circumstances and contexts. We adapted the play to three different [Canadian] cultural and geographic contexts and write about it in the book."
Echoing this sentiment Henry added, "We have had to re-work and adapt the dialogue and also the approach (in terms of how we engage the community and reach the youth), to make it relevant for our cultural situation."
She also highlighted the valuable contribution of acclaimed Trinidadian writer Tony Hall to the play’s development as well as his support for this Tobagonian production.
"I was even more delighted to find out that our own theatre icon and genius Tony Hall worked with the authors of this book/work and he is mentioned in the book."
According to the confident consultant, the final cast, comprising a committed cadre of experienced actors and secondary school theatre arts students, has enjoyed a steep learning curve.
"The skills for this programme go beyond the basics and include learning to have deep empathy, being very self aware, pushing beyond one’s personal comfort zone, nuanced responses, critical thinking, deep awareness of energies in the space and facilitation skills. So training has been intense and will have to continue, even after this first performance."
The nine-member cast was chosen after a selection process which began with 15 aspiring actors. Of the efforts to mobilise the youthful ensemble, the Moriah native recalled: "THETA has created a reputation for not only producing great, quality work but also for making the process a beautiful experience, always filled with new learning and insights. So we are never short of interested persons."
Looking beyond the upcoming performances and with plans to tour the play in Trinidad, Henry expects to realise THETA’s vision of using theatre for education and enlightenment.
"We feel that this is such important work that we cannot allow it to be a one-off thing. In fact, when we decided to do this, we knew we had to create a model that will allow this work to continue and be available to as many youth as possible. One thing we know for sure is that we will start again with training more persons in the skills required to do this work."