Laura Teasdale is an actor, playwright, musician and drama teacher hailing originally from the Maritimes who has facilitated two ELAN ACE projects, one in the Eastern Townships and another in the Maria, Gesgapegiag, and Cascapedia/St. Jules villages of the Gaspé Peninsula. Below is an interview taken while she was facilitating the project in Gaspé, featuring her thoughts on the project and the importance of art in education.
ACE Initiative: What is your artistic practice?
I am an actor, playwright, musician and drama teacher. A passion of mine is writing historical theatre and creating community-based theatre events.
ACE Initiative: Can you describe the process of, and the project that you are working on?
When I first met with community coordinators at New Richmond, they were undecided on the kind of art project they wanted to have, but they knew very clearly what they wanted to see come out of it: a sense of pride in the community. Students at New Richmond come from the nearby villages of Maria, Gesgapegiag, and Cascapedia/St.Jules. The Mi’kmaq, French, English, Scottish and Irish all lay claim to the founding of the area. As a history buff, this intrigued me. So, I asked the community if they would be interested in creating a performance based on the history, and they said yes. To develop the play, the students and I have been going to local Seniors’ homes and speaking with Elders. We’ve then turned these stories into performance pieces. There were three phases of this project, first we had a phase where I was introducing drama and comedy and storytelling through workshops. Then we had a phase where we were documenting the stories and creating the script. Now we are in the rehearsal phase. All of the elementary students are performing, and some senior high students are supporting with music and dancing. Local musicians are also volunteering to play in the house band for the show. I am here for 5 weeks total.
ACE Initiative: How do you see the students growing through your project?
With the kids- it’s the way it always is with kids, when there is music and art. It’s really apparent to me when I’m with kids who don’t have these things. There have been students who were initially so shy, and who would never perform who are now really engaged.
For example, recently, a girl who is so shy, and who I thought I might never break through to started singing to me. Her teachers tell me she seems to be flourishing, even though she still won’t perform in front of anyone but me. I thought, how is this going to impact the course of her life? There is another kid who I pegged as the sharpest knife in the drawer, and who I realized couldn’t read, when we were reading a script. But he had such high emotional intelligence and really thrived in my workshops. It makes me think, that if he had arts regularly in his education, he might understand his worth and abilities differently like, “reading is a struggle for me, but I’m worth it”. In general, there has been a real growth of self-confidence in the students, through creating the play, and exploring facets of their personality through the drama, comedy and storytelling workshops.
ACE Initiative: How has your own practice deepened through this project?
I think that deepened is really the word. When you are up in front of the students all day teaching, it’s like acting. Any teacher would tell you that. And I came here knowing no one. So, to connect, I needed to let all the newness of the community touch me. Not acting in front of them, but being really me there with them. This investing in connection has in turn made this project about more than just teaching. It’s connected me to the community which in turn is influencing my work.
ACE Initiative: Can you think of an example of co-learning that you witnessed and participated in through this project?
The teachers and I have been continuously surprised at what the kids have been coming up with. They’ve been creating all of these songs and scripts from the stories of the Seniors and Elders- it’s been really lovely to see. And in documenting the stories, the students have been learning history from their Elders. I know that everyone has been working to be open, and this in turn is helping me to be vulnerable and take more risks. The teachers tell me everyday what exercises and games they will continue to use in the future.
ACE Initiative: What is your vision of the future relationship of the arts to education? What do you think is the value of integrating the arts into education?
I am going to advocate for integrating arts into education for the rest of my life. I started teaching about twelve years ago. I’ve been an artist my whole life, and I didn’t think that teaching was my calling. I still don’t. It’s really hard work! But I find that now, I can’t stop. I can’t un-see what I’ve seen. The compassion and closeness that these projects engender. Art is play and playing is so valuable for developing authentic communication and relation skills. It also empowers kids and makes them less self-conscious. This impacts those who aren’t even going to get on the stage. Having the opportunity to think creatively and develop empathetic skills is also so good for the brain. Also, selfishly, I know that if we aren’t promoting creative thinking in schools, we won’t have art in the future to enjoy.
ACE Initiative: Did you observe any changes in particular that indicate the community or school will continue to support the arts?
Definitely. Throughout the process, the teachers have been super supportive, and they’ve been very willing to participate in all of the workshops I’ve been doing and lend a hand in the production. The principal, when I first arrived, seemed sort of hesitant. But then people in the school and community started coming up to him and were like, “Hey, who is this person? She’s doing stuff!”. And he’s been on board and has been very instrumental in helping me. Just recently, he told me that if the school can’t get funding again through ELAN, he would like to find other funding to bring me back. A community up the coast (Gaspé) also just reached out about having a project in their school. The community of New Richmond has also been coming up to tell me of the joy that they see in their teachers and students through the project. So, everyone has been super supportive and helpful. Even today, I had two teachers and people from the local Irish association volunteer to perform with the older kids in the band. That everyone has been so involved and good to me indicates how much this sort of project is needed in communities like this one.