Photo by Sonia Cacoilo
Nearly three years ago, I walked into one of Toronto’s most diverse and populated high schools with the crazy idea of making sex education more comprehensive, relevant, and impactful, by finding a group of youth willing to sing and dance about it. Last week, I sat next to the Premier of Ontario as we watched a group of the bravest and most dedicated humans I know sing and dance a packed house through everything from periods to chlamydia and homophobia to multiculturalism, eliciting belly laughs and quiet tears.
It is challenging to adequately articulate what the experience of creating and sharing SExT: Sex Education by Theatre has meant to me and the youth involved.
I could tell you about my first visit to Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute, located in an immigration destination of Toronto. How I asked a young male student what he thought of my idea and how he responded that no girl in this religious community would be willing to talk about sex. How his comment led me to a girls’ gym class where a young girl interrupted my spiel by shooting her hand up to say that she wanted in. How her enthusiasm spread throughout the class and how I filled every scrap of paper in my purse with the contact information of young women craving a space to talk openly about these issues, and maybe even sing about them. I could try to describe the feeling of seeing that same girl lighting up the stage three years later, confidently and poetically speaking her truths on mental health, racism, and challenging stereotypes.
I could tell you about the first application I read, written by a girl who spoke of an intense passion for dance, but a lack of access to training - a common issue in the community. How she wrote of teaching herself to dance and offering free dance lessons to other youth at the library. I could describe the joy in the room this summer, when a dancer from the Toronto Raptors came in as a guest artist. How that same girl took the lead on choreographing a cultural dance scene, created to showcase the beauty of diversity and the struggle of identity.
I could tell you how in one of our first workshops, I made the mistake of giving the teens free reign to create a scene on pregnancy options. How this error led me to develop a new, more structured drama exercise, challenging the youth to put themselves in the shoes of a pregnant teen, her mom, and boyfriend. How one charismatic boy volunteered to play the pregnant girl. How after that exercise, the students expressed new understandings and empathy for the perspectives of teen mothers and their parents.
I could tell you about the day every student insisted on staying late to ask as many questions as they could of the opposite gender. How I laughed to myself as I recalled the resistance I had encountered in insisting this program be open to all genders.
I could tell you about that week back in July 2014 when we pulled together our first performance. How I had been advised to expect a high drop-out rate and to accept 15 students into the program if I wanted a cast of 10. How I finished the school-year 19 students strong. How half of youth participants got full time jobs or enrolled in summer school, but not one dropped out. How one group would rehearse from 9 to 5, and the other group would come straight from a full day of work/school to rehearse into the late hours of the evening. How some students chose to stay for 12 hour days. How many of the youth were fasting at this time in observing Ramadan. How we lacked access to rehearsal space over the weekend, so the youth insisted on meeting in valleys and parking lots to rehearse, even in the pouring rain.
I could tell you about the message I received during frosh week from a young man saying that he “didn’t get laid” because of our consent scene. How his experience developing that scene gave him pause when it came to an encounter with a girl too intoxicated to consent. How the program played a role in helping another cast member leave a dangerous situation. How that same cast member insisted on courageously and safely channeling her experience into a song that, when performed at her high school, led another young girl in the audience to come forward to her teacher about an abusive situation.
I could tell you that I secretly shared the youth performers’ insecurities regarding how our performance would be received at their high school, among peers who didn’t choose to attend. How I watched as an audience of high school students laughed hysterically as Captain Condom and Hipster Herpes took the stage, muttered with recognition as a scene on homophobia at home was performed partially in Urdu, and debated passionately after a court case scene tackling consent was left open-ended. How a number of youth reported that this performance changed their views on gay and trans people and sexual assault. How all of this took place steps away from the hub of the protests opposing sex education reform in the wake of the first curriculum update in Ontario since 1998.
I could tell you about the feeling of having our show accepted into the Toronto Fringe and SummerWorks, two of Canada’s largest performance festivals. About finding out that I had been selected to receive a TD Michaëlle Jean Foundation Bursary to continue this work. How we received project funding from the Toronto and Ontario Arts Councils. How this funding provided the opportunity to expose the youth to a number of guest artists to enrich their development. How our little show took the big festival stage by storm, receiving rave reviews from established theatre critics (4 stars, Critic’s Pick, Best Ensemble - NOW Magazine; Exceptional Ensemble - The Torontoist) and was commended for bringing diversity to the Toronto stage and showing what young people are capable of. How the youth eloquently shared intimate insights into their personal challenges and triumphs with entire audiences in our post-performance question and answer periods. How a number of audience members reached out to express that the show “restored their faith in humanity” and “gave them hope” at a difficult time in our world. How one guy in the cast texted me to say thank you for “helping me do something that I am actually proud of.”
I could tell you how even after all of these experiences, our post-show celebration after the Premier’s attendance last week turned into an impromptu workshop. How one cast member hugged another as she described the homophobia she faces at home. How one-by-one, cast members at the table opened up about insecurities and romantic struggles. How each person’s story was met with support and advice from members of the SExT family we have now become, thanks to the power of art and open minds.
I could describe all of these experiences in detail. Maybe one day I’ll write a book…or better yet, actually write my PhD dissertation. But for now, I will leave you with this selfie of an inspired and empowered group of young people with Kathleen Wynne, the Premier of Ontario, taken seconds after our youngest cast member almost knocked the Premier over with her condom hat, and minutes after the Premier addressed the entire audience, exclaiming through tears that she agrees every student should experience this.
Shira is a performer, director, producer, and doctoral candidate at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto (BSc. Psychology, MSc. Epidemiology, Queen’s University). For her dissertation, she created SExT: Sex Education by Theatre to explore the use of theatre for sexual health education among youth in a community of Toronto where sexuality is a cultural taboo.
As research co-ordinator of the Knowledge Mobilization pod, Shira coordinates with project leaders and research assistants across the country to facilitate knowledge sharing efforts.
Watch a vlog by one of SExT's student participants!