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Opinion & Essays - Oct, 1996 Issue #42 

by: Beth Paulin 
The DeSisto School 
Stockbridge, Massachusetts 

Being in the spotlight has a new meaning for students at The DeSisto School in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Often caught in the hot spot at home and at school for acting out behaviors and poor academic performance, these troubled adolescents are finding a new direction and focus in the performing arts and a new kind of “therapy.”

A longstanding staple of the academic program and an enhancement to individual and group therapies, the performing arts program at DeSisto eschews psychodrama techniques in favor of a more benign and purely theatrical approach. DeSisto’s executive director A. Michael DeSisto sees the period of adolescence as a time of struggle. Theatre duplicates that struggle if we accept the thinking of Jerzy Grotowski. Grotowski, considered by many members of the professional theatre community to be the leading authority on the nature of acting and its mental, physical and emotional processes since Stanislavski, equates the performer’s process of esxacting a performance with a struggle. Grotowski offered that “[Art]...is the experience which we take upon ourselves when we open ourselves to others, when we confront ourselves with them in order to understand ourselves...” He considered an actor’s role “a trampolin, an instrument with which to study what is hidden behind our everyday mask — the innermost core of our personality...” Director of the “Royal Shakespeare Company, Peter Brook, feels that the work of theatre places before the actor a series of shocks: the shock of confronting himself in the face of simple irrefutable challenges; the shock of catching sight of his own evasions, tricks and clichés; and the shock of sensing something of his own vast and untapped resources. It all sounds very therapeutic.

DeSisto concurs with theatre experts: “Theatre gives kids the opportunity to feel things in a safe way. Many of the students are not able to show or experience their feelings because they are afraid or embarrassed. The theatre allows them to get used to feeling things they may not be used to feeling. And that’s healthy.” “Theatre is very disciplined,” he says. “The pressure of a performance makes kids control themselves in a good way. They have to be ready to go and do their performance each night. They have a responsibility to focus on that evening’s production. [Theatre] lets them see that they are not as out of control as they think they are.” “The feedback they get from it is also very powerful,” he continues. “They get an immediate good response that can sustain them. It’s like feeding Shamu. He knows there will be more if he continues. The kids know it, too.”

Psychologist Dan Cardinal, head of therapy at DeSisto, confirms the therapeutic benefits of performing: “Performing gives students a chance to express emotions that have either been repressed or inappropriately exhibited previously. It gives them an opportunity to feel and express emotions they can not otherwise express in real-life situations. Although the situations in performing are artificial, the students tap into past real-life situations to make the emotion real. Many times the artificial situation is so close to a real-life experience for the student the entire scene is real and not contrived.

Dealing with these situations can be difficult for the student alone and that’s why individual and group psychotherapy to help them process these situations is important.

Students, of course, also have the opportunity to excel and succeed in a creative process.” The odd couple team of director/choreographer Lonnie McNeil and musical director Jim Trainor head up the School’s performing arts program. McNeil, a Brooklyn-born Broadway veteran with dread-locks, has trained with the likes of Martha Graham, Kathryn Dunham and Arthur Miller of the Dance Theater of Harlem. Trainor, a blue-eyed, blonde Mid-Westerner, possesses an outstanding background in voice and music, and has performed extensively in everything from Sondheim to opera. Together the pair have urged the School’s performing arts program to a new level of excellence.

It was McNeil who, intrigued with the books students are required to write as a graduation requirement, proposed the first original theatre piece the School has produced to date. The autobiographical renderings share the emotional turbulence of lives that have been deemed “inappropriate.” McNeil selected and edited the material for the stage; two students entered into a collaboration with McNeil and composed music for the show. The resulting product, aptly titled “Inappropriate,” is a series of stylistic vignettes which profoundly explore the pain of adolescence.

McNeil conducted auditions and recalls, “At the auditions for Inappropriate,’ many of the actors ran out screaming! The issues, while not necessarily identical to those trying out, were too close to home.” He and Trainor attempted to cast students in roles containing issues not their own. Students cast in the show began their process of characterization by taking a look within and continued by opening lines of communication with other students to learn more about their specific issues. Music and dance were added as the young actors’ performances solidified into a telling of their own story.

The highlight of the DeSisto 1995-96 performing arts program, “Inappropriate” found its spotlight Off-Broadway and was sold out for three performances. The School plans to take the show on tour this fall.

One DeSisto student summarized her experience in this way: “There’s an energy involved in it that I haven’t been able to reproduce anywhere else in my life....I feel wonderful because of it. Only through performing can I express myself...I can relate to people on stage. For me it’s very intimate. I’m exposed. I’m bringing something very honest to my audience. It’s a fight from God. I take a chance every time I sing....Just like in life....” For the students of DeSisto, theatre is the best therapy. 

Copyright © 1996, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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