Jacquie Thomas uses cross-disciplinary theatre skills to bring kids on margins into Toronto's cultural dialogue
Here is a short article of mine that ran in Saturday's Star, but which disappeared before making it onto the paper's website.
The front lines of Toronto culture
Whether it’s championing arts education, celebrating the city in books, bringing theatre to teens or starting a new radio station, our critics present five people who are making a difference
Even before the curtain went up on the premiere of Voices With inReach, a high school show at the Factory Studio Theatre on May 13, the teenage audience was already engaged with the stage.
The producers, Theatre Gargantua, had set up a large whiteboard that showed a projection of live instant-messaging commentary. The texts, sent from cellphones in the audience, were getting the same sort of intense scrutiny, amusement, shock and ridicule as a note being surreptitiously passed around a classroom. This audience was primed for the main show, put together by their peers.
This stroke of genius came out of a process that Theatre Gargantua has been nurturing in its professional productions since founding artistic director Jacquie P.A. Thomas helped launch the company back in 1992.
Unlike most theatre companies, Gargantua develops its shows with resident artists over a period of two or three years. For a bit more than a decade, its artists have mentored high-school grads looking to better prepared for professional theatre.
In a pilot project this year, designed to give something back to Toronto youth, Gargantua added students from two of the city's priority neighbourhoods to its creative umbrella. The project culminated in four public performances by "Chaotic Cohesion," a band of teen actors from Winston Churchill Collegiate in Scarborough and Rexdale's Burnamthorpe Collegiate.
These nine talented youth were not from arts backgrounds. Nonetheless, through four months of twice-weekly after-school workshops, each found a voice through speaking, dancing, rapping and creating their own music and accompanying videos.
Thomas and her team, which included the schools' drama teachers, initially found the project heavy going.
"The biggest task was to instill a sense of discipline: this is what you're responsible for as an artist, " Thomas explained. "It's not just an after-school club."
Unlike their elders, these kids "send hundreds of texts a day; it was part of the frustration of working with them, " Thomas said. When she found an Argentinean computer geek who could project those text messages onto a video screen in real time, the show's warm-up sequence was born. So was a place for nine unlikely teens amidst Toronto's cultural dialogue.