Michigan Nightlight Voices: Inclusive inquiry through drama

I was selling raffle tickets at a Matrix Theatre Company fundraiser when a board member approached me, eyes wide, and said, "I need to tell you something that happened in class."

This board member was observing a class where students were writing a play. The Matrix School of Theatre instructor led a discussion about the different ways one of the characters in the play could act/interact/react when experiencing anger. The students chimed in with some ideas, and one student calmly stated that someone could commit a random act of violence when angry. 

After being encouraged to elaborate, the student went on to share with the class how an anger-induced act of violence had led to the loss of somebody close to her. The group went on to explore how that might look in the context of their play and how the other characters might be affected by the behavior. The board member was in awe of this student, who was so brave to share such a personal experience. But she was also impressed with how the rest of the students, and the instructor, handled such sensitive information. I thanked the board member for sharing the story with me and explained that what she witnessed was a very common occurrence in our classes and workshops. 

With Matrix School of Theatre, every class or workshop (made up of students ages 5 to 105) works together to create a collective script, artwork and/or performance based on participants' voices and experiences. The presentation is theirs alone. Matrix Theatre Company has collaboratively created over 190 of these original scripts since the organization was founded in 1991. These shows are not published works and they are rarely performed a second time. 

Through this unique, collective experience, students learn to value the process over the product. I have found that, over time and given the right space, students of all ages are very willing and enthusiastic participants in this ephemeral art form. Theatre, like life, is highly collaborative. Through experiencing the process of collective creation, students learn the value of reading/writing, listening, honoring talent in others, recognizing talent in themselves, trusting their instincts and working towards a goal. They also experience the enrichment that is added by including diverse cultures and abilities.  

Creating a safe and open space where the essential dignity of every human is recognized is the foundation of Matrix Theatre Company. The scaffolding of our educational program is built through the talented teaching artists who facilitate community-building activities and lead the students in inclusive inquiry through drama. At the heart of Matrix Theatre, however, are the students themselves.

Each year, almost two thousand students are offered this unique opportunity of collective playwriting and performance with Matrix Theatre Company. We often hear from former students that their time exploring life at Matrix through stories, questions and role play with other humans, in real time and in a safe space, was life-changing for them and often the only time they were given the opportunity to discuss these topics in a place where they truly felt heard and valued. 

This week, another original Matrix Theatre script will go into production. The Teen Company (ages 14 to 18) takes over the stage for dress rehearsals of their original play "Audition Awakening." The show opens this Friday, April 7 at 8:00 p.m., and runs through the weekend. The teens have been meeting once a week since December, working hard to devise, write, edit and rehearse their show. Many of the conversations, characters and themes in the show are pulled directly from the lives of the brave teens who wrote it, utilizing a process much like the one the board member had witnessed.

The night after the board member approached me, I was back at the theatre during a full night of classes and Teen Company rehearsals. I heard giggles and shouts from our 5 to 7 year-old students who were working in our small studio space upstairs, creating crowns in preparation for their wild rumpus (ala "Where the Wild Things Are"). They were engaged in a lively discussion about what the emotion 'excited' might sound like. I smiled, realizing that in ten years those students would be preparing for their show as the new class of Matrix Theatre Teen Company members.

I look forward to seeing what they will create.

Colleen Cartwright is the director of education at Matrix Theatre Company. 

Audition Awakening reveals the lives of three Detroit teens who fervently want to perform at their high school talent show, but problems at home and school threaten to derail them. Performances are this weekend only: Friday, 8:00 p.m., Saturday, 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday, 3:00 p.m. Reserve tickets here

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.