Sewing the shadow back on: connections between creativity, neuroscience and healing trauma
Theatre Arts Professor Deb Currier uses new techniques in immersive theatre for youth to address social awareness, under-served populations and non-traditional learners
In October of 2018 and again in October of 2019, Western Washington University Professor of Theatre Education Deb Currier, Ph.D., traveled to England and Wales to study innovative advances in Theatre in Education (“TiE”). Currier – known as “Dr. Deb” to students – researches applied theatre for at-risk youth, focusing on emerging practices in neuroscience and creative play.
In 2016 and 2017, Currier participated in the “Internationalizing Curriculum” fellows program at Western. “I discovered the incredible advances the UK has made regarding innovative youth theatre approaches addressing social awareness, under-served populations and non-traditional learners.” Her discovery dovetailed perfectly with work she was doing and teaching in Applied Theatre for Youth in Western’s Theatre Education program.
“This all led to my current research in the connections between creativity, neuroscience and healing trauma,” and, subsequently the redesign of Western’s Theatre Education Program.
Currier’s field work began in London. She dropped in on Oily Cart’s touring production of “Splish Splash” as a visiting artist/teacher for post-show workshops. Oily Cart is a renowned professional Theatre for Youth company. The company focuses on immersive theatre for early years and youth with complex disabilities. Her work with Oily Cart later led to a very special visit from the third graders of Central Elementary School in Sedro Wooley back in Washington.
The majority of Currier’s 2019 stay in the UK was spent in Paignton and Exeter as a visiting teaching artist at both Doorstep Arts and with the M.A. Applied Theatre program at Exeter University. Currier invited a Western Theatre Education alum, Rachael Chapman, to join her and assist in delivering workshops. Chapman has since gone on to earn her M.F.A. in Theatre for Youth and work professionally at the Honolulu Theatre for Youth.
Currier worked with each of the Doorstep Arts youth groups which ranged in age from five years to 21 years old. She taught them movement techniques and devised approaches new to their program. She designed a “Laban Movement for Character Creation” curriculum for Doorstep Arts which they now use in their teen theatre groups regularly. Currier also developed an “Accessing Shakespeare Through Movement” at the request of the company.
Last April, Currier brought some of these innovative techniques home to Washington. The entire third grade class from Central Elementary School in Sedro Woolley came to Western’s Bellingham campus to “spend a day with Dr. Deb” as part of an integrated arts unit on Peter Pan.
The day culminated in an immersive theatre workshop for all 80 of the kids, parent volunteers, and teachers. Participants were told that Dr. Deb was going to read to them from “The Further Adventures of Peter Pan” – a non-existent book Currier had invented. “When they showed up and I opened the giant prop book, the story had (gasp!) gone missing!” All the pages were blank.
The students were put into smaller groups, each one led by a pair of WWU Theatre Education students. The third-graders were instructed to go on a story hunt. Instructors gave a map with directions to find clues. The clues were rhyming hints rolled into scrolls hidden throughout campus.
The final result was each group brainstorming ideas for a scene from Peter Pan that was “accidentally left out” of the original story. The students returned to the Old Main Theater to write and story-board their own version of one of the left out scenes.
In the nearly 20 years she has been the Theatre Education and Outreach Director, Currier has taught and worked with young people of all ages, from pre-kindergarten through college seniors. “It’s the most rewarding work on the planet,” she says, and adds with a smile “but I’m not biased at all.”
Currier’s other projects include the MOTley Crew! (Multicultural Outreach Tour). MOTley presents a collection of stories from around the world largely designed and devised by WWU theatre ed students, performed at approximately 20 different elementary schools each year. She’s also moved Western’s theatre outreach programs into Everson and Nooksack, providing students in the county with more access to theatre education.
What’s one perk that keeps Dr. Deb motivated to further her teaching and research? When students who discovered the theatre bug during WWU Summer Youth Theatre Institute, or experienced performances of the Outreach Tour at their elementary school, or participated in one of the many free, after-school K-12 WWU theatre workshops enroll at Western to study theatre.
“To lead, observe and learn from the incredible resiliency and creative energy all youth bring to creative, meaningful artistic experiences and awakenings has fed my artistic soul and kept my teacher’s heart beating – tough things to keep going at times, as anyone in education can attest to.” – Deb Currier