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Theatre for social change ignites passion and controversy, particularly when the venue is a high school and the changes involve sex. Theatre, Teens, Sex Ed takes you on a ride through the creation, performance, and evaluation of an award-winning play tailor-made for fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds called Are We There Yet? (AWTY). The goal of the play is to encourage "active, engaged learning about sexuality." Since Edmonton's Concrete Theatre teamed up with the Options Sexual Health Association in 1998 to create AWTY, there have been 700 performances across Canada to an estimated 35,000 teens. The primary authors of the book, playwright Jane Heather and co-researcher Jan Selman, publish their insights alongside chapters by social science researchers and sexual health educators. [End Page 163] Selman and Heather aim to legitimize transformative theatre and intend to appeal to a wide range of readers – educators, health workers, scholars, and artists. Black and white photographs from performances enliven the text, and the book includes a DVD demonstrating the methods of production.
"Are we there yet?" – said out loud with a yawn – the title of the play evokes the boredom of a child on an endless road trip. Describing the body as a car and sex as learning how to drive are the key concepts which fuelled the astounding success of the play (though the assumption "everybody expects to drive someday" might be challenged by millennials). Therefore, though the book has scholarly intentions, each chapter falls under an automotive title, such as GPS (a chapter on community theatre) or INTERNAL COMBUSTION (an argument for the urgency of new approaches to sexual health education). Each section is prefaced by quotations from teen audience members, such as "like in class your opinion gets heard but I liked that they really used your stuff."
It's a hefty publication of more than 500 pages, and the authors repeatedly include instructions on how to read the book. It isn't always easy to figure out. The primary tool is and should be the AWTY play script itself, enhanced by instructive comments from the playwright, both in the printed text and on the DVD. For practitioners and scholars alike, Heather's discussions of her research process and the vagaries of adapting to other cultural contexts over three separate chapters provide rare insights into the mechanics of creating a successful didactic teen drama. On the social science side, authors Shaniff Esmail, James McKinnon, and Brenda Munro engage in the unique task of assessing the program, given that there are "no appropriate methods to measure spectators' responses to theatre." Brian Parker of Options Sexual Health Association explains the role of the health partner in a participatory theatre production. Tracy L. Bear provides a gripping chapter about the experience of reaching out to Aboriginal youth, while McKinnon's section on the pedagogy of laughter as a way to facilitate "creative thinking and learning" could be required reading for any advocate of comedy. The DVD should be an inspiration to all future books on theatre productions, not only future producers of AWTY (directed by Mieko Ouchi, who also directed the play).
Road trips are fun until they go on for too long. The same could be said for Theatre, Teens, Sex Ed. More stringent editing would have forestalled the frequent repetition of viewpoints, summaries, and even texts. (For example, Bakhtin's theories on laughter are quoted verbatim in two separate articles.) The writing slides from personal to scholarly to promotional. The defence of participatory theatre is so resolutely passionate that no room for any doubt or critical analysis remains. Authorship is not always clearly acknowledged, and the language shifts from scholarly to [End Page 164] colloquial: the need for sex ed is "extreme," some theatre is "truly awful"; "sexuality education should be as close to good sex as possible." Too often, testimonials take over the role of argument. It's far more rewarding to read the playwrights' essay describing the limits of the work, or to scrutinize the numbers...