For more than thirty years, Roseneath Theatre has been producing theatrical plays for schools, tackling serious issues for youth including poverty, racism, health, and for its production Outside, bullying, homophobia and suicide.
When Community One awarded them a 2015 Foundation Rainbow Grant for Outside, they were able to make some much-needed set improvements in advance of their second tour. So how did a play for teenagers that deals with such heavy themes find the kind of success that warrants a second run?
“I think the challenge was probably more around making people realize this is an accessible story that isn’t going to scare anybody,” said Andrew Lamb, Artistic Director of Roseneath Theatre and Director of Outside. “In the first year, schools weren’t sure how we were going to tackle the issue of homophobia, teen suicide and mental wellness. Obviously these are very touchy for people, and when people read the script and saw the video, they realized, “Oh, this isn’t potentially threatening. It is honest storytelling.”
Centred on a gay teenager named Daniel, the show takes place in two different timeframes – at his old school, where homophobic bullying sinks him into a depression that leads to a suicide attempt, and at his new school where he recounts the experience in a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting. The flashback element of the suicide storyline might alleviate some anxiety by making it clear that Daniel survived, but the production doesn’t shy away from the serious issues at hand.
“You can actually talk about suicide, and it can even be broken up with comedy,” said Lamb, referencing a scene in Outside where Daniel’s friend visits him in the hospital following his suicide attempt. “They have a very awkward teen conversation, and out of that comes lines like, ‘Thanks for screwing up and not dying’, which teenagers would say to each other. And the audience responds – they need a laugh moment or an awkward moment to get over what they’re feeling and just hear out what the two young people have to say to each other. And [Daniel] fully admits it was not the right thing to do, to try to kill himself. Teachers and educators saw that we were giving them really useful tools and language to have a real conversation around depression, so that students don’t get to the point of having suicidal thoughts.”
As with all Roseneath productions, teachers are supplied with materials to help facilitate classroom discussions, and students can access material online to help deepen their understanding. Lamb says that audiences often open up to the actors in the Q&A that follows every performance. To ensure students’ wellbeing, Roseneath works with educators in advance, setting clear protocols and boundaries in handling these responses. That kind of preparation was crucial for Lamb and the performers on Outside when they found themselves in an unthinkable situation.
“We actually performed at a school where a student had committed suicide the weekend prior. We didn’t know this until we arrived at the school because the cast had been travelling up north that weekend,” said Lamb. “They decided to not cancel and go ahead with the show, and they had counsellors there and they made our show part of the healing and understanding about why this had happened and how they could potentially help other kids from doing this.”
He adds that Outside’s lead actor, G. Kyle Shields, has taken the impact of the production to heart. “He really believes that every time he performs that show, he’s potentially saving a life. That is the reason he comes back to that show every year. He’ll clear his schedule so that he can do this performance because he feels it’s so important.”
Outside has remained in demand with its acclaim and continued relevancy. A production of it was included in the 2017/18 program for Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, and Roseneath’s school tour has extended into rural areas of Northern Ontario, as well as into the United States. In 2016, Lamb and Outside playwright Paul Dunn participated in a panel discussion on coming out stories as part of Queer2Queer – a symposium on queer theatre and performances in Canada. They were the only theatre present that worked specifically to bring productions like this to youth audiences.
“There is a sense of hope in the show, with a school that had been quite a homophobic place creating a Gay-Straight Alliance,” said Lamb. “These kinds of stories need to be out there in the schools, particularly in rural communities where there aren’t as many out and openly queer or gay people.”