Literacy and theatre: What is the connection?
Last month, youth in Iqaluit had a unique opportunity to participate in a six-day theatre workshop facilitated by artistic director David Diamond of Headlines Theatre Company in Vancouver.
The workshop culminated in two live performances during the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention conference on May 16 and 17. The Qaggiq Theatre Company, with support from the Nunavut Literacy Council, hosted the workshop and performance.
How are theatre and literacy connected?
The word “literacy” is too often associated solely with reading and writing. But literacy and being literate is so much more than that.
It is difficult to define literacy in a way that encompasses all forms of being literate. A group of elders in Gjoa Haven created a thoughtful and timeless definition: “Literacy is seeing and knowing what you see.”
This perception of literacy speaks to what being literate is now and what it meant in traditional times. “Seeing” speaks to a broadened idea of what reading is. It can be interpreted as reading the printed word or reading the sky to know the weather or reading the snow to find a suitable place to build an iglu.
“Knowing” what you see indicates knowledge of the environment as well as a connection to, and an ability to effectively participate in and respond to that environment.
The International Adult Literacy Survey defines literacy as “the ability to use printed and written information to function in society to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”
This definition, with an emphasis on reading and writing, reflects skills that are necessary to function in the world today. It would not have made sense in traditional times within the oral language culture of the Inuit. And, like so many other definitions of literacy, it does not acknowledge the importance of oral language skills in becoming literate.
In an oral culture, the spoken word is the means by which people pass on wisdom, history, customs, traditions and experience. It is the primary means of expression through which culture and community are strengthened and maintained. It is a significant part of what being and becoming literate includes.
Like storytelling, drum-dancing and throat-singing, theatre is part of an oral tradition and offers the opportunity to empower, enlighten and entertain. In Theatre for Living, the particular brand of theatre practiced and facilitated by Headlines Theatre Company, participants explore critical social issues through drama.
These social issues often represent barriers that disable youth from positively engaging in their own lives and the lives of their family and community. These issues can prevent youth from reaching their full potential.
The youth who participated in the Theatre for Living Workshop have had an opportunity to explore their connection to the social, cultural and physical environment in which they live. Insights gleaned through drama may inspire them to insist on meaningful ways to participate fully in that environment. Through the live performances, others have a chance to share these insights and learn from them.
Regardless of how literacy is defined or what form it takes, in any environment, in any culture, being literate enables people to live well. And like all learning, becoming literate is a lifelong process.
Nunavut Literacy Council