Dramatizing healthy sexual practices

Workshop for girls communicates important health messages through improv

Hay River Hub, March 21, 2012

Some touchy subjects were broached during an acting workshop at the Hay River Youth Centre on March 17.

The workshop was one of several to be tested by the Institute of Circumpolar Health Research.

Although the aim was not to gather research, facilitators were paying attention to how youth responded to the subject matter – sexual health – through arts and acting. First the girls received a foundation on sexual health – the physical and the emotional, then they applied it in their acting and improv exercises. The project is an alternative to a conventional mode of dispensing sexual health information, through pamphlets, posters and websites.

“We’re trying to develop interventions with art space that are more hands on,” said project co-ordinator and workshop facilitator Nancy MacNeill. “As soon as costumes are involved everyone is super-happy.”

A group of six girls partook in a workshop that taught skills of expression through acting but also informed them on one of their greatest allies in sexual health: intuition. Towards the end of the day, decked out in feather boas and costumes, the group acted out a party scene in which they were spying on a girl who may have placed herself in a compromising situation.

Amid a sea of feather boas, giant sunglasses, scarves and hats, there was an emphasis on fun when performing skits and taking on roles while tying in important subject matter, said MacNeill.

“We’re assessing body language in different types of skits,” said Candice Lys, a PhD candidate and project lead for the program. “This is to get girls familiar with mental cues, decision-making skills and following their intuition, and we’re trying it with Northern youth to see if it does work.”

Tali Warrington, assistant director at the Hay River Youth Centre, has established a rapport with many of the 12- to 16-year-olds at the workshop.

“This gives them awareness of what’s out there and what they can learn,” she said. “At school, they have to learn about (these things). They go to class and get graded on it. Here they choose to participate. I’m proud of them. They did good today.”

The workshops are intended to build tools for awareness and then branches out from there. This is one avenue on addressing an ongoing issue: rates of sexually transmitted infections in the NWT are some of the highest in Canada. Teen pregnancies are rated the second highest in the country, second only to Nunavut.

“We’re not here to place value judgements but we are here to ask if decisions that are being made are informed,” said MacNeill. “It’s not to say if a choice is right or wrong, but are they informed choices.”

Throughout the day there was an evolution in the small group. Some girls too shy to ask questions were gradually talking openly about the subject matter.

“Part of our goal was to make this applicable to the lives of Northern youth,” said Lys.

This was the first focus test and Lys and MacNeill will be bringing similar workshops to Fort Smith, Inuvik and Iqaluit, followed by other Northern communities. The project is funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Tali Warrington, Leah Cayen and Alyssa Frise act out an improv skit in which they are trying to save a friend from placing herself in an unsafe situation.