Collaborative Storytelling and Unexpected Gifts

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 by YIA Mentor Artist Suraya Keating

“Who is this story about?” I ask the students in my theater arts class for youth with special needs at the College of Marin.
“A unicorn,” shouts out one student eagerly.
“How does the unicorn feel when the story begins?”  I add this prompt question, engaging the students in a story gathering approach.
“Sad.  The unicorn feels sad,” another student from the group pronounces.
“And why does the unicorn feel sad?” I ask.
“The unicorn is sad because she’s dying,” another student adds.
“So, our story is about a unicorn who is dying, and who feels sad at the start of the story.  What does the unicorn want most of all as this story begins?”  I prompt the students with yet another question.
“The unicorn wants to be with her friends. She wants her friends around her when she dies,” shares a different student.
I continue in this way, asking question after question to this group of 15 young adults, being mindful to gather and integrate the responses of all of them.  After 30 or so more questions, we finally have our first sketch of a group-created story.  The group chooses the following title for their collaborative story: “The Last Unicorn.”  We then add in characters and refine plots points as needed, and everyone states their preferences as to which roles they would like to play.  There is room for everyone: actors, dancers, singers, visual artists, etc., with each student getting to choose her/his preferred method of participating.
I am struck by the existential themes of the story these young adults have created: life and death, the importance of surrounding ourselves with those we love, friendship and supporting one another through good times and bad.  After all roles have been cast (with students selecting their parts), we rehearse the show for the remainder of the residency. During each session, the students reflect on how they brought their best to the rehearsal process, how they faced any challenges, and how they supported one another.   The rehearsing of the show itself, as well as the final product, was ultimately about friendship and support and doing our best.
On the day of the performance, I sense the buzz and excitement in the air.  Family and friends gather to watch these young adults perform their story, woven together by the spirit of friendship and collaboration.  And as the “last unicorn” walks through a magic door and into a land full of her unicorn friends, I can’t help but think of all of these students walking through a metaphorical magic door into a place where they are supported to grow and thrive.  I then realize that I too, in working with these heartfelt and talented young adults, have walked through my own magic door, and into a land where I feel supported – where I have gotten to really be myself and thrive.  And I can’t help but smiling as I take away with me this unexpected gift.


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