In the Loop
Student Stories : Jun 7, 2017

The Power of Theatre: Addressing the Taboo

By Carly Shooster

It is difficult to think fondly onto middle and high school assemblies, especially when the reason for collecting a slough of burgeoning hormones is a heavy topic. Anyone who is alive knows what it is to lose a family member, friend, acquaintance, or person of fame or recognition to suicide. Often, communities react by holding some kind of service, or maybe by giving a stern, stoic talk in a civic setting. Then, a huge photo of the deceased is signed by peers, given to the family, and people discuss the loss in hushed tones and private settings.

Ariel Reich (BFA Acting ‘17, certificate of Arts in Medicine ‘16) decided to bend the norm and tackle suicide in small groups, face-to-face. Reich founded “Suicide Prevention through Theatre Intervention.” By using the story of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” a greek myth in which Eurydice must make a life or death decision, Reich uses theatre as a tool to undertake the subject. She is sure to cover all potential stages of the event: suicidal ideation, the moment of a life or death decision and the aftermath of the people left behind.

“What amazes me is that the students drive the content,” Reich said. “The story is offered as a safety blanket, a degree of separation.”

Reich’s main intention is to increase knowledge and awareness about suicide by bolstering available resources and a greater level of competency in supportive peer behaviors. She begins by providing information about the Alachua County Crisis Center. The students also take a pre- and post test to identify knowledge, comfort and gains in knowledge by the workshop’s end. The middle to high school students then create scenes on their own, emulating scenarios that mirror a life or death decision, and those leading up to it. Finally, the class creates and acts out interviews with people who are left behind.

Reich’s venture into one of the most taboo topics began over two years ago. A friend and “kindred spirit” had taken her life unexpectedly.

“She was the last person we expected to be anything but happy.” Reich explained.

In the beginning of the last school year, Reich continued doing theatre for health within UF’s Center for Arts in Medicine (CAM). In addition to bringing her art into healthcare environments, she also worked in prison settings with teens in juvenile detention centers in Alachua County. Her focus shifted further into rehabilitation and eventually, as a theatre artist, she became a part of an addiction project for Healthstreet, a community engagement program that aims to bridge the gap between healthcare and research.

In the midst of this project, she wondered, “Could this format (e.g. applied theatre) work for suicide prevention? This is crazy, nobody’s going to feel comfortable or safe.” And yet, she garnered support and mentorship from Jill Sonke, director of CAM, and Jeffrey Pufahl, a faculty member of CAM. Additionally, she was awarded funding through the University Scholars program.

The project was extremely well-received. Reich believes this may be due to the theatre’s ability to make difficult conversations more accessible. It allows students to feel out a situation, talk about something uncomfortable, and serves as a tool for tackling taboo, risky subjects.  

Reich plans to continue “Suicide Prevention through Theatre Intervention.” She is currently analyzing the data from her previous workshops and has been invited to present her work at the International Culture, Health and Well-being conference in Bristol, U.K, which she will be attending at the end of June.  Her long term goals include obtaining a PhD in Applied Theatre and writing a dissertation based on her current research.

“People are so afraid of talking about it and triggering the event through conversation, but the real mistake is not talking about it,” Reich said.  

Preventative paths can be taken, and our community and its individuals can thrive. UF’s Counseling & Wellness Center offers group therapy, workshops, self-help resources, and much more for students. Gainesville at large offers free yoga in the park, the Alachua County Crisis Center, as well as The Civic Media Center for self-help and community systems.