Theater is a risky and powerful space. For CSI Highline teaching artist Jéhan Òsanyìn, it is also a therapeutic place, a classroom that offers students a special freedom to share their lives openly with others. It’s also a place to shrink the distance between peers and teachers, and to demonstrate how sharing personal stories is among the most powerful ways to cope with trauma, loss, or life’s challenges. Theater becomes a vessel, a way to feel “whole, and human, and enough.”
Jéhan’s career in theatre began when she was in 6th grade — the same age as some of her students now. The theatre classrooms of her past were full of games and laughter and caring teachers. It is important to her that her students remember her classroom in a similar light. But it is also a place where she pushes students to be serious and to think through the perspective of an audience. In real life, the audience is also how society sees you, and Jéhan helps students see that their real lives, their own stories, are valid and valuable, too. Every student’s experiences are important, and sometimes you have to make society’s audience see that validity by stepping up to tell, and write, your own story.
Working with 6th graders at Highline, she began a lesson on monologues by having students write from another character’s perspective. The students struggled to understand the potential and power of monologue, so she tried bringing a popular student onto the stage and asked: “have you ever felt lonely?” Tenuously, carefully, he began to open up on stage, and Jéhan knew that if he could take this personal risk in front of the class, the other students would feel free to explore their own emotions, too. Afterwards, he started laughing out of fear, but everyone in the room saw — his teacher, his peers — they all saw him access feelings that even many grown adults find difficult to express. The moment demonstrated to the rest of the class how to approach their own truths in a nonjudgmental way, and how to take that leap and really try to find that place of truth for themselves.
Outside of the classroom, Jéhan is a storyteller and performer. For her, theater is a tool to explore, to journey through an anecdotal mirror and understand our own truths, even when we frighten ourselves. “Feelings of loss, sadness, or grief aren’t bad or good, they’re just true.” On the stage, theater is a place to be, a way to push through what ails by telling those struggles as story and character. It’s a place for students to explore that complexity and excavate their feelings, to build their own character and truly tell their own stories. Theater exists within everyday actions. “Theatre is more than spectacle.”
Working with her CSI Highline students has challenged Jéhan as an educator and as an artist. Seeing her students practice bravery and vulnerability in front of their peers has forced Jéhan to do the same in her own life. In 2017, a local theater, Theater Schmeater, has included Jéhan’s one-woman show, Yankee Pickney, in their season. The lessons and challenges she uses with her students are never far from her mind. She is forced to confront herself and her story just as her students confront their own.
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