Poverty gets starring role in touring play

TheStar.com – Education – Poverty gets starring role in touring play: Education Ministry recruits award-winning drama to bring message home to students
October 02, 2008. Robyn Doolittle, Staff Reporter

It happened nearly a decade ago, back in January 1999, but David S. Craig still clearly remembers the day he heard the clip on his car radio.

He was driving his old beige Volvo past the St. Lawrence Market on Front St. when a broadcaster announced a startling statistic about child poverty.

A task force out of the mayor’s office had just released The Golden Report; an in-depth action plan for tackling poverty in the city. Among other things, the report revealed that nearly 20 per cent of the homeless people in Toronto are children and that more than 1 in 3 children in the city are poor.

“It made me almost drive off the road,” says Craig, who is the artistic director of the Roseneath Theatre. “I thought the problem of homelessness had to do predominantly with men sleeping on grates. I didn’t think it affected mothers and families. In that moment, I immediately wanted to do something. As a citizen of Toronto, I felt I had to do something.”

As a playwright, Craig knew his vehicle for change would be the arts. One year later, he began writing Danny, King of the Basement. Today, that play is being shown in schools across the province as part of a large-scale poverty education program.

The critically acclaimed and award-winning play tells the story of a young boy who uses his vivid imagination and tenacity to triumph over homelessness and poverty. His mom can’t hold down a job. There’s no money. And he has moved eight times in two years. But wherever he goes, he makes friends easily.

Danny has been heralded by social advocacy groups and toured across North America.

Not surprisingly, when the Ministry of Education began looking for a way to address the issue of poverty in schools, the play came to mind. In the fall of 2007, Roseneath Theatre received $150,000 from the Ministry of Education through the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario to help launch the new curriculum unit.

Since then, the play has toured 15 Ontario school districts. It was such a success, the teachers’ federation is continuing the program this year.

Grade 8 teacher Darcy Perdue’s school – Village Union Public School in Oshawa – was one of the few in the GTA selected to host a performance last year. It was, Perdue recalls, “just amazing.

“For some of our kids, it was the first time they’d really seen a professional performance of that calibre,” she says. “My students were especially aware of the idea that Danny, even though he was obviously in poverty, was rich in many ways: His relationship with his mother; his relationship with his friends.”

Like many neighbourhoods throughout the GTA, Village Union is located in an area where there are pockets of need. Some of the students are struggling with the same challenges Danny faces, which makes the play’s message a powerful one, Perdue says.

But the play is only the kickoff to the teachers’ federation’s Education and Poverty Project. The play serves as a catalyst for discussion, with workshops afterwards to discuss themes such as materialism and stigmas. Teachers are given a study guide and training on how to deal with poverty in the classroom.

Patterson Fardell, director of education at Roseneath Theatre, says the Danny character is a hero.

“When Danny’s mother finally gets a job at a sandwich shop and they settle into a middle-class neighbourhood, Danny makes friends quickly,” Fardell explains. “But the kids in the community hate each other. Danny brings them together and shows the kids how to have fun.”

Later in the plot, when they discover that Danny can’t read, he’s so humiliated he runs away. But he doesn’t have the proper clothes and nearly freezes.

“He’s close to death. Then the kids who he helped earlier are there to support him,” says Fardell.

At Village Union, even young children were able to pick up on the themes, says Perdue.

“They loved it,” he says. “We had workshops, done by the actors in our classrooms, and it was amazing to see how the actors engaged the students in conversation.”

To date, about 250,000 children and their families have seen the play, and the cast has given close to 700 performances. The play was in Parry Sound last week and will return to the GTA next month.

Danny would be disheartened

Danny, King of the Basement was inspired by Anne Golden’s report on homelessness, published as part of the mayor’s task force in January 1999.

Titled Taking Responsibility for Homelessness: An Action Plan for Toronto, the report highlighted staggering statistics regarding the city’s homeless.

But today, nearly a decade later, little has changed, says Frances Lankin, president and CEO of United Way Toronto.

Last November, the United Way published Losing Ground, a detailed analysis of recent Statistics Canada data taken from income tax returns. The study focused on families with children under age 18; specifically, how they were making out in comparison to their counterparts in other areas of the country.

“When we look at the issue of poverty in Toronto in research such as Losing Ground, we find an alarming growth in family poverty in the country’s wealthiest city – quite out of step with the rest of Canada,” Lankin says. “Not only that, we also found evidence of symptoms of persistent poverty, including growing indebtedness and rising evictions.”

Among the most startling statistics, Losing Ground showed that more than 50 per cent of Toronto’s single-parent families live in poverty; that the median income of Toronto families with children under 18 has fallen well below that of families living in other parts of the country; and that 1 in 5 of Toronto’s two-parent families is living in poverty.

“Given the dim outlook in recent economic news, it is almost certain there are tougher times ahead for these families this year,” says Lankin. “What this shows is the need for a poverty reduction strategy that really does take into account the unique challenges facing low-income families raising children in Toronto.”

– Robyn Doolittle

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