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Traumatized Sichuan schoolchildren sparkled by theatre
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16:58, May 19, 2009

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When the 15-year-old Wu Shuang entered the shabby and leaking classroom for his first ever exposure to theatre last October, he was not aware that the new experience would be built into his journey of psychological recovery and personal growth in the wake of Wenchuan Earthquake that left more than 87,000 people dead or missing.

In a thirty-minute theater entitled Life before the eight-session workshop was over, Wu played the dual roles of a teacher and a kind-hearted volunteer assisting his hometown to recover from the tragedy. "By playing the drama, I have all the more cherished life, in spite of my crooked foot," he says.

Like Wu, more than 5,000 children and adults in the quake-stricken Sichuan Province have experienced a similar level of rehabilitation with the help of Hua Dan (literally meaning a female role in the traditional Chinese opera), a Beijing-based non-profit organization dedicated to harnessing the power of arts to improve people's lives.

When the earthquake hit on May 12 last year, Wu's house and school in Shuimo Town, Wenchuan County, were instantly torn into pieces. His family survived the catastrophe, but the psychological painfulness stayed on.

"The house perished, for good. For a long time, I didn't dare to stay in-house or sleep by myself. It seemed that the mountains surrounding the town would fall at any time. Our daily necessitieswere buried deep underneath the house, and we couldn't get them back by all means. "

His schooling at Shuimo High School was suspended for three months, before the school with more than 800 students was transferred to a vocational school named Shuren in E'meishan City,a seven-hour's drive from his hometown.

Standing along the slopes of a mountain, the campus shared by the two schools and a nursing home for the elderly were far from being a standard one. "It's often joked that we're guaranteed everything here: the pig farm, the chicken run, the rabbit warren and the noises from an internship factory. In classes, we often inhale the stinking smell of chicken droppings," Wu complains. Dueto the humid weather, clothes don't dry up.

More unbearable for Wu and his schoolmates is their longing forfamilies."In the past year, I only returned to Shuimo during the Spring Festival in January," says the boy with a pair of glasses, "I was kept apart from them by the earthquake. I missed my mother so much. Sometimes, I felt lonely in a strange environment like this."

Amid a universally-felt sentiment of anxiety and disappointment,Wu noticed the coming of Hua Dan team to their school, which was headed by a 22-year-old project manager named Gao Yan.

"I was told that we were going to do some theatre games. Before that, I had read some drama chapters on my Chinese Language textbooks, but I'm not sure what it's about," Wu admits.

The atmosphere hovering the school was stiffened. "When I firstmet the boys and girls, they could hardly express their feelings in a normal way. Instead, they tended to put on happy facial expressions when they were actually down," according to Gao's observation.

To Wu's relief, relationship-building and warming-up games likeCats & Mouse broke the conventional top-down structure shortly andthe classroom, transformed from an intimidating and huge-sized storehouse, burst into laughter from time to time.

In the next seven weeks, Gao and her colleague lead the 25-member group under the theme of Eight-day Life Journey. "Life is short and precious. The purpose was to inspire the students to think profoundly about life after the quake happened, and release their inner burden and stand open to the reality, before embarkingon a new life," Gao says.

One of the impressive parts for Wu was Walking in Blindness, in which his eyes were covered with cloth and requested to walk under the companionship of his mate for 10 minutes.

"I was very nervous and at a loss what to do. My hands were sweating. I was afraid of bumping into obstacles scattered in the room, but my partner tried his best to offer protection." Wu recalls. "I grew stronger from the bottom of my heart, and was able to walk with ease."

A multitude of arts forms were introduced into the participatory theatre workshop in Wu's class, like story-telling, writing letters, role-play, improvisation, drawing pictures, singing and discussions.

"A theatre workshop like this tends to take in all the possible means and creates a fun and safe setting, where children start to express their feelings in non-verbal ways," explains Caroline Watson, founder and director of Hua Dan, who has done many community-level theatres in India and Hong Kong.

As the pre-designed procedures went by, Wu came to feel a clear shift within him. "In the past, I was a person of few words, but I was becoming more and more open when I was immersed in the workshops. It feels so good when making connections with others. "

The boy's explored capacity of creative arts turned into his first stage product with other participants. It is a story about a man in his eighties recollecting his life experience spanning birth, schooling, marriage, outbreak of earthquake, helping hands from outside and the home reconstruction.

"The last episode is the reunion of the whole family in many years from now on. They feel it wonderful to live in the lovely world," says Wu. "I've made up my mind to help more with my family, especially my father who makes a living by pulling a rickshaw," he chokes with sobs.

Apart from the Eight-day Life Journey, Gao and her colleagues initiated other themes, like My Hero, which "corresponds with both their psychological need for a hero after the quake broke out and the awakening of their self-consciousness as teenagers", Gao explains. Aiming at the latter part of this year, Hua Dan will cover another 200 students in the school.

It proved to be something useful. A sample survey made by Hua Dan found that the percentage of students who reported to have nightmares had dropped to 26 percent from 48 percent, and those coming up with another increase of 15% for an easygoing manner and down-to-earth solutions when confronted with difficult times.

"Hua Dan's rehabilitation programme in Sichuan is helping the children build up confidence, communication and leadership skills they need to work together on rebuilding their lives and homes," says Watson.


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