Black Top Players open with Helping Hailey

The Black Top Players have started their ninth touring season of performances in schools.

OPERATING OUT OF the Eureka Clubhouse in Courtenay

The Black Top Players have started their ninth touring season of performances in schools.

The local puppet troupe is anticipating that this year will be a success on many levels. Their second play, Helping Hailey, premiered last year, and was well received by over 650 students in Grades 4, 5 and 6 in 13 Comox Valley schools.

This year the Black Top Players will start the tour with Helping Hailey and finish the year with a third play, Brainstorm.

This troupe is special because the puppeteers are not professional actors. Operated out of the Eureka Clubhouse, the Black Top Players are all people who are coping with persistent mental illness. They’ve gotten involved with this puppet play to give information and decrease stigma. In addition to having an impact on the kids in the audience, the project aims to support the cast by building a social group, working together towards a meaningful goal, and developing self-esteem and vocational skills.

It’s a program of the Eureka Support Society and is funded by the Vancouver Island Health Authority and the United Way Central and Northern Vancouver Island.

The plays are unique. Specially written for this troupe, Helping Hailey and Brainstorm were scripted by local creative arts therapist Kazimea Sokil, working with guidance from the Black Top Players. Helping Hailey is a realistic exploration of psychosis and how to get help for someone who needs it. Brainstorm is a more fanciful story involving a walking, talking brain and fantasy characters named Depression, Bipolar and Schizophrenia.

The purpose of both plays is to dispel some of the myths and misunderstandings about mental illness. They provide guidance on how to relate to someone with a mental illness, and emphasize the importance of friendship and straightforward emotional support.

The presentations engage children and present issues at a level they can easily relate to. Following the play, students interact with puppeteers in a question/sharing time. The casual, candid discussion between students and puppeteers goes a long way toward demystifying mental illness. Together, the performances and learning circles offer a valuable chance for kids to gain awareness, information and insight.

And for the players?

They report that the camaraderie of the group helps them counteract the isolation and low self-esteem that accompanies many mental illnesses. They also really value the performances, which allow them to take positive action — reducing stigma, promoting early intervention, and giving information to help people be more compassionate.

As one cast member says, “These aspects of the project have done a lot to make the experience of having this illness meaningful — making something positive out of the experience.”

The Black Top Players are embarking on their journey this year with a sense of positive change just around the corner, both for their audience members, and for the group itself. Teachers wanting to book a free performance for their Grade 4, 5 or 6 classroom can call Lynda at 250-871-0101.

— Black Top Players

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