Puppet troupe in 10th year

The 2013/2014 school year marks the 10th touring season of the Black Top Players.

The 2013/2014 school year marks the 10th touring season of the Black Top Players.

The local puppet troupe is anticipating another successful year with its presentations of Helping Hailey and Brainstorm. The troupe projects it will reach approximately 600 to 700 Comox Valley students this year with its self-written and produced plays.

This troupe is special because the puppeteers are not professional actors. Operated by the Eureka Support Society, the Black Top Players are all people living with persistent mental illness.

They’ve become involved with this play to actively provide education and to decrease stigma about mental illness. In addition to having an impact on students, the project supports the cast by building a social group that works towards a meaningful goal, while developing the self-esteem and vocational skills of participating individuals.

In addition to the support of the Eureka Support Society, the troupe also receives funds from the Vancouver Island Health Authority and the United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island.

Written for the Black Top Players by local creative arts therapist, Kazimea Sokil, in conjunction with the troupe, Helping Hailey and Brainstorm are unique.

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, kindness and straightforward emotional support.

The presentations engage children and present issues at a relatable level. 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.

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

“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,” notes one cast member.

The Black Top Players are embarking on their journey this year with a sense of renewal and change.

The deaths of two troupe members in recent months, the long-term illness of another, and the permanent relocation of a fourth member caused the group to experience grief, and then to examine its priorities and strengthen its resolve to recruit new members and prepare for the coming year.

Teachers and audience members will note some new faces in this year’s shows, along with a continuing commitment to provide more education and personal experiences for students. Though the performances are geared towards elementary school-aged children, the troupe has performed for adult audiences as well and would be happy to do so again in the future.

Teachers wanting to book a free performance for their grade 4, 5 or 6 class can call Lynda at 250-871-0101.

— Black Top Players