This year, we’re continuing to celebrate the people who make #OurResilience possible and telling the stories of some of our incredible clients, staff, volunteers, and supporters. It is more important now than ever to embrace and celebrate what connects us: our resilience. This month, we’re proudly shining a spotlight on Steve Leaver, the Executive Director of Imagination Theater. Resilience and Imagination Theater partner for the No Secrets Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Program.
Continue to read our interview with Steve.
Tell me about Imagination Theater and your role as Executive Director.
Imagination Theater has been around since 1966. It was founded as Playmakers Theater and its mission at that point in time was using theater as a means to work with children who had a variety of disabilities. That continued through the 70s and then in the 80s, it was taken over by a different Artistic Director. At that time they started to shift into doing social-emotional issues type of theater, which is when the sexual abuse prevention program came around in 1985. I came on board with Imagination Theater in 1998 as an ensemble member. At that time, we had a lot of programs that dealt with conflict resolution. We did a substance abuse prevention program. The sexual abuse prevention program was around. It was getting back into more of a participatory theater during that time. During that period, from 1980 to like 1995, they lost some of their participatory aspects and it was more or less a little bit more like after-school special type stuff. We were just on the verge of going back into becoming more of a participatory theater where the audience, through both facilitated discussion and role-play, became a part of the action. They role-play solutions to some issues that we present on stage and that’s the model that we still operate under today. I’ve basically grown up through the company. I became Artistic Director in 2003, and then I took over as Executive Director in 2009 and I’ve been in that position ever since.
Resilience is partnered with Imagination Theater for the No Secrets Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Program. Can you tell me about No Secrets? How do Imagination Theater and Resilience work together on this?
The first time the company started addressing sexual harm prevention was in 1985. At that point in time, they were licensing a script from a different theatre company up in Minneapolis. They had two different versions. One was for kindergarten through 5th grade and the other one was Junior and High School. It was a variety of scenes, similar to what we have now, but it wasn’t something where they would engage the audience in a discussion or anything like that. In 2001 the company decided that we were no longer going to license scripts, but we felt like we could design and develop our own scripts and material that would make it more participatory, more in the Imagination Theater style. At that point in time, we were working with a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and soon after that with the YWCA Rise Children’s Center. We had partnered with them for a few years to develop the kindergarten through 5th grade version of No Secrets.
Then in 2006, because of a lot of changes at that time that were happening with Rise YWCA, we decided to move in a different direction. That is when we found Resilience, then called Rape Victim Advocates, and we started this partnership with them where they were helping us to provide counseling staff to come to the schools on the days that the students saw the show No Secrets. They were working to assist school counselors and social workers and in seeing children that needed to talk to somebody and maybe had something that they needed to disclose. The program grew over the years. Resilience was essential in helping us to develop a 6th to 8th grade program. We expanded into junior high with the program with the guidance of Resilience educators. Resilience educators came on board fairly soon after we started the partnership because we realized that a lot of the students that we were seeing in the safe room (we call it the safe room where the counselors were), a lot of those students just had general questions. They were more or less curious about some of the concepts that were in the show that they saw. In order to prevent us from seeing 100-some children in a day who are just wanting to find out some general questions about the show, we incorporated it so Resilience would come in with a team of educators and they would visit every single classroom after the show was concluded to handle a lot of the question-and-answer portions.
Then eventually after we had done a lot of evaluation on this program, we started to incorporate additional workshops that Imagination Theater was conducting on our own for the kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade groups because we felt like they needed a little bit more repetition in order for retention of some key concepts. Then we started adding in 6th to 8th grade workshops. We’ve been wanting to do this with Resilience for a while. This year for the very first time we decided to expand even further and start to combine what Imagination Theater was doing and what Resilience was doing separately, but making it into one big program. We did luckily get some funding through Help For Children, which allowed us to have Resilience educators coming into the classrooms at the school twice before the kids even see the play, No Secrets. So they’re coming in with some sort of foundation from the Resilience sessions. Then they go see the play, No Secrets, which is then followed by educators again visiting the classrooms to do Q&A and a safe room that is helped manned by Resilience counseling staff. Finally, we have the last session where Imagination Theater and Resilience educators are coming into the classrooms together to do a series of role-plays with the students that not only allows them to practice some of these strategies, but also allows us to assess if they have really retained some of these key concepts. Are they able to put this into action and keep themselves safe? We just finished our first session at Cameron Elementary and then we’re going to have another session coming up this winter at a different school.
People can often find teaching kids about sexual abuse daunting. How does incorporating theater into this education help make the topic a little less intimidating, in your opinion?
I would have a couple of answers to that. Theater in itself is entertaining and engaging. We’re not just coming in and doing a PowerPoint presentation. We’re trying to make it not only an important informational show but also a fun show. That’s part of what we do. We try to have fun with that. We’re taking this big scary topic that everybody is nervous about and we’re kind of saying look, we can still get this important information across, but in a fun and participatory way. An example of that, for the youngest students, kindergarten all the way through 5th grade, the show begins talking about safe touches that we get every day all the time and it incorporates that into scene work. The first several scenes have nothing to do with sexual abuse whatsoever, but it’s still laying the foundation of the concept that you have rights over your own body and you can say ‘I don’t like that touch’. Say when an aunt comes up and tries to pinch your cheeks and say how cute you are, you can say ‘I don’t really like that touch, can you please stop?’ and maybe give a high five or a hug or something different. We’re laying those foundations before we even tackle the sexual abuse part of the show. The other thing about theater is that hopefully, the kids see themselves reflected in characters on stage. Even if this has (hopefully) never happened to a student before where they’ve actually experienced sexual harm in any way, they can still relate to characters that are going through this on stage and come up with creative ways to keep that character safe. So, it’s just a different, engaging, fun way to get the point across without it being like a lecture. The kids are seeing it played out in front of them, then they participate in the facilitated discussion so they get to brainstorm solutions together that the characters might do, and then they actually get to come up and apply that knowledge in real-time by doing improvised role-play with Imagination Theater actors. It just makes it that much more engaging.
What is the most important thing people should know about childhood sexual abuse in your opinion?
What I’ve seen happen over the years that I’ve done this program, which is a positive and encouraging sign, is that while there’s still a stigma around this topic in many places, I’ve seen it start to fade away. That’s a huge key component to this. We have to get people more comfortable with talking about this topic because if we’re not comfortable talking about this, this is where we start seeing a lot of shame around it. People that are not talking about it for years and years and decades later have things that happened to them when they were in 3rd or 4th grade. Now they are 40 some years old or 50 some years old, and they’ve been living with this heavy burden for how many years. One of the magic things about this program that I have witnessed is that this gives students the courage to actually talk to somebody if they didn’t have the courage to come forward before. We’re saying it’s okay. It’s never a child’s fault if this happens to them. There are safe adults that you can go to and that you can talk to. We’re providing a space with safe adults that they can talk to if they need to, and I think that’s a huge piece of this. The other thing is that by destigmatizing it, we’re hoping that the education continues after our program is gone. We’re hoping that safe adults in their lives, their teachers, their parents, whoever these people at the school, feel comfortable and confident enough to be able to continue the education and answer children’s questions in an honest and open way. The more that we talk about things like this, the less taboo it becomes, the more chances we have of keeping kids safe because kids don’t feel like it’s a secret that they have to keep, and that’s a big part of this battle. Like I said, thankfully, I’ve seen that over the years the stigma of talking about this become less and less. It’s still there, there’s no doubt about it, but I used to be in a situation, I would say back in the early 2000s, when we were doing this and it was like pulling teeth to get a school to even have this program. You would go in and tell them about our program and they would say ‘no, no we’re not interested’. They were scared to death of opening Pandora’s box and not knowing how to handle it if kids come in and disclose. Obviously, we hope that it’s not a situation where you have tons of children coming out and disclosing sexual harm to you, but we’re there to provide support in case that does happen. Hopefully, we’re there to help those children at that moment and get them the help that they need and not let the cycle of silence and secrecy that’s been going on continue.
As a partner of Resilience, why is it important to get involved or support an organization like Resilience?
Resilience has been invaluable to our program in multiple ways. First and foremost, the way that it started was just by having a support system for the schools in place when we go into a school. We’re a theater company and we know how to do what we do very well, but we are not counselors. We are not social workers. We are not experts in this field in that way. Lord knows we’ve been doing this for long enough that I feel like I could talk about it endlessly now, but we rely on those outside partners and the expertise that they have to really give the support to the schools when we’re there and they need it. So, the fact that you all have licensed counselors on staff there that can come and support the schools, that’s a huge bonus for us. Your education team, which is always top-notch, is able and willing to not only provide the follow-up after the show for the students but to go in ahead of time and train the staff on this topic and offer parent workshops if the schools take us up on it, those kinds of things are educating the greater community around this topic, which is beyond what Imagination Theater’s reach is currently. That is only going to help us make bigger changes throughout this. Instead of just addressing it with the students we also need to educate the adults. Resilience has been able to do that with your team of educators that have come in as well. You do so much beyond what we do in this program in terms of providing survivor support all the way down the line. If a child does disclose after a show, there’s a Resilience educator there that the family knows they could use as a resource afterward to get some counseling and some help. That is enormous. That’s a huge thing, that we’re able to say, hey, look, Resilience is here for you if you need. That makes this program invaluable in my mind.
Imagination Theater and Resilience have collaborated on a pilot program this year. What are your hopes for the future of Imagination Theater and Resilience and the work that we both do? What are you looking forward to?
I’m so ecstatic that we finally got this pilot program off the ground this year. I am hoping that this model grows beyond what we’re doing this year. I do think that we will learn a lot in the first two schools that we’re piloting this in with the grant funding that we have supporting this. But ultimately, we all know that multi-session is the most effective way to address this topic. We all know that through years of research, that this really takes multiple, ongoing sessions in order for change to really take place. Resilience already has multi-session programs in place that you do without Imagination Theater. I think bringing Imagination Theater in and having that theatrical component just lends another layer of how children learn about the topic beyond just a classroom session. Incorporating role-play and theater is a whole different way for kids to be able to absorb this information and practice healthy solutions and skills. I think we make such a great partnership in that way and I feel like this multi-session that we’re starting to develop together, I’m really hoping grows and we can also start looking for things that co-fund us together. Because up until this point and this particular grant, Resilience has their own fundraising stuff and we have our own fundraising stuff. This is the first time that we’ve actually come together and got us both funded under one umbrella. I think that that is a model I would like to see moving forward too. I’d like to know how we can get funding for both of our organizations and what we’re doing by doing this joint program together so those are my hopes and wishes moving down the line.
What is one fun fact about you?
Within the theater community, I wear many different hats. I also teach theater classes to kids of all ages. I’ve been teaching at the Metropolis Performing Arts Center in Arlington Heights for years, and I also teach at the Actors Training Center in Wilmette. I get little ones there and we do theater and theatre techniques and skills. My entire career and living so far have been in theater one way or another, either teaching, acting in theater, or working with Imagination Theater through the social-emotional learning aspect of theater. Beyond theater, I love to get out and do different things during the different seasons. I love skiing in the winter and boating in the summer, and I’m a big reader.
What do you want people to know about you or Imagination Theater that you haven’t been asked about?
Imagination Theater’s biggest program is the sexual harm prevention program, but we offer a ton of different types of programs around social-emotional learning. We offer things like bullying prevention programs. We have a program that teaches empathy, which really ties a lot of our subjects together because once you start teaching kids empathy, you start working on the baseline of all of these social issues that we face. We created a program just last year during the pandemic on mental health. We try to give kids tools to deal with stress and anxiety and things like that, which was key, especially during the pandemic when they were learning from home and there was just so much uncertainty happening. Because we had no choice during the pandemic, we also all had to go virtual. Resilience was going virtual. We had to go virtual. The challenging thing about what we do being virtual was the scene portion because it was really difficult for us to do a play on safe and unsafe touch on Zoom where we’re all in different buildings. You can’t really demonstrate that like you normally would through a scene. One of the fun things that happened for us was quite challenging, but I was so amazed with how it turned out. In the summer of 2020, we got together to actually film the scene portions of No Secrets and a couple of other shows. But we still couldn’t gather together in a group or have the actors touching because at that point in time with COVID, no one was vaccinated. It was still a very precarious thing to gather unmasked and do a scene together. What we ended up doing was filming all of the actors individually using green screen technology. We kept everybody distanced and safe and the only time that they didn’t have a mask on was if they were in front of the camera by themselves. Once you were able to use that green screen technology, you could piece it together to not only make it look like they were together in the scene, but also make it look like they were giving each other a hug when they called for it in the scene or whatever. It was quite remarkable the way that it turned out at the end. We had a fantastic ensemble member who had experience doing that, who really led the charge and I think saved our program for a good two years by allowing us to convert to a virtual platform for this. We still kept that live component because we still had a live facilitator and an actor on the platform so that we could continue to do the facilitated discussions live and the role play with the students live. But the scene content we did ahead of time through green screen technology.