This profile of Mission Secondary School teacher Gai Brown, which ran in the Vancouver Sun on April 26th, explores the impact of school arts programs on citizen development.
The small theatre at Mission Secondary School is alive with Shakespearean verse on a rain-soaked Wednesday afternoon. While parentteacher interviews stretch late into the evening in the main building, the cohort in the drama program prepares for its production of Much Ado About Nothing, led by their teacher, Gai Brown.
For more than 20 years, Brown has been the heart of Mission Secondary’s drama program, running two shows a year – one modern and one Shakespearean. But this year’s production is different, because it’s her last. Brown is retiring, and nobody quite knows what will come next.
Small and lithe with a swirling mane of silver curls, Brown looks exactly how you’d imagine a high school drama teacher. In a time of budget cuts and a growing focus on job training in schools, she’s a passionate advocate for arts education, arguing that drama builds soft skills like empathy and teamwork, which ultimately make better citizens.
“There’s nothing better you can do in high school than join a sincere, avid theatre program,” she says. “I tell kids all the time. You could be – worst case scenario – a telemarketer in some cubicle somewhere and you’re still going to use your drama skills, because you’ve got to keep someone on the line for two seconds before they hang up the phone.”
Over the years, the drama program has become a safe place—everyone is welcome. Alongside the ambitious theatre-lovers, Brown has made space for kids who struggle in their regular classes.
For those who find the text challenging, she’s developed a system. She records the lines in small chunks with correct cadence and gives them to the student to memorize. It has worked every time.
She also pushes her students as much as she encourages them. Theatre, she knows from experience, is hard work.
On the afternoon I join her, one cast member keeps ending his sentences with a question mark. This is the cast’s first run-through without scripts and not everyone is able to keep up yet. “Stop guessing,” she tells him. “You know this.”
Clad in Game of Thrones-inspired costumes of velvet and muslin – or close enough reproductions to fool an audience—the students are unusually present for a generation raised on smart phones and tablets. They’re eager to sing the praises of the program and its beloved teacher, whom they affectionately call “Brownie.”
When asked who plans to pursue an acting career after school, a third raise their hands. Their goal is to study theatre at the University of Fraser Valley and then make it into Studio 58 at Langara College.
One of the would-be professionals is Grade 12 student Meara O’Malley who credits the program with giving her a community and a respite from the gauntlet of high school life. “I’m a completely different person because of this drama department,” she says. “I was really, really shy before drama and now I’m out there.”
At a hundred seats, the Mission Secondary School stage isn’t the biggest in the region, but the students say it’s the best. Once a woodworking shop, the building has been transformed under Brown’s guidance into a flexible ‘black box’ space with raked seating and a well-stocked costume room over back offices.
Proudly, Brown shows off the “green room” where generations of students have written messages on limecoloured walls, extolling the virtues and hardships of theatrical life. Backstage, the walls are covered with posters for each play that was produced. Brown names the students and recounts details of each production, such as the year that they did Comedy of Errors with a Bollywood theme in honour of the school’s large Indo-Canadian population. One student, a trained Bhangra dancer, prepared choreography and taught the entire class.
“At the time there was a lot of talk about the Indo-Canadian boys rule this hall and the kids who walk down that hall always feel like they’re being watched and vice versa,” she remembers. “This was my attempt to bring those two worlds together and break down some of those barriers, which worked with some but not all. Not everybody’s in the theatre department.”
Some faces in the posters are familiar. Former student Laura Mennell has appeared in films like The Watchmen and TV shows like Alphas and Motive. Kholby Wardell starred in the touring version of the critically acclaimed Arts Club production of Ride the Cyclone.
Even Brown’s own daughter appears on the wall – she played Hero in the school’s first production of Much Ado. LoisBrown-Evans now teaches drama at Mission Secondary alongside her mother, a situation which Brown hopes will provide continuity after she leaves.
Keeping the program alive hasn’t always been easy. The long-running dispute between the BC Teachers Federation and the provincial government has impinged more than once upon the classroom. One year a walkout brought the production to a halt. Wardell, now in Toronto where he is working on a show called Terrible Adults: See Ya, Bye, remembers it vividly.
“All of us were devastated that we weren’t going to be able to do the show, so we rented a space at the Mission Leisure Centre across from the school and we had rehearsal there,” he remembers.
He also remembers the impact Brown had on his life that year. “I had a few major personal struggles,” he says. “Gai was always there for me to support and lend an ear. That year and even to this day, she has always been a great friend.”
According to the school’s former principal Jim Pearce, who worked with Brown for 13 years, the biggest challenge in replacing teachers with this level of commitment is lack of job security.
“Because there’s so much uncertainty as to whether they’ll have a job the next year, the younger teachers don’t get tied to a school,” he says. “If the layoff line is at six years, they don’t want to invest time in doing a drama program or coaching a team because they may not be around next year.”
With the future uncertain, Brown is finding it difficult to let go. But whoever takes over, she hopes that programs like hers will continue to make a difference in students’ lives.
“I’ve seen theatre turn people’s lives around,” she says. “I’ve seen people saved by the arts. We know this, so why are we dropping the ball on it? Because we’ll pay for it at the other end.”