Some years ago, theatre artist Bett Potazek was helping to produce a show for children and youth called Fragments, created to help kids who live in communities where violence is common to cope with the loss of a loved one. Fragments marked a departure for the Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre Program (ETP), away from a traditional approach to entertaining kids toward one that offers a close and sometimes difficult look at the root causes of suffering and illness.
Teachers responded to the performances with a question that took Potazek by surprise. “What about us?” they asked.
The Georgia teachers who saw the show were themselves experiencing more and more stress. More students per class, tighter regulations, new standards. Less time to work one-on-one with kids. They didn’t need help with grieving; they needed emotional support to be able to give their best to their students.
Potazek and her colleagues listened closely. They recorded interviews and held focus groups with teachers.
The result was a new theatrical production called Acting on Stress, which debuted in 2000 and continues today. The show opens with three vignettes in which a teacher must contend with overwhelming needs, relentless interruptions in the classroom and poorly behaved parents. Soon a facilitator appears on stage to address the audience directly with a clear definition of stress and a warning that foreshadows the therapeutic direction of rest of the show:
“Stress is the physical, mental and emotional reactions you experience as the result of changes and demands in your life. Unless you can regularly release the tension that comes with stress, it can greatly increase your risks of physical and mental illness.”
The facilitator asks the audience to reflect on how stress feels in their bodies, then runs through a series of 11 coping skills developed with behavioral health experts at Kaiser Permanente in Atlanta:
- Set realistic expectations. Decide what is possible and develop a plan to meet that goal.
- Work smarter, not harder. Don’t reinvent the wheel, but strive to create new solutions.
- Progress, not perfection. See mistakes as an opportunity to grow.
- Remain solution-focused. Put your energy into the solution, not the problem.
- Express needs, make requests, use available resources.
- Change the way you look at situations in order to feel better about them.
- Find stimulating activities. Engage physically, intellectually and spiritually, without the pressure of competition or accountability.
- It helps reduce stress and increase serotonin production.
- Find and engage in some relaxing activity on a daily basis.
- Find an informal support group and do activities together.
- LAUGH! Laughter physically releases stress.
The Audience Gets Active
The stage is set for the audience to take a more active role. “What are the choices she could have made?” the facilitator asks. With the 11 strategies above in hand, audience members yell out suggestions and build upon each other’s ideas.
Like other ETP productions, part of the therapeutic value of Acting on Stress is that audience members come away with the sense that they are not alone and that they have power to change their own perceptions and behavior.
“There’s the stress of balance – when you go home you don’t want to turn all the way off because you still care about the kids,” says Cedric Slay, a school counselor at Sweetwater Elementary in Douglas County who requested a performance of Acting on Stress at his school. Slay says the show helped him to practice debriefing tough days with colleagues and friends in ways that allow him to let go of the stress, rather than revisit it again and again.
ETP prioritizes performing for teachers in schools with many challenges and not enough financial resources. In Clayton County, a Thriving Schools partner, is home to high numbers of transient students and English Language Learners; a majority of students in the county qualify for free lunch.
Potazek likes to bring a newer production, What’s in that Lunch, Anyway?, to schools that have hosted Acting on Stress, as a way to continue the dialog about taking care of oneself. The newer show focuses on healthy eating as a way to prevent and manage diseases like diabetes and hypertension.
“We use our art form to speak to people, to help them improve their lives in a direct way,” Potazek explains.
Learn more about Acting on Stress.
Learn more about other performances available to schools in areas served by Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theater Program