Homeless improv group focus of 'drama therapy' talk

After a year of field research, the creators of "Off the Cuff," an improv theater group for the homeless, will present their findings at an upcoming college conference.

Tommy Waltz, a student at the University of Southern Maine’s School of Social Work, came up with the idea of bringing weekly acting classes to clients of the Preble Street Resource Center. Ashleigh Guild, a classmate in the master’s program, joined the effort, and the team will discuss their qualitative field research at "Thinking Matters," a capstone showcase of undergraduate and graduate work at USM’s Sullivan gymnasium Friday, April 25, from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

"We sat down with six active clients of ‘Off the Cuff’ and asked them a series of 13 open-ended questions," Waltz said. "We recorded all six interviews, and then went back and transcribed them. We both went through each interview and coded them – that is, we were looking for themes that emerged from the interviews. It was a complicated process. You could end with 20 to 30 themes. We needed to boil it down. For example, ‘Friendship’ and ‘Relationship Building’ are really the same theme."

Waltz and Guild discovered seven recurring experiential themes: Happiness, Self-Worth, Relationship Building, Mindfulness, Honest Expression, Witness, and Creativity.

"’Witness’ is a direct term from drama therapy," said Waltz, who lived in New York City for eight years. While there, he received his undergraduate degree in musical theater with a concentration in psychology from the New School. "It’s one of the core concepts. To witness is to watch other people perform their story. It speaks to the value of being an audience member; you don’t have to be actively engaged in the roleplay to receive the benefit of it. The value of witness is enhanced by the relationships they have built. Watching a friend go through something powerful can be helpful to your own healing."

The presentation Friday is called: "The usefulness and helpfulness of drama therapy with the adult homeless population in Portland, Maine." More-than-a-mouthful titles may suit the academic world, but Waltz is keen to keep the project alive in the real world as well. He plans to continue working at the Preble Street shelter even after he graduates in May. The team will also submit a 25-page paper on their field research and findings.

Recently, Waltz was involved in a panel discussion at the University of New England’s Portland campus, as part of the Arts and Social Justice brown bag lecture series. The panel had talked about "How Arts Meet Mission: Artists Engaged in Activism, Activists Making Art." Waltz was joined at the time by Dr. Kolawole A. Bankole, director of the Minority Health Program at Portland Public Health, and Donna McNeil of Artists in Context and former director of the Maine Arts Commission.

The presentation Friday will be part of the larger "Thinking Matters" program that highlights work from all levels of students. Waltz and Guild present between 8:30 and 11:30 a.m.

"Ashleigh and I started to work on this last year at this time," Waltz said. "The year’s been wonderful. The experience has been incredibly rewarding: to create this program, and have Ashley come on board. She’s left-brain concrete. I’m right-brain off-the-wall. We balance each other really well."

The homeless folks who worked with them, learning to act out life’s challenges in constructive, artistic ways, praised the program and the organizers’ impact on their lives.

A local man named John joined "Off the Cuff" in November of last year, during the first week of its inception at Preble Street Resource Center. By January of this year, John had found housing.

"I met him at his apartment for the interview," Waltz said. "He credits ‘Off the Cuff’ as being a motivator, inspiring him to create and attain goals."
John’s interview yielded several comments related to Mindfulness and Relationship Building.

"You can be someone else (at ‘Off the Cuff’). You feel you are the person while you’re playing that role. It’s kind of like being a kid in a grown-up body, expressing yourself," John said. "I talk to people that I may feel uncomfortable talking to."

Of working with Waltz and Guild, John said "They are the nicest people you’ve ever met in your life… putting us in a different light."

Waltz will celebrate the year’s-worth of work at the presentation Friday, and looks forward to graduating soon, but then it’s back to work.

He has a couple of theater gigs coming up this summer. He’s in "Chamberlain" at the Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick and will perform in Fenix Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park production of "As You Like It," in Deering Oaks this summer.

In addition to these theater productions this summer, he’s also looking to get his license for clinical social work. And of course, there’s the weekly meeting of "Off the Cuff," improvisational acting that has become a dramatic therapy for the homeless.