SKOWHEGAN — The question these days for someone who appears to be acting out or in crisis should be: “What happened to you when you were a child growing up?” and not: “What’s wrong with you?”

That’s part of the message from Somerset Public Health as staff prepares to administer a $44,692 grant to develop an interactive improvisation theater program to create awareness surrounding health problems related to ACE — adverse childhood experiences.

The plan is to use the financing over two years to develop a series of short “conversations,” theatrically, with the Marti Stevens Interactive Improvisational Theater group.

“We want to be able to tell people’s stories in a way that is compassionate, is from a place of understanding and really changing the conversation from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’ ” said Danielle Denis, the organization’s drug-free community program coordinator. “Our behaviors are really a consequence of our own experiences. It’s how we learn to deal with a situation.”

ACE are events — insults to the brain, Denis said — experienced in childhood that can have negative effects on lifelong health and well-being and can affect brain development. They can be linked to abuse, neglect and household disturbances, including divorce, parental incarceration and witnessing violence. Studies show a connection between experiencing multiple adverse childhood experiences with the development of negative behavioral and health problems later in life, such as alcoholism, obesity, substance abuse, drug overdoses, suicide attempts, abuse of the elderly, sexual harassment, teen pregnancy, bullying and depression.

There also is a direct economic effect, she said.

In Maine, over half of the population has experienced at least one adverse childhood event, according to material supplied by Somerset Public Health. Maine’s 2017 Integrated Youth Health Survey shows that 1 in 4 students in Somerset County reported experiencing three or more of these triggers.

Denis and community health educator Bill Primmerman said that like muscle memory in athletes, certain sights or sounds can trigger responses because the “chemical pathway” from the brain already has been well traveled.

The idea behind the improvisational theater is to develop a series of entertaining, short scenarios and discussions that show emotions, conflicts, attitudes and motivations for behaving in a way that might be labeled as negative by audience members, said Somerset Public Health Director Matt L’Italien.

At a critical point in each scene, the director stops the action and invites the audience to interact with and question the characters. This provides an opportunity to see situations in new ways and stimulate dialogue and group problem solving, according to L’Italien.

The performances and interaction with audiences are intended to stimulate the nonverbal and emotional side of the brain so that audience members will have a greater understanding for how adverse childhood experiences affect the lives of young people and community as a whole. People also will leave with strategies that model resilience if put into practice at home, work, or in the community, L’Italien said.

“This funding allows us an entertaining and engaging way to challenge the audience’s thinking about adversity,” L’Italien said. “It is also an opportunity to work with local partners that we don’t traditionally think about in public health like our local theater groups and the (Wesserunsett) Arts Council.”

The two-part Community Health Program grant from The Bingham Program will be used to train actors for the troupe and pay expenses for visits all over Somerset County over the next two years. The program could expand statewide eventually, Primmerman said.

There will be a casting call for all aspiring actors and actresses ages 16 and up with training March 9 and 10 for those who register at Somerset Public Health offices at 20 Madison Ave., Skowhegan, or by calling Primmerman at 858-8450 or emailing him at [email protected]

Somerset Public Health is a community health coalition and a department of Redington-Fairview General Hospital.

“We’re looking for people who want to be actors for the scenarios,” Primmerman said. “The training will help them learn how to develop a character, stay in character; and we’re also looking for facilitators to lead the discussion between the audience and the cast.”

The role play could be taken to schools, businesses, conventions — even a county jail. The stage would be simply set, with a few props: a table and chairs and the actors and the facilitators who will introduce the topic.

“We also plan to do some education in regards to adverse childhood experiences so people will get some information and some resources,” Primmerman said. “If these things raise concerns for them, we’ll be able to give them some resources to seek some additional help.”

The Marti Stevens Interactive Improvisational Theater is a statewide, nonprofit organization whose roots lie in literacy awareness. Founded by Somerset County Basic Skills Program Director Marti Stevens in 1985, the original Literacy Awareness Theater worked closely with adult education programs across the state to make teachers, tutors and community members aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle struggles that nonreaders face.

Interactive Improvisational Theater has been used for decades as a tool for consciousness raising, problem solving and social change.

The Marti Stevens Learning Center, located across the street from the district’s high school campus and administrative offices, started in downtown Skowhegan as the Cross Roads Learning Center, a school and home for teenage mothers. It was founded by Stevens, a New York City actress.

She later started the Cross Roads program, which was incorporated into the school district in 1987. When Stevens died in 1993, the school was renamed in her honor.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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