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Diane Conrad

2006 SSHRC Aurora Prize

For Diane Conrad, drama is about change.

Her field of research is drama education. Her current research partners are the inmates of a youth correctional facility in Alberta. They’re not happy to be “on the inside,” and Conrad shares the sentiment.

Together, though, the University of Alberta professor and the youths are using “applied theatre” to get at the root causes of the behaviour and social conditions that landed the young people in the facility. She helps them create fictionalized accounts of their lives and troubles, and then she guides them as they step outside the scene and enact alternatives for themselves to the choices they’ve made.

By transforming themselves into free agents—even if only in a dramatic context—the kids can imagine taking action. And they can see how their actions might bring about change—in themselves, in their communities, in society at large.

Conrad has always believed in the transformative power of art. A first degree in playwriting and training in physical theatre, though, left her disillusioned with conventional theatre. Five years volunteer teaching in Africa followed that, then an education degree and three years at schools in the Northwest Territories.

Since she began her research career, she has worked with “at-risk” kids: those whose behaviour could—or does—get them in trouble. Many people see them as victims. Conrad has learned not to—quite the reverse: she sees these kids as equal participants in the research project. And it’s that crucial difference that makes her research worthy of the Aurora, a prize given to a young researcher who is building a reputation for exciting and original work.

The work she’s doing now with the young inmates offers the same possibility all art is supposed to: the chance to look at yourself and the world at a slight—and instructive—distance. But it’s a distance that gives room for a big step toward real change—change that begins at the personal level but has the potential, eventually, to change society.