Under the Stairs

Written by Kevin Dyer
Music by Reza Jacobs
Directed by Micheline Chevrier

Study Guide

Introduction

This guide was written by Stephanie Long.

As you scroll through the guide, you will find our usual sections: curriculum connections, discussion questions, units of study and more. If you wish to create your own lesson plan from the study guide copy, we have created a lesson plan template for your use. We hope you will find this guide to be a useful resource. Should you have any questions or feedback or have inquiries about the use of this guide (which is copyright protected), please feel free to contact Marjie Chud, Acting Associate Artistic Director, Education at mchud@youngpeoplestheatre.ca.

Thematic Overview

This play centres on a character who feels overwhelmed by an unstable home environment. He seeks refuge in a “safe space”, which, for him, is a cupboard under the stairs. There, he finds the support of others like him, and, through their shared experiences, they support one another and connect with adults in their lives. Instead of simply escaping, they find a way to move forward together in the world outside the cupboard.

Rather than focus on familial strife, this guide will help young people to look at “family,” broadly incorporating the support networks we choose for ourselves and the way in which these groups can help us to feel safe and supported. The pre-show unit focuses on the themes of shared experience and supportive groups. The post-show section prompts students to reflect on the challenges each character faces, and to consider how individuals can overcome such obstacles through both self-advocacy and teamwork to create meaningful and positive changes.

Curriculum Connections

  • Language
  • The Arts (Drama, Music)
  • Health and Physical Education – Healthy Relationships
  • Music

Character Education Connections

  • Safety
  • Inclusivity
  • Caring

Seven Ancestral Teachings

  • Love
  • Humility
  • Honesty

*For more information on Indigenous learning at YPT, please visit youngpeoplestheatre.ca/indegenizeus.

Themes

  • Finding (or) Living in Hope
  • The Wisdom of Youth
  • The Importance of Family

Curriculum Expectations

Through these activities, students will:

  • use speaking skills and strategies appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes
  • listen in order to understand and respond appropriately in a variety of situations for a variety of purposes
  • apply the critical analysis process to communicate feelings, ideas and understandings in response to a variety of drama works and experiences
  • apply the creative process to process drama and the development of drama works, using the elements and conventions of drama to communicate feelings, ideas and multiple perspectives
  • demonstrate the ability to make connections that relate to health and well-being – how their choices and behaviours affect both themselves and others, and how factors in the world around them affect their own and others’ health and well-being
  • demonstrate the ability to apply health knowledge and living skills to make reasoned decisions and take appropriate actions relating to their personal health and well-being
  • use self-awareness and self-monitoring skills to help them understand their strengths and needs, take responsibility for their actions, recognize sources of stress, and monitor their own progress, as they participate in various physical activities, develop movement competence, and acquire knowledge and skills related to healthy living
  • express personal responses to musical performances in a variety of ways
  • identify elements in the music they listen to and describe how these are used

Synopsis

Conflict and arguments between Tim’s parents prompt him to seek an escape from the noisy bickering in his home. He finds safety and refuge in the cupboard under the stairs. To his surprise, he finds that he is in fact not alone there, as other children have also found security in this magical place. When Tim’s parents disappear, he must rely on himself and on the support of his new friends to find them, and to repair the turmoil in his home.

Content Advisory

This play presents a theatrical yet authentic portrayal of family strife. The protagonist, along with his new friends, struggles with feelings of abandonment and neglect.

Interview with the Playwright

What inspired you to write this play?
To be honest, I’m not quite sure. I just had an image growing in my head of a boy whose mum and dad argued a lot and what it was like for him. I think I see lots of bad parenting going on around me, and I see children stuck in the middle of it. I also have two children – now young men – and, like all parents, I think about what it was like for them growing up with me as a dad.

Why did you choose “under the stairs” as the main place of refuge for the young characters?
I just knew my boy had to find a place to go away from the shouting and the smashing plates. Under the stairs seemed the most obvious and handy place. The description of the door to the cupboard is a description of a little door in my own house that I live in now. But it does not lead under the stairs – rather up to my writing room where I wrote the play. Interestingly, after the play was finished I had a close look at the door to my study, which is the basis for the door under the stairs. It does have a little brass handle, but it does NOT have the top corner missing. That bit must have got added in by my imagination.

The use of music in the play is very interesting and unique. Why did you choose to incorporate music into the piece?
I was interested in making the world outside the cupboard different to the world inside. That one of those worlds became a sung world is a thing I cannot explain. Interestingly, the words outside the cupboard do not have to be sung. They could be said because they are a sort of spoken word poetry. I think they would be different because of their rhymes and rhythms.

What do you hope audience members will take away from their engagement with the play?
I hope they will connect with the characters and empathise with them, and feel what they feel and think about what life is like for them. I think different people will close in on different characters, but I hope that the play allows someone watching to see this really difficult situation from different points of view. Also, I want anyone who sees it to have a really good time at the theatre – whatever that means!

The Power of Relationships to Buffer Stress

by Trina Epstein, Psy.D., C.Psych.

Under the Stairs fits nicely in YPT’s season theme of children as change agents for themselves, in its portrayal of children responding to difficult home situations with resilience, problem-solving capacity and bravery. Tim seeks escape from the turmoil of his home and finds a safe space in the cupboard beneath the stairs. What he also finds is so key for youngsters experiencing trauma or stress — and that is relationships. We know that trusted connections with others can buffer one’s experience with stress. So, when Tim connects with the other children in the magical realm of the cupboard, these relationships are valuable for him. Lily, Violet and Albert are in the cupboard because they too have experienced traumatic home lives and have their own struggles as a result. Albert has lost his voice, something that can occur in the aftermath of trauma, either literally as has happened here, or metaphorically in the sense that a child can feel powerless. Violet is reactive and angry, another common response to childhood trauma, and she is soothed by sameness and fearful of change (“I want three. I don’t want four.”). We see conflict among the children, instances in which they hurt each other inadvertently because they themselves are hurt or scared, but we also see their efforts at repair, creating valued “truces”. The implicit trust amongst these children, their support for one another as they face their fears of venturing beyond the cupboard, highlights the power of relationships to mediate stress. Common amongst children living difficult home lives, we see Tim’s loyalty to his parents and his overwhelming desire for this most important relationship to be mended. One type of relationship not covered in the play but critical for children dealing with trauma, is the relationship with a trusted adult. We want children to balance their allegiance to their parents, and their hope that things will improve, with the awareness that it is not only permissible, but actually essential, to tell a trusted adult what is happening so that they can get help. Children are indeed resilient. Children are also capable of helping themselves as this play so beautifully illustrates. But they should not have to do it on their own.

Teachers should contact the Children’s Aid Society about any children for whom they have child protection concerns. For more information about dealing with trauma in the classroom, see:

Glossary

Overwhelm: To be too strong; overpower.

Support: To give approval, comfort, or encouragement.

Safe Space: A place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment or any other emotional or physical harm.

Refuge: The state of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger or difficulty.

Self-Advocacy: The action of representing oneself or one’s views or interests.

Pre-Show Discussion Questions

Ask students:

  1. Do you have places you go when you’re feeling a need to be alone?
  2. Who supports you when you are feeling upset or need someone to talk to?
  3. “Friends are the families we choose for ourselves” is a popular expression. What do you think this means?

Pre-Show Unit

Pre-Show Exercise #1: Just Like Me

Objective:

Students will recognize the commonalities they share with their peers and will discuss how sharing an experience or a feeling can help people to feel connected and supported.

Materials:

None needed. Based on the group’s age and dynamic, you may wish to conduct this activity in a circle, but students could easily remain at desks for this brief warm-up.

Directions:

  • Ask for a student to volunteer to stand while everyone else in the circle is seated.
  • Ask that student to share something about themselves (e.g. “I have a dog”).
  • Ask students who share this trait to stand with the volunteer.
  • Of the students who remained standing, ask for a volunteer to be the next person to share something about themselves.

Variation:

If the students need more structure, ask a prompting question of each volunteer (e.g. Where did you go on the weekend?”).
Debriefing Questions

  1. How did it feel to be the only one standing?
  2. How did it feel when you were joined by others who had something in common with you?
  3. How might other people who share experiences like ours be able to support us in difficult times?

Pre-Show Exercise #2: Find Your Family

Objective:

Through role play, students will experience the feelings of safety and support that come with belonging in a group, and, to a degree, the anxiety that comes from being on one’s own without an established support group. Music may be used to heighten the experience.

Materials:

Names of animals on pieces of paper OR another system of assigning animal identities to groups of students (e.g. three taps on the head = lion). Space to move around is also needed.
Directions:

  • Assign animal identities to students in secret. 3-4 students for each animal type works best. Suggested animal types include snake, dog, cat, lion, giraffe and turtle.
  • Ask students, at an appointed time, to slowly and silently begin moving around the room as their animal identity.
  • Ask students to begin looking for other students who share their animal identity and to form groups of animal types. Remind students to do this silently and slowly. You may wish to play music to add to the atmosphere (and as a connection to the use of music in the play).
  • In what ways do groups or families help us to feel stronger and more supported than when we are on our own?

Pre-Show Culminating Exercise: Designing a Safe Space

Objective:

Students will work together to design a shared space.

Materials:

Chart Paper, Markers

Directions:

  • Re-establish groups from exercise #2.
  • In their groups, ask students to design a space in which all of them would feel safe, comfortable and supported. They could imagine this space as a clubhouse or a group “den” (continuing with the animal theme).
  • Ask students to write down or draw anything that they think would fit or belong in this space.
  • Ask groups to present their ideas to the class one at a time.

Debriefing Questions

  1. What elements were similar in each of the spaces?
  2. How might these elements of the space help us to feel safe and supported?
  3. Are these elements things that we could bring with us to new and unfamiliar spaces? Why or why not?
  4. Are there things we can bring with us to new spaces to help us feel more comfortable (e.g. favourite books or objects, songs that help us to relax, etc.)?
  5. What can we do if we are in a space that doesn’t feel comfortable for us? Who can we talk to for support?

Post-Show Discussion Questions

  1. How did the cupboard help Tim deal with his struggles?
  2. Is there any way in which the cupboard might have held him back from taking action?
  3. How did Tim’s new friends help him to create positive change for his family?
  4. Why was it easier for Tim to create positive change with help?
  5. How can the adults and the children work together to make sure that the positive changes seen at the end of the play continue?
  6. Why do you think the playwright chose to use music to represent the world outside of the cupboard?
  7. How did you feel when listening to the music as opposed to the spoken dialogue?

Post-Show Unit

Post-show Exercise #1: Role on the Wall: Barriers to Change

Objective:

Students will work in groups to focus on individual characters and discuss these characters’ motivations, perspectives and possible backstories.

Materials:

Chart paper and markers

Directions:

  • Assign students to groups of 4-5 people per group.
  • Assign each group one character: Tim, Lily, Violet, Mum, Dad or Albert.
  • Provide each group with a piece of chart paper and at least one marker.
  • Ask a student from each group to lie down on the paper.
  • Ask another member of the group to trace this student’s body shape onto the chart paper.
  • Tell groups that the outline represents their assigned character.
  • Ask students to write words or sentences that represent the character’s hopes and wants on the inside of the character outline. These words represent the inner thoughts and motivations of that character.
  • After students have had the opportunity to generate and record many ideas, ask students to think of the area outside the character outline, particularly the barriers of the outside world that prevent the character from being able to experience what they hope and wish for.
  • Ask groups to share their character profiles with the class.

Debriefing Questions

  1. Why is it so difficult for these characters to change their environments?
  2. Are these challenges different for the adults as opposed to the children?
  3. In what ways could each character contribute to changing their environment?
  4. What helps Tim change in the play from simply accepting his unfortunate reality to creating a positive change? Do you think this is realistic? Explain why or why not.

Post-show Exercise #2: Connecting for Change

Objective:

Assuming the roles of characters in the play, students will attempt (with a twist) to advocate for their needs. Through the steps of the activity, they will see what they might require to actually connect and create change.

Materials:

Space for students to form two parallel lines.

Directions:

  • Divide the class in two, and ask students to form two parallel lines, at arm’s reach from one another. Each student should face a “partner”. If there is an odd number of students, one group of three can be used.
  • Ask the two lines of students to turn around so that they have their backs to one another.
  • Ask students to think about a game they would like to play or a place they would like to go with the other student (suggestions: go get ice cream, play basketball, go to Florida, etc.). Tell them that the goal of the activity is for the two of them to choose which imagined activity they should pick.
  • Tell the students that, when instructed, they need to try to persuade their partner to do their chosen activity with them. They must use only words and not look at their partner.
  • Now invite students to begin to talk — students will all be talking at once and will not be listening to one another.
  • Tell students that this time, they may face one another but need to talk continuously while trying to listen to their partner.
  • In the next step, tell students that they may talk and listen to their partner, but cannot ask questions.
  • Finally, let participants talk as they normally would, asking questions.

Debriefing Questions:
Ask students:

  1. Did you have to make a compromise in order to successfully make a decision?
  2. If so, what helped you make a decision as a team?
  3. Was it difficult to make a decision when you were only focused on your own needs? If so, why?
  4. In order to connect with someone and work on a project together, which do you think is more important— speaking or listening? Why?

Post-Show Culminating Exercise: Self Advocacy for Change

Objective:

Students will “write in role” to advocate for their needs, comfort and safety.

Materials:

Journals or writing paper, and appropriate writing utensils.

Directions:

  • Ask students to imagine that they are one of the young characters in the play: Tim, Lily, Violet or Albert.
  • Ask each student to imagine who might be an adult in that character’s life who is not a character in the play.
  • Ask students to write a note “in role” to this adult, stating their previous struggles and their needs for continued positive change (suggest at least two of each). Finish the note by finding a way to ask the adult to help you make this positive change happen.

Debriefing Questions:
Ask students:

  1. Is it different to advocate for yourself in writing vs. by speaking? If so, how?
  2. What will it take for the adult characters to work together to make sure that the young characters’ needs are met?
  3. How can the young characters continue to support each other and to advocate for one another?

Sources

Glossary of Pronunciations

Additional Resources