Undergraduate Research Opportunities – Valuing Student Work and Community Building

By Megan E. Stewart (Stuart)

 In the summer of 2011 I was lucky enough to be accepted into the URO program at Ryerson. The program is designed to encourage undergraduate students with an interest in research to take on an independent project under the supervision of a faculty member. The URO program is unique in that it treats undergraduate students as capable and deserving of funding to conduct research in a diverse range of topics and disciplines. When I was applying, I thought that my proposal was so far outside the ‘box’ that it would never be accepted. As it turns out the Office of the Vice-President of Research and Innovation is actually looking for innovative student work! I think that it is a testament to the culture at Ryerson that the institution recognizes undergraduate students as contributing members of academia. The program has had a profound impact on my confidence and engagement in both academic and activist work.

My project was a participatory documentary film about the personal experiences and creative process of members of The Friendly Spike Theatre Band. The Friendly Spike is a community theatre made up of members who identify as consumer/survivor/ex-patients, disabled people and allies.  I had the privilege of meeting members of The Friendly Spike and working closely with stage manager and performer Heinz Klein while doing assignments for both “Mad People’s History” and “Motion Picture Production II”.  Based on this relationship I asked if any of the cast and production crew would be interested in doing a larger film project with me.  Friendly Spike Director and Disability Studies alumna Ruth Ruth Stackhouse was instrumental in facilitating this process by inviting me to become a member of the cast. Throughout the summer I participated in rehearsals, social gatherings, casual conversations and performances with the cast and production crew. Without Ruth Ruth’s endorsement and Heinz’s help I never would have been able to pull of a participatory project of this scale in four short months.

Several members were very interested in being involved in the film project and together we filmed interviews concerning themes of creativity, stigma, disability and community.  As part of the ethics protocol, we agreed that everyone involved in the film would have an opportunity to screen a rough cut, provide feedback, request scenes be removed, or even “opt out” of the project entirely. This enabled everyone involved to have control over how their words and image are represented in the film.

We also shot scenes from the play in a cinematic style that members could then use for their acting reel or post on YouTube. As a stroke of pure luck, 2011 was the inaugural year of The Friendly Spike’s spectacular theatrical tour, “The Walls are Alive with the Sounds of Mad People”. The tour guides audiences through the grounds of CAMH and reenacts scenes from Geoffrey Reaume’s seminal work on psychiatric history from the patient’s perspective, “Remembrance of Patients Past”. The Friendly Spike won an ACE Impact Award for their work which has become a staple of Toronto’s annual Jane’s Walk and Mad Pride. The film project is currently being wrapped up in post-production. Footage we shot from the summer of 2011 has been used in various funding and award applications by the Friendly Spike, demonstrating the ongoing impact of the URO program not only on my own experience as a student but also in a greater community context of the furthering of disability arts and culture. 

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