ASL students pose in front of a train at The Forks


Ellen Peterson is a local actor and playwright who recently adapted Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre for their 2018 season. She’s also a teacher, including an instructor at Manitoba Theatre for Young People, who believes with her whole entire heart that teenagers are the coolest people on the planet. “They’re so passionate about discovering how they feel… any kind of human rights they’re so passionate about. It gives me so much hope. They feel so strongly that they can change things,” she says. The group of teenagers Ellen is referring to are the students she instructs, along with Erica Hastings, twice a week as part of the After School Leaders (ASL) program at MTYP. A funded initiative from Healthy Child Manitoba, ASL is offered through the province’s partner organizations, is open to all Manitoba high school students ages 14 and up, and is free to participants.

Ellen first began teaching at MTYP in 1984, back when the organization was known as Actor’s Showcase. Throughout her early tenure, Ellen also worked as a Production Assistant, went on to direct the Young Company, and later worked as Associate School Director and then, ultimately, the School Director. She took a break from the arts after her kids were born but as her children got older, she asked Kent Suss, then School Director, if she could return and teach teenagers. She’s been instructing ASL ever since. “It’s been my favourite teaching job,” Ellen says.

An important component of the Healthy Child ASL initiative is to serve participants as fully as possible and eliminate any barriers there may be to participation. At MTYP, this includes providing bus tickets to facilitate their journey to and from classes.  Ellen highlights another important aspect of the program, where participants begin each class with a meal. “Part of the funding means we all eat together, we share time together,” the instructor says, “It’s not just a class, it’s twice a week, three hours each time. We have six hours a week, which is equivalent to a school day. We get to know them in a slightly more familial way.” This time together gives the students and instructors a chance to not only get to know each other on a deeper level, but to also create some amazing theatre.

The ASL students, who’ve been meeting since September, are in the final stages of preparing for their showcase which is set to be performed on January 21. As with many things at this time, it is currently unknown if the show will be performed live or move to be digitally streamed. The preference for the students is to be live if they can, but they understand the needs to adhere to restrictions and consider the safety of themselves and their community. “It’s hard to face another disappointment, but the teenagers are getting good at it,” Ellen says. “They’ve started to shrug… they’ve gained a kind of resilience.”

Ellen Peterson
Ellen Peterson

This resilience and determination has been key in developing their production – a musical – that’s all about, well… trains, actually. The show’s inspiration came from an idea generation exercise back in the fall. Ellen asked the students to write down their favourite mode of transportation and an overwhelming number of them wrote train. The instructor found this very interesting considering the fact that few of them had ever been on a train. The students got to work on writing pieces that are all geographically located on trains. One scene is about a woman who, after being framed for a crime, boards a train and unknowingly sits next to a detective who is off the job. The detective debates whether or not she should say something to her. Another scene features an employee (who works on a train) faced with a moral dilemma after finding out toxic chemicals have been dumped into a lake. Both characters are confronted with ethical questions – something these teenagers are all too familiar with after living through a pandemic the last few years.

“One of the reasons the pandemic has been hardest on them [teenagers] than other age groups is that adults have had disappointments before, we [adults] have resources. They don’t have that background,” Ellen says. “When I asked last year ‘What do you think that you’ve learned from the pandemic?’ A couple of them said that if you had told them what would happen two years ago they wouldn’t have believed they could get through it. But they did.”

If deemed safe to do so, ASL’s performance will take place on January 21 on the MTYP Mainstage at The Forks. Otherwise, the show will be moved online so it can be streamed for friends and family. “We went into this [ASL session this season] knowing we may have to pivot,” Ellen says. The show also features choreography by Matt Armet and piano accompaniment by Michael Cutler. Stay tuned for information on how the show will be delivered! Until then, know that while they are, as Ellen has observed, “bursting at the seams with creativity, anger, and hope,” that these artistic teens will, in fact, be all right.