“We have a new generation of performers at the theatre, therefore we are reaching out to a new generation of audience,” said Jeannine Dupuy, daughter of the show’s dynamic founder, Diane Dupuy.
The FPP’s educational co-ordinator, Jeannine works alongside her sister Joanne, the company’s artistic director, and their mother, who is back with the company in the role of “visionary.” But only Jeannine visits schools.
The education initiative began last October when Jeannine launched a free outreach program with the Toronto Catholic District School Board. Called Bringing Light to Youth, the interactive program for elementary and high schools presents inspirational lessons and promotes retreat programs.
During one-hour school presentations Jeannine discusses the history of the Famous PEOPLE Players — which features people with intellectual and physical disabilities in its dining room and live shows — as she imparts lessons on anti-bullying and respect for those with intellectual challenges.
“I’ve spoken at about 20 schools so far,” Jeannine said. “I do a team-building exercise with a couple of life-size puppets, which some of the students interact with, although not in blacklight.”
Dupuy also shows two videos: Blacklight Dreams, which aired on A&E to mark Famous People Players’ 25th anniversary, and an episode of the Rick Mercer Report, which profiles the new generation of the Famous PEOPLE Players.
Schools are then invited to experience a retreat at the FPP theatre in Etobicoke, Ont. They can sign up for the educational program ($13.99 per student) or the spiritual program ($29.99). The educational program features prayers, a musical blacklight puppet show and a blacklight workshop in which students can interact with the performers and puppets.
The spiritual program has the same activities, plus a pizza and ice cream lunch and a motivational talk by Diane Dupuy, who also reads from her book The Teacher and The Soul.
The author of several books, Diane says the spiritual retreat is based on her book. Published in 2006 (and endorsed by Jean Vanier), The Teacher and The Soul is about the power of prayer and meditation. With younger students, the focus is on their guardian angel. With high school students the focus is on making the right choices in life.
“My book is about a baby growing into manhood with his angel who guides him up a magical mountain to find his dream,” said Diane, an Order of Canada recipient. “As a teen he is tempted by a pack of beautiful coyotes that are running freely and he wants to be just like them. His angel advises him not to follow them but he doesn’t listen, and then he joins the pack, ultimately falling off a cliff into the world of addiction. Thus his real journey begins.”
The values represented in The Teacher and The Soul also run through Jeanine’s presentation.
“I teach the importance of self-respect, kindness, faith and gratitude, which are the heart and soul of Diane’s book,” Jeanine said. “When I speak with the students about when my mom got her ‘sign,’ her calling for her work, I explain that she prayed a lot for that.”
Josephine Corsi, principal at St. Dorothy Elementary School, believes the values demonstrated by Famous PEOPLE Players provide fundamental lessons for students.
“It’s an important cultural experience and, as I see it, the Famous PEOPLE Players has a relevant message which needs to be shared — whatever your difficulties are, you can overcome them,” she said.
Vincent Sacchetti, a teacher with the Multiple Exceptionality Developmentally Delayed (MEDD) program at St. Thomas Aquinas School, experienced the educational program with his class.
“It’s a really positive way for them to explore their emotions,” he said. “During the show, when the performers came out into the crowd, that’s something the kids continued to talk about for days afterwards. I’m thinking of creating puppets with my class to explore the different characters they want to see, with their own ideas, based on what they saw.”
The Dupuy family’s faith stems from Jeannine’s 99-year-old grandmother Mary, who is a recipient of the Queen’s Jubilee Medal. For decades Mary was the FPP’s costume designer and prop-maker. She started creating puppets when Diane was a child to help her daughter overcome learning and social difficulties.
Diane found comfort in the puppets and, with her mother’s encouragement, put on puppet shows around the neighbourhood. These led to summer stints at the Canadian National Exhibition and eventually (with celebrity encouragement from Liberace and other stars) the show travelled to Las Vegas and Broadway.
Diane said that as a child she was bullied in school because she was “different.” It was a Loretto sister who taught her the power of prayer and encouraged her to use her imagination.
“People like me, born with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), can’t sit still, blurt answers out loud, interrupt people when they are speaking and get excited very easily,” she said. “Well, for me, ADHD means Awesome Dreams with High Drama.”
Jeannine said that the FPP story used to be included in school textbooks that highlighted Diane’s life story and her accomplishments.
“My intention is to teach today’s students about the Famous PEOPLE Players and its positive contributions to society, and I’m really looking forward to continuing to visit more TCDSB schools in the 2015/16 season,” Jeannine said.
(Singer-D’Aprile is a freelance writer in Toronto.)