Clem Martini: Healing Through the Arts

Words: Barry Strader

When playwright, author and University of Calgary professor Clem Martini sits at his keyboard, before he starts to type, he always asks himself one question: What have I got to say?

It turns out, quite a lot. Martini has written over 30 plays and 10 books of fiction and nonfiction. And when he writes, he takes on issues most others wouldn’t. Issues like sexual offences among young people and mental illness.

“I write plays, in part, to raise awareness,” said Martini. “Make people think about things, make them understand character differently.”

Martini’s body of work, and work with at-risk youth at Calgary’s Woods Homes, earned him the 2016 ATB Financial Healing Through the Arts award at Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s Lunch for Arts Champions.

“It felt great,” said Martini of the award. “You always appreciate knowing that the people you work with think highly of your work. I have a good relationship with Woods Homes. I’ve sustained that relationship over decades. It’s nice to see that the impact of that work gets some recognition.”

For 20 years, Martini conducted a drama program with young people who were at risk or who had already committed sex offences. The teens were tasked with writing and performing a play based on their own experiences. Martini would direct.

“Kids are quite resistant to most therapy. They don’t want it,” said Martini. “But drama kind of comes at them sideways. They don’t know what to do with it. It’s a mystery. Then they have to trust one another to put on a play. They have to empathize because they have to take on a character. They have to be responsible. They have to form a team. These are things they’re not great at. They come out of it with all these skills and there’s this transformation happening.”

Martini’s favourite part of the program was when parents came to see their teens perform.

“They’d go, is that really my kid?” Martini said. “They’re remembering lines. They’re collecting applause. They’re executing a part. They seem capable, confident. And they suddenly had something else to talk about and the kids have something else to demonstrate. And they’ve gone through an experience where they actually had peers. They had friends. It started a whole new conversation with those parents. It was great.”

Martini often leans on his experiences at Woods homes in his works.

“When I was at Woods, one thing I was always confronted with is how uninformed people were in our country about how troubled the circumstances were for many kids and the kind of journey they took to being in trouble with the law,” said Martini. “How will they know unless there is something done to inform them?”

Martini is hoping his Healing Through the Arts award will even further raise awareness to the issues he writes about.

“I’m very grateful to ATB. It was a fabulous award to receive,” said Martini. “That the award exists at all is great. The Mayor’s Luncheon is such a wonderful platform and such a rich opportunity to share all the things that are going on in the city.”

June 3rd, 2016

University of Calgary professor recognized for work with and about at-risk youth.

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