Debra McLauchlan’s final paper a touching tribute to a remarkable career

It was a free trip to a major theatrical production, so Debra McLauchlan figured ‘why not.’ She was a high school student at the time, and a troublesome one at that.

Sitting near the back of the auditorium, the teenaged McLauchlan figured she would put on her own ‘performance’ that night.

“I became a persistent thorn in the side of my teachers, two of whom threatened me with expulsion,” McLauchlan recalled. “I purposely surrounded myself with classmates who could be counted on to misbehave.”

But something happened that night as she watched a performance of Fiddler on the Roof.

“The lights went down, and an enormous curtain opened on a translucent scrim, and gradually emerged a purplish brush of sky, and a starkly peaked roof with a ragged fiddler perched on top.

“He began to play, and I lost my capacity to speak, to move and at times, to breathe. Throughout the performance, I sat riveted and unaware of my surroundings.”

McLauchlan was silent on the bus trip home. She didn’t sleep that night. Her mind was racing. She knew, in that moment, that her life’s path had just been altered.

“I was going to be somehow involved in theatre for the rest of my life,” she wrote.

McLauchlan’s recollection of that life-changing trip to the theatre was recently published as part of her final article “Playlinks: a theatre for young audiences artist-in-the-classroom project.”

McLauchlan, a Professor in Brock’s Faculty of Education passed away suddenly on Oct. 31, 2016. Her article, summarizing a study on theatre-based education in elementary school classrooms, was published in the March issue of Pedagogies: An International Journal.

McLauchlan’s article, which she submitted in the weeks leading up to her death, is printed alongside those of her Faculty of Education colleagues Jennifer Rowsell, Shelley Griffin, Peter Vietgen and Kari-Lynn Winters as part of a special edition focusing on Community Art Zone, an SSHRC-funded international research project lead by Rowsell, Canada Research Chair in Multiliteracies.

There are nine articles in the special edition of Pedagogies focusing on the CAZ project, but McLauchlan’s stands out, reading like an autobiography as she summarizes what led her into a remarkable career dedicated to teaching the arts.

“To enhance transparency of my perspective as a researcher in the present study, I hereby reveal aspects of my personal and professional life,” she wrote, before discussing her underprivileged childhood and feeling disconnected from her early schooling. “The power of theatre to deeply touch young people resonates with my personal history.”

After graduating from university, McLauchlan spent nearly two decades teaching in elementary and secondary schools, directing more than 60 student productions.

“I learned that students were hungry and eager to participate in activities that allowed them to explore and communicate ideas through an artistic medium,” she wrote.

McLauchlan was first hired by Brock University’s Faculty of Education as a sessional instructor in 1996 and became an assistant professor in 2000. Throughout her career, she worked alongside community partners such as the Carousel Players, Shaw Festival, Theatre Ontario and St. Catharines Museum.

Though she had many articles published over the years, it somehow seems appropriate that her final piece appears alongside the work of her Faculty of Education colleagues.

“It was the little things that Debra did to mentor us as colleagues,” said Vietgen, who co-authored an article with Rowsell in the Pedagogies edition. “It’s a privilege to be in a journal that she’s part of. It was an honour to call her a colleague and a mentor.”

“The arts team is a close-knit group of committed art educators that work in Teacher Education,” said Griffin, who also wrote an article on music in the classroom for the special issue. “Drama in education was really her craft. Her students looked up to her as a leader not only in the Niagara region, but also nationally and internationally.”

The full special Community Art Zone edition of Pedagogies: An International Journal featuring McLauchlan’s article can be found online.

A touching tribute to McLauchlan written by her former colleagues and students was also published in the March edition of Youth Theatre Journal.

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