TSDC’s design aesthetic

As is true for so many of us during this time of COVID-19, the pandemic’s prescription to physically distance has compelled us at TSDC to shift our focus. This has involved letting go of all performance-related activities, launching a virtual storytelling exploration, and redirecting our energies into the production of an online workbook outlining key elements of the TSDC performance creation process. As part of our thinking about the workbook, we've engaged in a series of conversations about different aspects of TSDC's creative approach.
Melanie Skene
In this post, Melanie Skene (TSDC's set designer and production manager) traces a conversation between herself, Catherine (Graham), and Helene (Vosters) about TSDC's design aesthetics. Melanie, Catherine and Helene discuss various design elements and the considerations that inform them, of the four plays that participants have put on to-date: We Need To Talk, All of Us Together, When My Home is Your Business and Choose Your Destination.

Helene: The two of you have worked together through four projects. When you’re working together at what stage does the set design come in? Is it part of the conversation from the beginning?

Melanie: It’s not right at the beginning. We begin with the theatre exercises and see what comes out of them.

Catherine: We have a lot of conversations before we get to a decision about what’s needed, what’s working, or not working? For example, with the rocks [from We Need to Talk] we initially did a warm up exercise where participants were asked to imagine going up to a service provider and were invited to ‘Say what you’re expected to say,’ and then go back up and ‘Say what you’d really like to say, but that you wouldn’t say because you wouldn’t get the service if you said that.’ The participants had great fun doing that and a lot of really interesting things came up. We came back about two months later and said ‘We’d like to try working with that again’ — and it went absolutely flat — they were repeating something. But I depend on repetition to see what will come, what keeps floating up. So we’d done it quite a few times and one of the performers went up and just said “Please, please, please, Thank you, thank you, thank you”. I thought ‘yeah that’s exactly what’s happening, you just nailed it,’ and I remember you (Melanie) and I having a conversation about what we felt was missing and at some point saying ‘they need something — we need to see what they are carrying with them.’

“Rocks” from TSDC production We Need To Talk

M: The scene needed something physical to make visible what the women were dealing with because clearly what they were communicating was that the service providers weren’t getting it.

C: But our sense of that wasn’t really coming out of what they did in that exercise. It came out of what we talked about together after they did the exercise, what people were discussing was “look I’m already dealing with this, I’m already dealing with that.” And we often heard similar things over lunch or over snacks and the end of the workshop. The women kept coming back to the idea that service providers were not seeing the whole picture of their lives.

Artistic recycling 

H: One thing I really appreciate about the TSDC design aesthetic is how the sets read as affordable and therefore accessible. They communicate a message that you don’t need a lot of money or resources to be creatively expressive, to speak.

M: Yes and this is something that has underpinned a lot of my work; there is a certain degree of accessibility to it. A lot of it is made from…you know…garbage! I use materials such as paper bags and cardboard boxes that would otherwise go into the recycling bin. Well, it’s recycled in a different way.

C: It’s kind of artistic recycling, or upcycling.

H: I also think the do-it-yourself aesthetic of the set design is important. Again, it communicates that in order to put on this production, ‘you don’t need to go out and buy four doors and have a truck to haul them around.’ I’ve seen a lot of magnificent performances, but often they feel totally out of reach. Having a design aesthetic that conveys accessibility feels important to the TSDC’s larger mission or values. It’s in keeping with the project’s overarching messages that you can be part of this public discourse, you don’t need to have these really specialized vocabularies — you don’t need to be a member of city hall. Everybody should be able to participate in public discourse. For me the do-it-yourself material aesthetic fits in with that aspect of the project.

“Doors and elevator” from TSDC production When My Home Is Your Business

M: I don’t think our culture respects that enough. We tend to place our admiration on high-end, highly polished work, big budgets and high tech; we don’t see it but that usually requires highly specialized knowledge and skills.

It reminds me of an article “The Nature of Beauty in Contemporary Art by Suzi Gablik about the role of beauty in art. She explains how the ‘art market’ has been responsible for narrowly defining the aesthetic of art as one that is purely devoted to beauty while being divorced from any social context while art that is engaged with the world will necessarily be of lesser aesthetic quality. But for Gablik, artistic quality is actually intensified when art is created in response to the world or appeals to people to help create a better, kinder more compassionate world. Aesthetic quality is more about the intention behind artistic creation rather than the art objects themselves.

She wrote about this in the early 90’s and there certainly has been a lot of acceptance of socially conscious and community art since then. Of course, under capitalism, big box craft stores still want to you to buy new materials, and items perfectly made by corporate machinery, for your DIY art projects. It can be challenging for the average person to see how to make art by using what is already around them.

Most people don’t see the creative potential value in that piece of garbage and how it can be used to express something else, and something beautiful, other than what it is.

C: It also makes me think about what many artists and performances studies researchers have pointed out, performance allows us to see that it’s human labour that makes change happen. You don’t need some fancy technological solution; human labour can make this world change. They believe that an important ingredient of social change is for people to understand that through your actions you can change your environment; you don’t have to wait for somebody to change the environment for you.

You don’t have to have some super high level of technological skill. That said, I don’t want to underestimate the amount of knowledge and skill that you (Melanie) bring to designing TSDC’s sets. The tension between DIY accessibility and experience is something we’ve been thinking a lot about with TSDC.

It would probably be a mistake to say all you need to do is, ‘Get together a group of people who have never made theatre, have never thought about theater, and just do it!’ I don’t even want to say it’s a mistake but I mean having some experience makes it possible to work more effectively. It’s kind of like Diana Taylor’s ‘repertoire,’ we have a certain repertoire of things that we will happily pass on, but you can’t start at zero.

M: That’s true; my practice has definitely changed over the years, and what I create has definitely changed from when I started.

C: It’s not like every individual has to invent these techniques by themselves, they can be passed on.

M: Absolutely…there are people who have the knowledge I need and now I need to find them. Sharing of information is really important — we share about how to make theatre and it would be nice to share information about how we create sets and props.

H: That’s another thing that’s fascinating to me about the labour aesthetic, just because it takes work to make or do something, doesn’t mean that it’s not fun. Doing that work together when there’s meaning that underpins it builds relationships. The social world teaches us that work and life are separate.

Jennie, adding finishing touches on Emma’s door.

M: I find the work of making theatre sets and props for TSDC very meaningful, pulling from what is around me, being grounded by the materials, I also enjoy the responses of the participants to the sets and props that help them to tell their stories.

C: What you’re saying reminds me [of Richard Sennett’s book] The Craftsman. He argues that what marks something as a craft practice is when anyone from a surgeon to a carpenter takes pleasure in the work itself. The work is not simply a means to an end. There’s pleasure in the labour itself. And to go back to the other thing you said — no it’s not perfect, and the performances aren’t perfect, and the scripts aren’t perfect and they’re still extremely meaningful.

In fact, they are probably more meaningful than they would be if the labour with all its rough edges wasn’t visible, it conveys that people really want to tell this story and that you can tell a moving story based on the materials of your lived experience. And importantly, theatre allows you to do it without exposing your private life.

Works cited

Gablik. (1998). “The Nature of Beauty in Contemporary Art.” Renaissance Universal, Retrieved December 18, 2019.

What does the provision of honoraria to research participants do?

Welcome to 2020! One purpose of the Transforming Stories, Driving Change blog is for members of the research team to reflect on experiences within the project and to make visible some of the methods we engage, and the questions we grapple with. We're excited to launch this new year (and new decade) with a guest post from a member of our TSDC research team, Elysée Nouvet. We hope you’ll join the conversation either by responding to a specific post, by writing a guest post, or by suggesting topics and participating in conversations.

Elysée Nouvet is a medical anthropologist specialized in cultural dimensions of pain and humanitarian healthcare ethics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario, and also holds an appointment as Assistant professor (part-time) at McMaster. Dr. Nouvet has led and contributed to a number projects on contextual meanings and responses to suffering, as well as ‘beneficiary’ experiences of research and care. She holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from York (Toronto), and a Masters in Visual Anthropology from Goldsmiths College (U.K.).

Winter 2017. We are a couple of months into a series of theatre-based workshops with women with lived experiences of precarious housing. These workshops are part of the “Transforming Hamilton Stories” project (2016-17), a pilot project that layed the foundation for TSDC.

Our research team has just received an additional small grant from McMaster, the home institution of the academics on the project. With the budget a little plumper, the research team decides it makes sense to: (1) increase hours for the artist supporting set design and prop creation for the workshop; and, (2) give women participants in the workshops an honoraria after each workshop. Workshops are 3-hour intense sessions in which group members work towards developing a presentation that took as its point of departure participants’ lived experiences of precarious housing. Up to that point, the provision of lunch, coffee, and bus tickets was what our budget permitted, but now we introduce an honorarium of $50 per workshop per participant.

A few weeks later, the matter of the honoraria comes up in a meeting. Was this going ok, to get people to sign off in the workshop and receive a little envelope of cash? Did we have a sense of how the provision of honoraria was understood and experienced by the workshop participants? We did not.

I volunteer that I feel all is going well. I have done my best to appear casual in getting participants to sign off on receiving their honoraria. As I speak though, I start to feel uncomfortable. Many conversations in the workshops at that point had centered on the women participants’ experiences of feeling routinely belittled, judged, and objectified when they tried to access health, food, and housing resources in the city. I had worked to appear casual, I realized, in an attempt to ensure provision of honoraria not echo those prior negative transactions. I had worried the one-way direction of honoraria, from the research team to workshop participants, also might underline socio-economic differences between the research team and participants so explicitly that this might disrupt any feelings of solidarity built thus far. And what about the fact that the honoraria was given to each participant in front of their peers?

As I sat in the meeting, I realized I had no idea how the women had felt. Had receiving the honoraria felt uncomfortable in any way to any of them? If yes, why? If not, why not?

The discussion in that meeting was the beginning of an unexpected point of enquiry for our research team. It flagged how under-examined the provision of honoraria in research actually is. What exactly does money in the form of honoraria do in the context of research?

Canada’s Tri-Council Policy II (2018), the Canadian reference guidelines for the conduct of research involving humans, does not mention honoraria. It has little to say about incentives and reimbursement, in fact. Article 3.2j states that any payment must be clearly explained to participants as part of their consent process. Article 3.1 of this same document cautions that “[b]ecause incentives are used to encourage participation in a research project, they are an important consideration in assessing voluntariness.” The guidelines recognize the centrality of context in determining whether an incentive offered is appropriate, or an unethical form of “undue inducement”: something that may push individuals to sign on as research participants when really, they would rather not.

Providing money to participants in any amounts that exceed the most basic participation-related expenses (e.g. bus tickets and parking fees in the context of Canadian research) is regarded by many as risky business. The primary concern is that “rewards” of research that are too tempting to refuse will undermine the core pillar of ethical research: Modern research ethics arose after World War II, and in response to the use of concentration camp prisoners by Nazi scientists for cruel and often fatal experiments. The 1947 Nuremberg Code, a key reference point for research ethics today, was named for the international trials that resulted in the conviction of many of the scientists involved in those experiments. The Nuremberg Code outlines 10 principles or conditions that must exist for research with human participants to be considered ethical and legal. Voluntary consent of the participant is the first of these. Freedom to decide whether or not to participate in research, the right to exercise this decision without being coerced, and the right to do so informed of all risks, is embedded in this core principle. It is against the dark legacy of disregard for all humans’ to chose whether or not they are willing to participate in research, that any research practice that potentially limits the freedom of an individual to refuse participation is closely scrutinized.

A related concern is that research participation motivated by self-interest is somehow morally problematic. This has never sat well with me. For one, researchers are not devoid of self-interest or expectations of personal gain. Moreover, and very troubling, is the implication that participants expecting or seeking benefits from research are somehow morally flawed. I have come across in my work the related suggestion that giving too much to participants risks corrupting otherwise “good” individuals. The unstated premise here is that money inevitably corrupts the research relationship. In this argument, the research that must be protected from the corrupting influences of money is idealized as operating outside of the financial economies of its key players (researchers and participants). The bottom line being that money corrupts. Money and voluntarism produce a tension, and risk staining research and research participation where these are idealized as extra-personal activities for the public good.

The Transforming Stories project team had obtained research ethics board approval for the provision of honoraria. We, as researchers, had zero moral distress about providing honoraria. On the contrary. We felt if our budget allowed it, it could be unethical not to do so. All the research team members were on salary when giving our afternoons to a workshop. We had access to institutional power, social recognition, and economic security the participants did not. We certainly could not see any justification for not transferring some of our newly acquired budget cash infusion to participants whose presence in and contributions to the workshop were as essential to its success as our own.

But there was the crux of the matter. Taking an inverse position that in the research ethics policies that warned payments to participants in the context of research could cause harm (e.g. be coercive and impede voluntariness), our research team had assumed the provision of honoraria might do good. In reality, we did not know. Maybe the provision of honorarium, though only $50 for an afternoon, was coercive given many participants were living on very low incomes. Maybe the honoraria did not feel right or good to participants. Did participants view it as a wage, a gift, or what? Did the participants have clear ideas in their minds about why the honoraria was provided, and whether this practice was ethical or not? How did the practice of providing honoraria play into workshop participants’ thinking about their role in the research project, and their relationship to the research team?

Sara Ahmed’s (2012) idea of performative and unperformative acts might help us think about this problem. A performative act recreates as it remakes the world. Ahmed differentiates from such acts unperformative acts. These are acts that assume the appearance of action, movement, but do nothing to shift power imbalances. Where the axis of ethical research aims to uphold a goal of social justice, figuring out how specific research practices contribute to or undermine that goal in specific research contexts is crucial.

The matter of honoraria was only one of the unexpected issues that arose through the work of this research group. We ended up conducting 10 interviews with participants in that first workshop. We asked them essentially: “What did the money [honoraria provided after workshops] mean to you?” We look forward to sharing some responses with you in an upcoming blog.

Works cited:

Ahmed, Sara (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans, December 2018.

Wertheimer A, Miller F. G. (2008). “Payment for research participation: a coercive offer?” Journal of Medical Ethics 2008;34:389–392. 

Sustaining Connections

Lately, we’ve been thinking a lot about how we maintain and nurture the amazing connections and relationships that have been forged through TSDC’s performance creation workshops, performances, and performance exchanges. One way this exploration has been taking place is through a series of monthly Sustaining Connections gatherings this fall. In August we sent an invitation to everyone who had performed in a TSDC play over the last 5 years “to come share some food, chat, and play a few theatre games.” We let folks know that we are currently not in a position to consider new performances or re-mounting performances we’ve already done, but that we wanted to explore how people might want to stay connected to the project. With no promises, just an invitation to gather, eat and explore together, we weren’t sure what to expect.

Within hours, RSVPs affirming participants’ desire to attend began rolling in. Good Shepherd generously offered to provide food and a space to gather. At our first meeting we collectively decided that we would meet monthly through fall, and open the group to invited guests. For our September meeting, we invited everyone to bring an object and consider the following prompt as preparation to share in a story circle:

Imagine what Hamilton might be like ten years from now if it were to become a much better city. What do you imagine life would be like in that much better Hamilton for people with experiences like yours?  Please bring an object that will help you tell a 1-3 minute story about something a person with experiences like yours might do in a much better Hamilton 10 years from now. How would life be different for them?

We held two storycircles and closed the evening with a group response round of,
these are stories of people who… 

At our November gathering two performers from We Need To Talk! took a moment to reacquaint themselves with the props from their performance (the beautiful paper maché rocks made by Melanie Skene, TSDC’s production coordinator and set designer).

…and, we explored zine-making — a daring new venture for many/most of us! (Thanks to Melanie Skene and Jennie Vengris for showing us the ropes.)

zine-making

zine pages

We concluded our fall gatherings with a December potluck that was as rich with offerings of spirit and conversation as it was with food!

…and made plans to reconvene in the new year!

TSDC Storycircles (part III)

The value of creating a fictional world

“The beauty of creating a fictional world is that we can, just for the purpose of the fictional world eliminate all these constraints that actually exist out there in the everyday world, which I think has the advantage of allowing us to focus in on, “what would we actually like it to be like?”
— Catherine Graham, TSDC Principal Investigator

In this concluding section of our 3-part storycircle blog series Catherine continues where she left off in her discussion of the distinction between documentation and meaning-making in the TSDC storycircles and performances. 

C: In the storycircle some documentation will happen, and by documentation I mean sharing information about the mechanics of how different problems play out in the community. This is always an important part of telling a story. But what we’re really looking for in the storycircle is how things are meaningful to people, not necessarily what happened to them, or what they would like to have happen, but why is it meaningful to you that, for example, you would like to have a forever home? What does that mean to you, why did you choose to tell us about that?

I think a misconception many people have when we first talk about TSDC is that we’re going out into their community to talk to people about how they’re experiencing something like gentrification and we’re going to document that experience. But I think the reason that these performances are so moving to people is because they’re not just about documenting that this percentage of the population is at risk of losing their housing, and this is what kind of problems happen when the elevator doesn’t work, and people are living in fear of eviction, and that’s causing health problems… All that is in there, but I don’t think that’s why these performances are making people sit up and take notice. It’s because we’re showing how the people living in this situation attribute meaning to the situation they’re in, and to the situation they would hope to be in. I think it’s a combination of desire and meaning.

Another interesting thing that can come out of storycircles is a recognition that not everyone wants what you want. Sometimes I think even the misrecognition that can come out in the answers to “this is a story about” is valuable because it allows someone to say “umm?….” If someone says, “This is a person who is so generous and gives everything to her community,” someone else can say, through their response, “Well I don’t think that’s really what that story is about, and that’s not really what I want that story to be about.”

The beauty of creating a fictional world is that we can, just for the purpose of the fictional world, eliminate all these constraints that actually exist out there in the everyday world, which I think has the advantage of allowing us to focus in on, “what would we actually like it to be like?”… and maybe to recognize that we actually don’t agree, we don’t all want the same thing here. Working to create fictional worlds together, people quickly realize that the world is richer when we build it up from different points of view, different desires, and multiple complex reactions to what is going on….

That’s why it feels so important that, the very first time we get together in the storycircle, everybody gets heard and everybody gets told that what they said was meaningful, and yet, there is no authoritative meaning imposed. There is no moment of discussion about whether you got it or not, whatever you got is what needs to be gotten from your point of view. It’s one of the things I love about the idea of the circle, we’re all exactly where we should be, seeing exactly what we should see from that position.

TSDC Storycircles (part II)

A Poetic, Meaning-Making Public

I really like that quote from Walter Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” where he talks about how the storyteller is offering wisdom, or “counsel woven into the fabric of real life,”[1] as opposed to information. Wisdom is about is what makes life meaningful.
— Catherine Graham, TSDC Principal Investigator

In this second section of our 3-part storycircle blog series we discuss the ways storycircles foster collective and poetic meaning-making. 

H: As an opening exercise storycircles have a way of bringing a group together as a kind of meaning-making “public.”

C: I remember many, many years ago when I first started working with the responses, being struck by how the meaning of a story, as well as the cohesion of the group, developed through sharing responses as much as through the telling of the stories themselves. Michael Warner’s work helped me understand what might be happening here. Warner tells us that there is a kind of public that comes to see itself as “we” by telling and responding to particular stories in particular ways. We become part of this public not because of who we are, but because of what we do: we talk about the same things, we talk about them in particular ways, and we come to recognize each other as part of the group that will help these stories circulate to create social meaning, perhaps even demanding action by authority figures in response to that meaning.

As Warner puts it, “a public is constituted by mere attention.”[2]Attention is, of course, a very valuable commodity in a busy world and we see this in the reactions in our storycircle. Participants often find the process of telling stories, listening attentively, and hearing others responses to their stories, leads to a profoundly moving experience. I think a part of the reason for the depth of response is that the process offers an experience of building a public together early in the performance creation workshop process.

H: In the TSDC storycircle there’s a clear distinction between listening, as in paying attention, and the more habitual ways we sometimes perform listening — like interjecting, asking questions, or relating our own experiences back.

C: … which is interesting in the way the storycircle structures time. The storycircle structure creates different moments in which to do different things, which means you can really concentrate on one thing at a time: you will need to demonstrate that you have paid attention, but not right now. Your role as a listener in the storycircle is just to pay attention and really try to take in what this person is telling you — and there will be another moment when you will demonstrate that the story has been heard by sharing your response to it.

And the form of the response is deliberately constructed. Starting with the question, “what colour is this story?” undermines any notion of an authoritative assessment of what the story means. That was the reason why I put the colour question in, because nobody thinks there is a favorite colour that should be everybody’s favorite colour so without giving people a lecture about how there is no right answer, you just performatively demonstrate that it’s possible to respond to something out of your own feeling about it and to own, “this is my feeling about it.”

H: And exiting that authoritative model allows people to enter into a really different kind of creative and imaginative model.

C: It makes us pay attention to how we make meaning, but also, right from the beginning, it performatively says, everybody will be listened to, everybody’s perspective is important to us, everybody has a right to have an opinion. It’s not just the content of what happens that’s important, it’s the performative learning to be together and to value everyone and to try to honestly respond, but at the same time to try to understand how we’re making meaning together.

One person can say, “This is the story of a person who is really suffering” and someone else can say, “This is a person who is really courageous” and both those things can be true, as we go around the circle we’re getting a fuller picture of what this story might mean. Or sometimes we’re re-enforcing something, for instance if everyone goes around the room and says this is a story of someone who is really courageous and we start to read the story of a single mother who is struggling to raise kids on OW (Ontario Works, a form of social assistance) as a story of courage, not as the story of failure it is often portrayed as in the wider world.

H: People seem to feel, not just heard, but like there’s like there’s a gift being given back, there’s this reciprocity.

C: … that’s an interesting way to think about it.

H: … because the responses aren’t saying, “let me tell you verbatim what you just said’, or ‘let me prove to you that I was listening…”

C: … yes, it’s not a test.

H: … through the responses, a person’s story becomes richer, more layered.

C: Sometimes I hear things in people’s response to my story that help me to recognize an importance in what I experienced — to me that was just something that happened — but the responses help me see that it’s meaningful. That’s something I think we need to talk about in relation to the storycircles, is the difference between documenting what happened and showing what it means to us that that happened.

to be continued…

[1] Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.”Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn; ed. & intro. Hannah Arendt. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968: 86-87.
[2] Warner, Michael. “Publics and Counterpublics.” Public Culture 14(1): 49-90

TSDC Storycircles (part I)

Our in the workshops… blog posts are designed to provide readers with a behind-the-scenes glimpse into TSDC’s performance creation process. In this three-part series, Catherine (Graham) and I (Helene Vosters) discuss storycircles. To get us started, we begin with a brief description of what happens in a TSDC storycircle, followed by part one of our conversation focused on how the storycircle structure is ritualized to invite participants into a collective creative process.

What a TSDC storycircle looks like

 The storycircle begins prior to the first workshop when we send participants this prompt:

Imagine what Hamilton might be like ten years from now if it were to become a much better city. What do you imagine life would be like in that much better Hamilton for people with experiences like yours? Please bring an object that will help you tell a 1-3 minute story about something a person with experiences like yours might do in a much better Hamilton 10 years from now. How would life be different for them?

At the first TSDC workshop gathering, after checking in and sharing food (something we do at all TSDC workshops), the group sits in a circle. At the centre is a small cloth-covered table for everyone to place their object on. The facilitator (usually Catherine or Melanie Skene) briefly explains the process and then models it by picking up her object and telling a story based on the prompt. Throughout the storycircle, only the person holding the object speaks. Everyone else is asked to listen, and after the speaker completes the story everyone else in the circle has the opportunity to respond.

After each story, each listener is invited to hold the storyteller’s object. The object is passed around the circle until everyone, including the storyteller, who goes last, has a chance to respond to the following questions.

What colour is this story?
What emotion do you associate with this story?
Complete the sentence: “This is the story of the person who…”

Once each person’s story has been shared and responded to, the group brainstorms responses to the fill-in-the-blank sentence, “These are stories of people who _________ in a city where ____________.” The sentence and responses are written on a whiteboard or a large sheet of paper and become the foundation for a post-storycircle discussion exploring the questions: “What do the statements on the whiteboard tell us about the kinds of stories we want to tell and the kind of city we want to live in?”

Storycircles: Time-outside-of-time

I like to have a low table with a cloth over it, which makes almost an altar for the storycircle objects… because I think an altar says, “These things are important.” And isn’t that what the sacred is? It’s that which deserves our attention.
— Catherine Graham, TSDC Principal Investigator

H: While storytelling circles are practiced in many communities, you’ve developed a way of working with them that includes a prompt, an object, and a feedback structure that make the circles feel kind of ritualized.

C: I deliberately developed storycircles in a ritualized way in the sense that performance studies understands ritual,[1] not necessarily in the sense that religious studies understands ritual…

H: …ritual as in creating a space outside of the day-to-day?

C: Creating a space outside of everyday time strikes me as important, which is kind of interesting in terms of theatre because I also think that that’s what stages or performance areas do. They create a space-time that is out of everyday space-time in which you can explore possibilities that might get ruled out in everyday existence. A basic rule of theatre is that what happens on stage won’t have immediate effects in the world of the audience. One of the most obvious examples of this is that, if we see someone pull a knife on stage, we react very differently than we would if we saw someone pull a knife in the lobby.

So in the ritual, participants are working in this time-outside-of-time, but the material object links it to their everyday life in some way. Particularly with the TSDC project, this strikes me as important. You don’t have to invent a new world out of whole cloth — there are things in your life, in your world, in the stories that you tell that could be the material for building this new world, for building this new vision.

H: Another element of how you facilitate storycircles is by using a prompt. Rather than an open invitation to share whatever comes to mind in the moment, or asking them about past experiences, the prompt asks participants to tell a future-focused “story.”

C: It’s a way of saying, “We are now entering creative space.” I think that’s something that’s quite particular about what we’ve done with TSDC. People often assume that because we are working with people who have lived experience of the situations we are staging, they will simply act out a replica of what they have experienced. With TSDC we very deliberately said, we’re not going to do that. We want to focus on what people want to happen, not on what has happened.

One of the reasons for our emphasis on future goals is that when we first heard from participants during the recruiting process, they kept saying over and over, “you need to realize how painful it is for us to tell stories of the bad things that have happened to us.” So that’s why the TSDC storycircle prompt is important to our project: we want to be clear that we are not just asking about their experience of a particular situation, or their proposed solutions to a particular problem, we are asking about the kind of world they imagine creating together.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I’ve been thinking about the relationship of desire and subjectivity. Can you be a social subject in the world without being encouraged or allowed to articulate desire? It does strike me that it’s hard to see yourself as a subject, as someone who can act on the world, if you are never invited to think about what you want the world to look like.

to be continued…

[1] See Schechner, Richard. Chapter 3 “Ritual” in Performance Studies: An Introduction (second edition) Routledge: New York, 2006.

Dreaming spaces of comfort and warmth, learning and growth

The youth discussed wanting to see places that they frequented, like malls and art galleries, being refitted with resources for youth who need them. This reimagining of existing spaces illuminated the potential that they saw.

Sarah Adjekum

Sarah Adjekum is a social worker, PhD student in the Health and Society program at McMaster University and a research assistant with Transforming Stories, Driving Change. She is a longtime Hamilton resident who has been involved with community organizing on various issues including issues of racial discrimination. Her passions include social inequality, spatial justice, poetry and sketching. In this contribution to the TSDC blog Sarah reflects on her experience as part of the TSDC performance creation workshop team working with youth from Good Shepherd Youth Services. 

Working with Transforming Stories, Driving Change’s youth cohort on their production Choose Your Destination provided an opportunity to examine the relationship between youth and the cities they live in. In order to study cities, it is often easy to examine the environment. What kinds of neighbourhoods is the city comprised of? What forms does the built environment take? And what kinds of policies make these possible?

Transforming Stories Driving Change sought a different approach. They work with residents directly to hear their stories and create spaces for them to unfold. Good Shepherd Youth Services connected us with four youth who were eager to share their stories and their knowledge of what life in Hamilton is like for youth in circumstances similar to theirs. Our participants shared their experiences through words, and through movements, and reflections. Every story has represented a small glimpse of each individual, and their role in their community. These roles have included their occupations, their interests, their relationships and their aspirations for the communities they identify themselves as being a part of.

Many of the youth described themselves as precariously housed. While many associate housing with a place of belonging, the youth discussed belonging through other means as well. Relationships with friends and family, favourite places to hang out, and the homes they hoped to live in all represented how they identified the city as a part of them.

These reflections are valuable for researchers and community members alike. They remind us that cities don’t simply exist external to us. Nor are they spaces that we simply reside in. Phenomenological research examines how the world is experienced by people and draws on their reactions, perceptions, and experiences as sources of data. As a research method, it works well with examining the lived experiences of people in specific places and spaces. It has also been used by researchers in theatre who study human experience by looking at distilled movements and speech on stage. The work of phenomenological researchers recognizes that the spaces we inhabit and our selves interact. By examining how participants see themselves, we can also examine how they embody the qualities of their environment. Further, we can use their experiences to distill a clearer image of what the city is like. Theatre based research is uniquely capable of capturing these embodied experiences as participant stories are performed on the stage.

As ‘hope’ was a feeling discussed frequently by TSDC’s youth participants, it suggests that Hamilton is a city with room for growth. The youth discussed wanting to see places that they frequented, like malls and art galleries, being refitted with resources for youth who need them. This reimagining of existing spaces illuminated the potential that they saw. For example, they discussed having spaces in art galleries on James Street to experiment with art. The ‘dream scene’, a powerful image of hope, emphasized comfort, warmth and stability. That familiar image of being nestled around a television conveyed their hope for a city that can change to adapt to the needs identified by some of its most vulnerable.

“Dreaming” Sketch by Sarah Adjekum

The title, Choose Your Destination, had many meanings to all of us involved in the project. But among them was the idea that as people navigate the everyday hustle and bustle of the city, they are employing agency. That agency can be constrained by the city and the barriers that it imposes, but it can also shape the city itself, how it is viewed and how it is experienced. For me, Choose Your Destination has a more literal meaning. It is an invitation to think about the kinds of spaces we create and to think carefully about the impact on the young lives forming here. It is an invitation to build spaces centered around comfort and warmth, learning and growth. It is an invitation to build spaces that can turn into meaningful places for everyone.

What we’ve been up to lately

Our blog has been on a bit of a hiatus since this spring’s stunning performance of Choose Your Destination, a Transforming Stories, Driving Change (TSDC) production created with and performed by youth connected to Good Shepherd Youth Services. Despite the blog-break, members of the TSDC research team have been busy. We are currently in the process of gathering and organizing materials that came out of the performance. Sarah Adjekum has conducted interviews with Choose Your Destination’s youth participant-performers about their experience creating and performing the play. We are also seeking reflections from those who saw the play. In case you were in the audience and our email invitation hasn’t reached you, here’s the gist of the invitation:

Members of the TSDC research team would really appreciate the chance to learn more about how you perceived and experienced the play, your reflections following it, and what you took away from it. We invite you to share your views in one of these three ways:

  • by completing an online survey (approximately 20 minutes): available till July 31
  • through an individual phone or skype interview (30 minute): Please contact Helene Vosters at vostersh@mcmaster.ca to arrange date and time between June 25 and July 31
  • by participating a focus group discussion (approximately 1 hour): Please contact Helene Vosters at vostersh@mcmaster.ca for date and time between June 25 and July 31

“The world’s a stage — for all”

The TSDC team has also been taking advantage of our post-production time to reflect on our experiences and to share some of our gleanings with an interdisciplinary range of scholars: In “The world’s a stage—for all,” an article by Sara Laux written for McMaster University’s “Brighter World” research website, Chris and Catherine discuss how the TSDC project’s interdisciplinary approach “uses the collaborative creation of a play to amplify the voices of people in Hamilton often marginalized in public debate.”

Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from the article:

From Chris:

“One of the things that’s striking to me about the work is how it plays with questions of standpoint or perspective […] There are many different ways that the performance opens up a new way of seeing or knowing, or disrupts an established way of seeing or knowing.”

… and Catherine:

“In this age of populism, when too many media and political figures try to exploit the dissatisfaction of people who are feeling unheard, it is crucially important to create forums where marginalized voices can take their rightful place in public discussion […] We are working to create events where people from different social locations can speak to, not for or at, each other, and where nobody feels like they’ve been written out of the discussion before it even starts.”

“Between Performance & the Health/Social Sciences Seminar”

Four members of the TSDC research team also took part in a seminar hosted by the Canadian Association for Theatre Research as part of Congress 2019 at the University of British Columbia. Catherine co-organized the seminar (together with Julia Gray of the Bloorview Research Institute, University of Toronto), and Chris, Adam, and I (Helene) participated by sharing draft papers and engaging in pre-conference online discussions and as well as discussion at the conference.

The seminar invited papers that considered the various ways performance-based scholars and practitioners engage beyond our disciplinary borders with the health and social sciences. To give you a sense of what the TSDC research team brought the discussion (and, as always, please consider this an invitation to join the conversation!) below are brief excerpts from our (draft) papers and/or abstracts.

“Institutional ethics and performance-as-research: Toward relational accountability” — J. Adam Perry

In this article I argue that there is a bias toward status-quo forms of knowledge production in the name of institutional ethics that can both influence and destabilize possibilities for knowledge co-production in performative research. The traditional bioethical model from which current Research Ethics Boards (REBs) have sprung tends to characterize research participants as disembodied and autonomous selves, thus privileging privacy and individualism at the expense of community.  These ethical assumptions are anathema to a performative approach to qualitative research that prioritizes the importance of belonging to and shared identification within a given community. In light of this contradiction, I make the case for an ethics of mutual recognition that disrupts the myth of a socially and culturally dis-embedded research subject. Such an ethics of mutual recognition would shift the moral point of view away from the protection of individual sovereignty and toward respect for a socially and narratively constructed self.

“Of billiard balls, flagpoles, and stones dropped in water: ‘Making a difference’ between performance and social science” — Chris Sinding

Transforming Stories, Driving Change uses performance to explore, and then show, patterns of exclusion experienced by particular communities in our city, and to present their desires and visions for a better world. Over the past two years community self-advocates, educators, social service workers and artists have come together to create stories and make theatre about living in inhospitable and precarious housing, dealing with the narrow mandates and inflexibility of social services, and navigating life under surveillance and threat.

In this presentation I (Chris) share my grappling (as some kind of social scientist) with the questions, what do these plays do in the world, and (how) can we know what they do? I review hopes and claims in the social work literature about ‘what art does’ (for service users, learners, researchers, teachers, practitioners, advocates, communities…) and describe my efforts to chart more thorough and expansive approaches to exploring the effects of arts-informed social science projects. Reflecting on TSDC, I describe how conversations with performance scholars, social work colleagues and community partners – and specifically, their metaphors for what we and the plays are and could or should be doing – helped reveal to me my own commitments and assumptions about change-making.

“‘In My World’: Metaphor, embodiment, and efficiencies in performance-based cross-sector collaborations” — Helene Vosters

Transforming Stories, Driving Change (TSDC) is an interdisciplinary project that uses performance to explore, and then show, how social exclusion affects particular communities in Hamilton, and how these communities are responding. The project brings together what Jan Cohen-Cruz calls “uncommon partners” (educators, theatre makers, arts and social science scholars, community self-advocates and social service workers)—individuals and communities who engage vocabularies particular to their unique disciplines and social locations. Catherine Graham (School of the Arts) and Chris Sinding (School of Social Work) are co-Principal Investigators on TSDC. In their conversations about the project Chris found herself prefacing her responses to some of Catherine’s ideas or analyses with, ‘in my world…’. Catherine drew attention to the phrase and it has since become a tool and a resource in the project. This paper is an exploration of the potential value of using ‘in my world’ as a conceptual framework for making processes of translation visible.

As a postdoctoral fellow with TSDC I have been struck by how drawing attention to phrase “in my world” foregrounds the presumption of what performance studies scholar Diana Taylor refers to as the (un)translatability of terms across various disciplinary, methodological, social, cultural and geopolitical locations. When communicating in coalitions of uncommon partners, how might parenthesizing our contributions with the phrase “in my world” help to bring out the productive potential of sites and moments of untranslatability as conduits for extending meaning-making across silo-ed academic disciplines and approaches, and social, geo-political, and cultural locations?

Promising privacy—while performing publicly

As a community partnership research project, a goal of Transforming Stories, Driving Change is to explore how performance can help us understand our world and collectively imagine ways it might be different. This blog is our way of extending this collective imagining to you. With it we reflect on experiences within the project and to make visible some of the methods we engage, and the questions we grapple with.

At a recent presentation to the McMaster Research Ethics Board (MREB), Chris Sinding, Catherine Graham, and I (Helene Vosters) had an opportunity to speak about some of the particular ethical concerns performance-based researchers grapple with and the methodological approaches we use to address them. One of the key ethical questions we grapple with at Transforming Stories is the issue of publicness. In Canada, the federal Tri-Council Policy Statement of Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans has developed policies that govern the protection of individual research participants’ privacy and autonomy, including most importantly guidelines concerning informed consent and confidentiality. Institutional-level review boards, whose mandate is to review the ethics all university-based research projects involving human participants, ensure these policies are applied in all research conducted at their university. The ethics of a public-oriented and participative approach to research that performance-based research projects like Transforming Stories espouse can be difficult for these boards to evaluate.

Simply put, is it possible, or even desirable, to protect people’s identities when the purpose of the research is to find effective ways for people to engage in public speech?

In text-based research projects, “protecting” the anonymity of community-based research participants is a relatively straightforward task. With arts-based research, on the other hand, the identity of the participant/creator cannot always be completely hidden, since the source of the knowledge and the vehicle for disseminating it through performance are one and the same. In other words, when participants perform, they are visible—this is the nature of performance. In fact, this is also highly desirable to many of our community partners and participants.

How then, do performance-based research project protect participants from invasions into their privacy? Are there ways that the public identity of research participants can be known without intruding on their private lives?

At Transforming Stories we recognize that different stages of the performance creation process demand different levels of confidentiality. For example, the workshop process is open only to participants and members of the research team. It is a collective space, but it is not a public space. The workshops are a place to try things and then collectively decide what will become public.

In contrast with the workshop as a private space, at Transforming Stories performances members of the public are invited to connect with the creators of the artistic works and will know something about their identities. Measures are taken, however, to direct audiences attention so that they do not intrude into the participants’ private lives.

At performances, we use a number of aesthetic tools to frame the presentation as being a public expression of opinion and experiential community-based knowledge—not personal stories.

  • Prior to the performance, the audience is told that the performers are playing fictional characters and that the stories are not only about their own lives, but about things they have observed;
  • Plays frequently begin with performers introducing themselves and their characters, with emphasis on describing the kind of lives their characters have; Transforming Stories facilitators suggest to performers that they may answer post-performance questions by starting with “I think my character would….” rather than answering in their own name;
  • Participants are invited to create characters that include some characteristics of their own (if only their physical appearance) but also characteristics that are not true of them, with the goal of making it impossible for the audience to feel sure that they know what might be true about the performer and what might be purely fictional.

What is most important is that participant-performers are identified as public interveners who control what information about their personal lives that the audience knows, or thinks they know, even if the audience knows the name and/or physical appearance of the participant.

Post-performance traces

 

… art’s “magic” was palpable. It was in the audience’s rapt silence — and its resounding applause.

Helene Vosters

 

Helene Vosters is an artist-scholar-activist and Project Coordinator at Transforming Stories, Driving Change. Her work focuses on the politics of social memory, and the role of performance and aesthetic practices in mobilizing engagement. With this post, Helene launches a conversation about the reflective post-performance “traces”—words and sketches—produced by audience members at the recent performance of Choose Your Destination, a Transforming Stories production performed by youth connected to Good Shepherd Youth Services.

trace:

  1. a surviving mark, sign or evidence of the former existence, influence, or action of some agent or event; vestige.

— Dictionary.com

In interviews previously posted on this blog, Transforming Stories, Driving Change co-Principal Investigators Chris Sinding and Catherine Graham speak about art’s “magic” (Chris) and the importance of audiences putting themselves in the picture by actively taking part in the collective task of imagining a better future (Catherine).

As socially-engaged arts-based researchers we are confident in the power of art to move those it reaches. At the recent performance of Choose Your Destination the “magic” was palpable. It was in the audience’s rapt silence—and its resounding applause. What can we do to nurture that magic—like one might tend to “Alice’s” metaphoric seeds from the Transforming Stories production When My Home Is Your Business? How can we extend the moment during which audiences are moved beyond the performance event itself? What activities might best invite audiences into a durational project of co-imagining a better Hamilton?

As we consider these questions we are cognizant that many Transforming Stories’ audience members are familiar with and actively engaged in sectors that work to address the issues that the performances raise—precarious housing, displacement, homelessness, issues confronting youth in Hamilton. In keeping with the project’s arts-based approach, we focus on how participation in creative acts of reflection might enhance existing practices and expand our collective capacity to co-imagine a better city, a better future.

Traces I: Stories of people who…

An important element of post-performance activities is to provide the performers with some feedback and to give the audience an opportunity to become visible to one another, or as Transforming Stories co-investigator J. Adam Perry wrote in a previous post, “create public consciousness around an issue.” One of the first activities we often invite audiences to participate is the fill-in-the-blanks question that Jennie Vengris posed to the Choose Your Destination audience:

These are stories of people who…

Paper table covering with written audience responses from Choose Your Destination performance.

in a city where…

Paper table covering with written audience responses from Choose Your Destination performance.

The audience was seated “cabaret style” with four to five people around a table. Each table was covered in brown paper and strewn with art supplies. With this arrangement our intention was to facilitate both a sense of conviviality and a space for creative co-engagement. After asking audience members to move their refreshments aside Jennie invited them to avail themselves of the pens, pencils, and markers to record their responses to her questions. In looking at the two images above I am struck by how the coverings record so much more than the words of the participants. Captured in the relationship between the phrases and the variations in colour and handwriting, are the traces of the embodied relationship of the participants with one another.

In our efforts to creatively engage audiences in co-imaginative acts of what Catherine refers to as “purposeful play” we are always exploring ways to expand our repertoire of post-performance activities. In addition to the these are stories of people who… in a city where… fill-in-the-blank exercise, we tried out a new post-performance activity that involved “storyboarding.” Inspired by Sarah Adjekum‘s sketches of the youth during the performance creation workshops, the exercise builds on the “live-storyboarding” process through which the play was developed wherein the youth created embodied “images” that were expanded into scenes and put together to create the play’s narrative arc.

For more on storyboarding, keep an eye out for our next post, “Traces II: Audience storyboards.”

… here’s a little slideshow preview…