Destinations

“Choose Your Destination.” Sketch by Sarah Adjekum.

How do we get from here to there, from now to a hoped-for then? What is the role of the imagination—individual and collective—in transporting us to our desired future destinations? It’s wonderfully fitting that Choose Your Destination…, a play by four young women connected to Good Shepherd Youth Services, had its debut performance during the week of International Women’s Day, a day that serves as potent reminder of the power of imagining better futures and of working together to collectively manifest those visions.

A Transforming Stories, Driving Change production, Choose Your Destination, tells the story of four young women from different backgrounds, all living in a city much like Hamilton. While the play’s fictionalized characters—Amelia, Moon, Joanne, and Snow—are not friends at the beginning of the story, they frequently cross paths on a bus travelling the “Choose Your Destination” line. The ride is far from smooth, and the stops they make along the way don’t always get them what they want, but the youth get back on board time after time to try again. As they travel, they share stories about their lives, and support each other through good times and bad.

Support & solidarity

Just as Amelia, Moon, Joanne, and Snow didn’t know each other at the beginning of their fictionalized journey, the real-life youth who played these characters were strangers at the start of the Transforming Stories performance workshop creation series. From the start of the workshops, however, support and solidarity emerged as common concerns. For example, in one of the first sessions, after a series of warm up exercises the youth were invited to create an “image” of a better future Hamilton. “Think of it,” Catherine said, “like a postcard that you would send your friends to show them what a great place this is for people like you.”

Here’s how “image theatre” exercises work: One person initiates an image by entering the “playing space,” making a gesture, and freezing. One at a time, the remaining workshop participants add to the image by creating their own gestural response and freezing. Much like in a comic strip or graphic novel image theatre can act as a kind of “live storyboarding” technique, where a story is created through a series of still images.

In one of the early images the youth created, “N” began by standing on one foot with outstretched arms while her other foot was in the air. The gesture was precarious and difficult to maintain. “C” entered the scene, knelt beside N, and gently supported N’s hovering foot, “M” then knelt on the other side of N and supported her outstretched arm … 

What was striking about this, and other images the youth created, was that while their imagined future was not one in which everything was resolved, it was one in which they were able to both give and receive the support they needed. The images didn’t just document life as Hamilton youth experience it; they also showed what these youth value, the kind of relationships they want to build, and the ways they want people to help each other in a better Hamilton.

A place to chill

“Dreaming.” Sketch by Sarah Adjekum.

Some of these images were surprising in their simplicity and power. One early image—this one of the youth huddled together to watch Netflix—became the play’s closing scene. Stepping away from problem-solving in their fictional world, the performers create a dream sequence where the youth rearrange the seats of their makeshift bus and transform it into a couch that faces the audience.

Joanne: You know what would be nice right now? Right now. This destination, taking us to a spot where we could just chill, nothing to worry about.

Moon: A place where we could all just relax, somewhere with a huge TV. We could all just watch Netflix and hang out.

Snow: maybe something like this… (she starts to move the seats and the others follow her lead)

Joanne: Okay, but no horror movies, because I hate horror movies. 

Amelia: …and popcorn, but the fancy kind—with extra butter.

Moon: Don’t have to worry about late bills…

Joanne: …late bills, imagine being in a place long enough to set up the wifi …

Snow: …imagine being safe and happy

Joanne: Girl, you’re dreaming…

Snow: yeah, but isn’t it a nice dream…

All: [sigh, nod and look out into the audience] 

 

 

Sarah Adjekum reflects on the nuances of representation

The youth demonstrated that while they had not walked in the shoes of their peers, they had a window into some of the difficulties that face LGBTQ youth.

                                      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. As we enter the final stages of our current Transforming Stories creation series working with Good Shepherd Youth Services Sarah reflects on some of the ways the youth are working to address issues of gender diversity, sexual orientation and race-based discrimination

Understanding Gender

“Building Scenes” sketch by Sarah Adjekum.

An interesting dilemma that arose early in the process was that of gender. How could we depict the range of experiences that intersect with housing with the existing cast that remained? As well, how could we appropriately include stories of gender diversity, and sexual orientation?

While our participants are not male identified, their interactions with men and boys in their lives provided some insights into the kinds of issues men and boys might have encountered as voices absent in this workshop process. How does one perform healthy masculinity when other aspects of their lives are precarious and unstable and how does this affect those around them? What kinds of peer support and leadership are available for boys as they navigate adolescence and adulthood?

The conversations that emerged were ones that touched on the difficulties of being queer or trans while homeless. They captured the difficulties of seeking shelter and couch surfing while being exposed to prejudice and at times violence. The youth demonstrated that while they had not walked in the shoes of their peers, they had a window into some of the difficulties that face LGBTQ youth.

Tackling the Nuances of Race

“Developing Themes” Sketch by Sarah Adjekum.

Over the course of the workshops race based discrimination has been one of the themes that have been touched upon. All of the youth have shared stories that demonstrate their own encounters with power structures in their every day lives. While they hail from different backgrounds, our conversations reveal an intimate understanding of the impact of racism in their lives.

Some of these stories are personal accounts that reveal the struggles of finding and securing housing as a racialized youth. Others have shared stories of the implications of being racialized on their personal lives. Being bullied, or teased because of the colour of their skin. Some of their stories are not personal accounts, but rather reflect proximity to race based discrimination in housing and other aspects of the lives of people they know and interact with in the community.

While an important reality, that is often difficult to broach; what was telling about these conversations was the frankness with which they occurred. Perhaps a lesson to be learned here is that to address these problems we need to talk about them first – and that we all have something to say.

Seeds

“I wish this could be a snapshot into a meeting, at the beginning, before we even begin to discuss programs.”

— When My Home Is Your Business audience member.

November has been a busy and exciting month for Transforming Stories, Driving Change. In addition to our current workshop creation series with youth from Good Shepherd Youth Services, When My Home is Your Business (WMHIYB), a Transforming Stories production created earlier this year with participants recruited through the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton‘s Displacements Project, was performed for audiences at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH) national conference and the Gathering on Art, Gentrification, and Economic Development (GAGED).

Since both the CAEH and GAGED gatherings foregrounded issues of homelessness and displacement, Alice, Sami, Hannah, and Emma—the fictionalized tenants of WMHIYB’s apartment building from hell—found themselves sharing their tale of living precariously in a mouse-infested building, with a dysfunctional elevator, a single working washer and drier, and a fire alarm that is regularly triggered by the dust from renovations engineered to displace them, with in-the-know-audiences.

Patti McNaney, Interim Executive Director at the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, and Katherine Kalinowski, Assistant Director of Good Shepherd Hamilton, graciously hosted the post-performance discussion at CAEH. After getting confirmation from the audience that there was little in the play’s content that surprised them—little that they hadn’t heard, seen, or lived before—Katherine posed this question: “What’s the difference in telling a story this way as opposed to other ways that we learn about people’s lived experience and as advocates and allies make sense of those stories?”

One audience member responded: “As I was watching, I was thinking, I wish I could have taken this into my meeting last week… policy and programs are very far removed. Something like the complaints, how it actually affects the daily life of tenants, and how it can actually create bigger, bigger problems and there’s more stress, and there’s more complexity…You don’t get to see that in an office in Yellowknife. You have no idea. You just know that this person didn’t pay their rent, or they did this, or this… I wish this could be a snapshot into a meeting, at the beginning, before we even begin to discuss programs.”

After the GAGED performance an audience member offered a similar reflection: “One of the things I thought was really powerful was that while many of us talk about the systemic issues with housing, we often talk about these things in a really abstract way. Hearing these very personal stories, albeit fictionalized, but obviously relating to very real experiences, kind of turned that abstraction on its head. So we get a sense of the very real material and emotional effects, and the relationships that are built but also suffer as a result of some of these issues.”

For many audience members, it’s the relationships that develop between Alice, Sami, Hannah, and Emma that are at the heart of When My Home is Your Business. As the play’s characters navigate the multiple stresses of their neglectful landlord, unresponsive city agencies, and gentrification’s ever-looming threat, they must also struggle to overcome the horizontal tensions that are amplified by these larger fear-producing structural forces.

When, near the end of the play, Emma shares packets of flower seeds with her neighbours, the seeds become a metaphor for their collective relationship and their visions for a better Hamilton. In the play’s final scene Alice, Sami, Hannah, and Emma stand beside their doors and share their hopes in a direct appeal to the audience. In Alice’s words: “The most beautiful gardens are not just made out of roses. A garden is made out of many flowers, but it needs rich soil and time to grow. We need you to tell us which flowers you want to help to grow. We need you to be part of our garden.”

After the performance, Mashal Khan and Sabrina Sibald from Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton hosted an opportunity for audience members to share seed reflections on the performance with their home communities. They offered to take photos of participants in front of one of the doors from the play while they held a sign with a message written in response to the prompt: If this door could speak, what would this door say? 

Here’s Sabrina standing in front of Emma’s door with her response.

Sabrina Sibald, Assistant Social Planner with the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, holding sign front of Emma’s door.

Jennie Vengris

Our in conversation with … series of posts introduces readers to the people behind the Transforming Stories, Driving Change project. These are the artists, researchers, and community participants who desire Transforming Stories to make a substantive contribution to civic engagement in the city of Hamilton.

Jennie Vengris is a co-Investigator on Transforming Stories, Driving Change and Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at McMaster University.

I think the method and process is a good one. It elicited all sorts of conversation. And it did get some of us who are firmly in our heads, out of our heads a little bit, which I think it is hopeful.

— Jennie Vengris

 

So what is your primary role on Transforming Stories?

I’m on the leadership team of Transforming Stories, and I joined the project in its early stages. I am relatively new to academia, but I have a 10-year history of doing community work in Hamilton. So, part of why Chris invited me was because I have a lot of contextual understanding of the community, a good sense of the politics and players and engagement processes, all of the stuff that you won’t read about on a website or know formally. So, I think that’s why [the project’s principle investigators, Chris Sinding and Catherine Graham,] brought me on.

So you were involved in the pilot. Were you able to take part in the performance-as-research activities?

So we had been talking theoretically about the method based on the research evidence that Catherine had reviewed. And it didn’t sort of land with us. We kept on wondering, what would this look like? And what would it feel like? So, Catherine invited the research team to participate in the process together, as a group. I was terrified because it was asking us to open up emotionally and vulnerably in front of people in a way that we hadn’t before. So, I felt nervous about that initial process. But it went well!

I think what made it go well was Catherine’s careful facilitation. And I think the method and process is a good one. It elicited all sorts of conversation. And it did get some of us who are firmly in our heads, out of our heads a little bit, which I think it is hopeful.

What are some of the tensions you experienced in doing performance-as-research with community members?

When we were talking about which groups to work with, we considered some of the people I had met when I was a policy analyst with the City of Hamilton. When I worked on a housing and homelessness plan for the city, I had met a group of women called the Women’s Housing Planning Collaborative. And I fell in love with these women! When we talked about the pilot, I said that I knew this amazing group of women. Why don’t we reach out to them? And so we did.

But I will say that I did feel apprehensive, and I told the team this. When you do community work, you build really strong relationships. I didn’t want to jeopardize my relationship with the women if we screwed things up. What if this process felt weird to them? Or if we all came in as a bunch of academics and propose this weird thing that made the women feel uncomfortable? I just worried that it could damage my relationship with them. Just those worlds colliding, my past community development world, with my present academic world, felt a bit hard for me. So, I did feel a bit nervous about sort of being positioned as the champion of performance-as-research, as this was a NEW process for me.

But it ended up being just fine. I wasn’t just fine, it was great! I think what helped is that we went to their space. We brought delicious food. And Catherine is really personable. She is really warm. She wandered in and just sort of disarmed people. She said, “Here’s what we’re doing. We kind of don’t know what were doing. We need you to help us figure out what were doing.”

And I think the other thing is that we were part of the process. The research team participated in the story circle with the women. Catherine asked us to think about what housing in Hamilton would look like 10 years from now if the Women’s Housing Planning Collaborative’s advocacy work had worked. I was very pregnant at the time and I shared a pretty personal story. I think we needed to bring our personal stuff in that space to level the power imbalance that existed. I think those things helped.

What can Transforming Stories offer Social Work?

I teach the Introduction to Social Welfare course in the School of Social Work. I often invite the Women’s Housing Planning Collaborative Advisory to do guest lectures on lived experience advocacy. And those classes always go well. Students are always riveted. But one thing I did notice in the papers that they were writing, and in their reflections were the way they were taking up the women’s stories. They talked about the bravery of women and the tragedy of the women. Though I do feel it’s important for them to hear from folks with lived experience, the way it was being framed in their writing was pathologizing.

So, the first place the Women’s Housing Planning Collaborative Advisory performed was in a social work class. And I believe it shifted the way students understood the kinds of issues that the women were performing. They saw the women as individuals and human beings who lived that experience. What I think social work students got from their performance was a better understanding of the collective problems that we try to talk about in social work, which is so powerful. The way the women constructed the performance, and the way Catherine help them figure out how to convey their experiences using performance, really helped students understand people’s lived experiences of a much broader collective problem around income insecurity, housing and food insecurity. That’s huge!

What advice would you give a social worker who may want to engage in a performance-as-research project similar to Transforming Stories?

I would encourage people to do it. To actually explore more creative ways of engaging community. Not just consulting people, but engaging people and building relationships, longer-term relationships with people. I think I would encourage macro practitioners, even though we tend to be a fairly heady bunch, to immerse themselves in the process and be part of the process. I think that’s so important. Another piece of advice: be really careful about using this process. I do worry a bit that some people see arts-based methodologies as easy, or kind of flaky, or that anybody can do it. Our team has thought carefully about how this works. There is a lot of, particularly on Catherine’s part, solid thinking that went into how to do this ethically, and in a way that makes everybody feel good and excited. So, I just cautioned people not to use it cavalierly. To do it but to be really thoughtful about it.

 

 

Paula Grove

Our in conversation with … series of posts introduces readers to the people behind the Transforming Stories, Driving Change project. These are the artists, researchers, and community participants who desire Transforming Stories to make a substantive contribution to civic engagement in the city of Hamilton.

 

Paula Grove is a theatre director, teacher, and performer who is the Assistant Director on Transforming Stories, Driving Change.

How were you introduced to Transforming Stories, Driving Change?

I am a theatre artist, and I have worked with other artists participating on Transforming Stories. The project team brought me on board to work as a theatre coach.

What do you like about Transforming Stories?

In Hamilton there is a great need to keep a dialogue going between all the various constituents of our city. It’s alarming to watch as some people become more and more marginalized. They feel their voices matter less and less. They feel they have less and less agency to make change. They often feel very alone, misjudged, disrespected. At first our participants may not believe there are any solutions to their problems but this project, at the very least, helps them to express what’s happening to them. That alone seems to give them a sense of renewed power. Then, as we begin to explore solutions, it’s quite extraordinary how creative their ideas can be. In fact,  these people exhibit exceptional creativity. After all, great creativity is required every day of their lives as they tackle the challenges of living in poverty. I’d even say they are creative problem-solving geniuses compared to most people living above the poverty line!

With our help the participants can overcome any trepidations about performing and this has a spillover effect as they develop confidence and a stronger voice. They also develop their capacity to collaborate with other participants. They feel less isolated and strengthen their sense of trust in others in the community.

I know the transformative power of theatre from my own life: I have lived experience of some of the issues that this project is interested in and have used theatre to tell my stories. It’s been very empowering for me and so I know it can be for others too. It’s a great privilege to share this journey with our participants. I feel really excited by what I’ve seen so far.

If you were going to invite someone from the community to participate on Transforming Stories, what are some pieces of advice you might give them?

Past participants have talked about what participating on this project has done for them personally. And it’s so moving to hear. They have developed a lot more confidence. They’ve created new friendships. They feel heard. They feel empowered. They have become more vocal in their community. And they feel that they have agency. Basically, seeing their confidence grow, that’s what is really inspiring.

And actually, they have been making changes because decision-makers have seen their work [from the Transforming Stories pilot conducted in 2016]. They said at our last meeting, “You know the food bank has changed the way they do things. We feel we’ve had a little part in that because of the show we did for them, and they saw what we were concerned about.” I mean that’s huge! There’s no proof that their performances directly changed their food bank situation, but there’s a reason to think they had a strong influence.

And oh yes, it’s fun!

The Great Fanzinis!

“The Great Fanzinis do not do this one-person juggle by themselves. Nonsense! The Great Fanzinis are a family. They juggle like a family.”

— Catherine Graham as “Ring Master”

It’s week two of the Transforming Stories workshop creation series working with youth from Good Shepherd Youth Services and Catherine has introduced the group to The Great Fanzinis, a juggling game she learned from her colleague Luc Gaudet of Théâtre Mise-au-Jeu in Montréal.

Here are the Fanzini Family’s juggling “rules”:

  1. The Great Fanzinis pass a large soft stuffed ball from one person to another until each member of the Fanzini family has had the ball passed to them.
  2. Each time a Fanzini passes the ball, they say their name, followed by the name of the person they are passing the ball to: “Catherine Fanzini to Paula Fanzini; Paula Fanzini to Melanie Fanzini…”
  3. The last Fanzini to receive the ball passes it to the first Fanzini to pass the ball.
  4. The pattern created in the first round is repeated until the game ends.
  5. As the game continues, the “Ring Master” adds additional soft objects (dish scrubbers, stuffed animals, folded garden gloves, hair rollers) which the Fanzinis integrate into their juggling pattern. As the senders pass each additional flying object, they continue to announce their name and the name of the object’s intended receiver.

A few Fanzini take-aways:

The first thing participants learn from playing The Great Fanzinis juggling game is—They are not alone! They are part of a performance family that works together.

They learn each other’s names and how to connect through an activity.

They practice recalling spatial patterns and embodying a character who is confident and deserves attention.

They warm up their bodies and voices.

Through laughter, they breath deeply which both relaxes and energizes the body/mind in preparation for the deep-diving play/work of generating performance scenes!

 

Melanie Skene

Our in conversation with … series of posts introduces readers to the people behind the Transforming Stories, Driving Change project. These are the artists, researchers, and community participants who desire Transforming Stories to make a substantive contribution to civic engagement in the city of Hamilton.

Melanie Skene is a visual artist, puppeteer, and production coordinator on Transforming Stories, Driving Change.

This project is adding different layers of voices to our vision of Hamilton. Hamilton is changing. There are people talking about change, and a lot of times it’s the same people, the politicians and that. So, we need to add new voices that they don’t get heard because they also have a stake in how Hamilton changes.

— Melanie Skene

How would you summarize Transforming Stories to someone who is new to it?

Transforming Stories is about creating a collective story, a public story. A collaborative story about how we want to transform our city so that it is more socially just for all residents, especially the marginalized.

And what is your role on Transforming Stories?

I am the production coordinator, which is my official title. But my role is to do a lot of different things (laughs)! My primary role is to deal with spaces, getting spaces booked, booking the catering, getting things set up, moving tables and that. That would be my first role. But I also help facilitate. And help with stage management, direction and props. And the artwork on the blog and so on.

You seem like the “Resident Visual Artist” on Transforming Stories.

That is not my title, but I like that! It’s interesting … as a puppeteer I kind of span the visual, and the theatrical. So, I think of myself as a visual artist. I am more of a builder than a performer. The visual artistry for Transforming Stories has also become my primary role or function.

How did you get involved on the project?

Actually, because I know Catherine [Graham, the co-principle investigator of Transforming Stories]. I did my Masters in Environmental Studies at York University, which is a multi-disciplinary program. I concluded the program with a community arts project, and it involved organizing a summer solstice festival, puppet making workshops, promotions, etc. I ended up running the festival for three years. Catherine connected with me because she knew that I had experience with organizing community initiatives. Plus, my job at the Immigrant Women’s Centre where I was running an after-school arts program had just ended. So I was available.

I have been on Transforming Stories right from the start. Even before we had done any recruitment. So I have been involved since the pilot phase.

How do you feel this project has evolved from when you first started

That is a good question because it certainly has. And from what I have I’ve seen we have learned a lot! Our first group was actually really interesting because we didn’t move beyond the initial workshops. We did story circle, and we did image theatre, and then that was it. We weren’t entirely on the same page with them. And so we had to work on the tools that would help us more clearly define our goals and get people get more involved, so community participants could understand the aims of the project, and performance-as-research.

And in the beginning, our team was very small and busy. You know, academics are very busy. So we realized that we had to expand the team.

And for the pilot, we worked with groups who already knew each other. That had a huge impact, and I would say a positive impact because there was already trust. We still had to build it but maybe not quite as much. Now, we are doing something totally different because we are working with individuals who may not even know each another. That’s something we haven’t done before. Now that we are going out to individuals and just the kind of discussions we are having, it seems like there’s still so much that is unknown.

So we are exploring new territory. Constantly. I think there’s still so much to learn. Sometimes I feel we are almost in the early stages. The second part of the pilot. But I guess, to be honest with you, that is how it is always going to be. We are never going to stop learning.

Many people have talked about Transforming Stories as being “transformative”? What transformative aspects have you witnessed with the pilots?

Well, I think one of the things that doesn’t get discussed as much, that really intrigues me, is its potential to help healing. One of the participants actually stated that this was a healing process. She came in really resistant, and then in our very first performance exchange, she talked about how this was healing. I was really fascinated by that. I thought it was a by-product that we hadn’t necessarily thought about. We are not in the medical profession. But Art can have a therapeutic healing aspect to it.

I think individuals need to be healed in order to affect our collective healing. So, the healing process is a really an important part of the project because individuals need that to build a better community. So, I think that this project has contributed to that.

Based on the pilot, what has been the impact of Transforming Stories?

Adding voices. This project is adding different layers of voices to our vision of Hamilton. Hamilton is changing. There are people talking about change, and a lot of times it’s the same people, the politicians and that. So, we need to add new voices that they don’t get heard because they also have a stake in how Hamilton changes.

Participant asks important questions

“Does It Really Ever Add Up to Anything? Who Is Listening?”

— Cass Henry

Community participant Cass Henry, who participated in creating the first performance of the pilot project for Transforming Stories, Driving Change, shares important questions about what effect this work actually has in the world. They are questions the research team will take up in the next phase of the project, in consultation with community participants who are working hard to make their voices heard.

Participating in this project has been a dual-punch for me. It has been a joy — to interact with my peers, to create a piece that is show-worthy, to perform and experience both the jitters and the post-performance-high. It has also been disastrously heart-breaking — to put so much energy into something and not really know that it will affect any form of change in the immediacy, to know that the next time I interact with a social service I am still likely to face the same problems I have faced previously, to expect that those in positions of power who have seen our work all agree it is though-provoking, but will it actually matter when policy is more of a financial numbers game than a human interest process?

I hesitate to think some of these thoughts and certainly to claim ownership of them by writing about them, because the process of creating our piece for Transforming Stories, Driving Change was truly a dream. I felt like a VIP who was coming to the table with all the knowledge and this research team was providing us with the tools (art) to squeeze out as much of that knowledge as I was willing to share. I felt respected, honoured, and truly inspired during the workshop phase of the process. When it came time to perform our work-in-progress, I felt treated like a real professional — we were fed, given time and space to practice, and we were financially compensated for our time. I have not previously (or since!) had such an amazing experience as a research participant, where I felt my integrity was upheld at every single turn. I highly recommend to anyone who has the opportunity to participate in this project that they take it!

But at the end of the day, tired from hours of work, practicing, performing and wrap-up discussion, I walk away wondering — does it really ever add up to anything? Who is listening?

We end our performance with the words “We need to talk.” And that couldn’t be more true. But when we leave our audience with their memory of our performance, that is the end of the conversation for us. We are still not invited to talk in other platforms. Our voices are given a momentary volume burst, before once more being silenced. Those with the power are making decisions that effect our daily lives, but rarely ever ask for our input or feedback in a meaningful way.

So do I write a review about my experience, about how lovely the researchers were, about how wonderful it was to be able to perform in front of students in the field and hopefully give them a different perspective of the system than they might find in their textbooks, about how empowered I felt in the moments after walking off stage after each performance …..?

Or do I write about how I really feel, about how I wonder whether this research ever informs true change? Are we merely stuck in the same rutted track, forever pushing against the edges, but in the end, succumb to the all-mighty dollar, sinking back once more to the path of least resistance?