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…

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] 

 

 

Seeds: When My Home Is Your Business

“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.

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!