Catherine Graham

In our in conversations with … series of posts we introduce you to the people behind theTransforming Stories, Driving Change project—the artists, researchers, and community participants who desire Transforming Stories to make a substantive contribution to civic engagement in the city of Hamilton.

Catherine Graham is a co-Principal Investigator on Transforming Stories, Driving Change and an Associate Professor, Theatre & Film Studies, Gender Studies and Feminist Research, and Cultural Studies and Critical Theory in the Faculty of Humanities at McMaster University.

“Nobody is going to create a world that we all really want to live in if there is no pleasure in doing it. I’ve really come to believe that our emotions tell us where we fit in the world at any given moment. If you’re miserable doing something, something is wrong, something needs to be corrected. So I’d say play together and pay attention to what pleasures arise through this kind of purposeful play, because how everyone feels will be an important clue about what a mutually meaningful world might look like.”

Catherine, how did you conceive the Transforming Stories project?

It really came out of a number of conversations with Chris Sinding. We recognized pretty quickly that we had similar interests but were coming at this kind of community-engaged performance work from different directions. I came into academic life out of work using theatre to do community engaged work for social change. When I started getting asked to teach other people how to do group facilitation the way I did it, I realized I couldn’t teach them because I did it so instinctively I couldn’t explain why I was doing what I did.

After a chance meeting, a former professor encouraged me to go back to school for a master’s degree in Comparative Literature as a way of trying to think some of this through. I was a single parent and had been out of school for about 14 years at that point, so it was a bit of a scary prospect, but in the end I did it. What I ended up studying was, effectively, cultural translation, and I think that a lot of what we’re doing in this kind of theatre work is a kind of translation. One of the things you pay attention to in translation studies is what assumptions about the situation are already embedded in the way we’re expected to talk about it. Theatre is a way we can make those assumptions more visible so we can challenge them when we need to – and that is at the core of this project.

Transforming Stories was originally a pilot project. How will this differ from the pilot?

It will differ mostly because of the groups that we work with. I feel it is important to work with multiple groups as it does two things. One, in terms of civic community discourse, is that, hopefully, it may get people talking to each other, and really hearing each other, who have not been talking to each other before.

I think research-wise, it is especially important for us to do this with multiple groups. I think the danger of this work is that we do an exercise or use a technique that works really well in one place, but then we try to generalize it everywhere. So, I think working with multiple groups will help us understand much better what pieces of this performance-as-research method are essential, what we want to repeat almost every time, and where we need to be flexible. How to recognize the difference is one of the things we don’t necessarily know yet and truly need to figure out.

How is this project different from other community engaged performance projects?

For one, this is not a knowledge translation project. I think what we usually understand by knowledge translation is that academics go and figure something out and then create a performance that is accessible to non-academics about what they’ve discovered. That is not our intention. With this project, the analysis and the performance creation will happen more or less simultaneously. So, it really is performance-as-research. When we try to figure something out we will figure it out by creating a situation between human beings, in the form of characters, and create the possible worlds or set of conditions within which that kind of relationship could happen. And that is what we will present to the public, but it will not be presented to the public as a finished piece.

The two pieces we did for the pilot end by requesting something of the audience. So, we consider the audience to be as much a part of the performance-as-research process as the community participants who agree to perform. A big part of what we are doing here is we are asking something of the audience – we’re asking the audience to put themselves in the picture.

We’re trying to get people participating in a mutually meaningful world, recognizing that we all live in the same city. We all live in this world and we all affect each other – whether we intend to or not and whether we know it or not. With luck, this work may lead to a sense of being responsible for each other’s well-being and not just for solving a particular problem.

You mention participating in a mutually meaningful world as one of the aims of the project. Are there any other aims that you feel we should talk about?

I think the big goal is to figure out how to bring these voices into public discussion who are not currently being heard. Which doesn’t mean that they’re not speaking. We live in a society where we have freedom of speech. We don’t necessarily have the freedom to be heard. So, we’re thinking: what are some of our habits of communication that are excluding some of these voices who are affected by/who affect the city we are living in? If we truly are a democracy, these voices need to be heard.

As a practitioner of performance-as-research what advice would you give others who are thinking of doing a project in a similar way as Transforming Stories?

Everything depends on who is in the room. It is really important to think carefully about who is in the room.

And have fun. Play with imagined situations and help others play too. Nobody is going to create a world that we all really want to live in if there is no pleasure in doing it. I’ve really come to believe that our emotions tell us where we fit in the world at any given moment. If you’re miserable doing something, something is wrong, something needs to be corrected. So I’d say play together and pay attention to what pleasures arise through this kind of purposeful play, because how everyone feels will be an important clue about what a mutually meaningful world might look like.



Chris Sinding

“I’m really fascinated by what art does and can do in the world…there’s a magic in it.”

Chris Sinding



In our in conversation with … series of posts we introduce you to the people behind the Transforming Stories, Driving Change project—the artists, researchers, and community participants who desire Transforming Stories to make a substantive contribution to civic engagement in the city of Hamilton. Chris Sinding is co-Principal Investigator on Transforming Stories, Driving Change and a Professor and Director of the School of Social Work at McMaster University.

What is your role on the Transforming Stories, Driving Change project Chris?

In the life of the project I feel my role is learner, observer, wonder-er… I’m really fascinated by what art does and can do in the world, and I bring that question to our big-picture conversations and also to the details of the workshops – to the image theatre exercises that my colleagues facilitate, for example.

I suppose too that, with some of the collaborators on the project, I hold down the social science end of the interdisciplinary spectrum of people involved in the project and thinking about what it all means. And then more specifically I have a role in considering how social work contributes to and can draw from what we discover together.

How did you get involved with Transforming Stories?

Many years ago, when I was a PhD student I was involved in (what we called at the time) a research-based drama project. The research part involved focus groups and individual interviews with women who had advanced breast cancer. The research team got together with a theatre director at Ryerson, and her troupe of amateur actors, and two women with advanced breast cancer, to create a drama, working from those interview transcripts.

And it had magic in it. It did things to us and to audiences that more conventional qualitative research rarely does. That’s not to diss conventional research… it just does different things.

I have done lots of qualitative research in cancer care over the past several years. And then more recently, I’ve started finding my way backwards and forwards, to arts-informed explorations and presentations.

What are your hopes for the project?

It’s partly about understanding the magic…! What does art do… and how does it do what it does?

As we reviewed the literature on arts-informed social work, the question we asked, over and over, was: what do the authors think art is ‘doing’ here? What is art achieving for service users or practitioners or student or researchers or communities – what is it achieving for relationships or for ideas about the social world… and especially what is art doing that that usual social work education or practice or research – does not do – or does not do as well?

In my readings on what art can do, three themes stand out. Art offers an alternative way for people to express themselves in situations where language or conventional or dominant language is ill-suited for what needs expressing, inadequate or constraining or exclusionary…

Art allows us to imaginatively enter the situation of another … The idea here is that when we engage with art about people and communities unfamiliar to us, we are able to participate vicariously in their worlds; our senses are activated; we respond emotionally as well as intellectually; we come to ‘know’ the other in ways we would not in a more conventional account. The classic metaphor here is that art enable us to walk in another’s shoes.

The third theme rests on the idea that dominant images (media images, stereotypes more broadly), inculcated into our ways knowing, become perceptual habits… habits of knowing that diminish others. The idea here is that artful images, especially as they are in compelling ways set against or in their contrast with dominant images – can interrupt our usual ways of understanding and knowing – art can ‘break bad habits’ of knowing.

There are all kinds of complexities and potential problems with these ideas as well… for example, what happens to someone else when we ‘walk in their shoes’ – might their shoes become damaged in some way? And if art is so good at ‘getting stuff out’ – might people who engage with art ‘say more’ than they might have wished?

So it’s not simple, the ethics of it are not simple. Now that I’m involved much more closely with scholars and practitioners from other disciplines, my ideas about what art does and can do are widening…

What can Transforming Stories, Driving Change contribute to the social sciences?

TSDC is concerned with the conversation happening in Hamilton about the future of the City, about life in this community, about what’s good for us as a community. We know that many people are excluded from this conversation, not because they have nothing to say, but because only certain speakers as recognized as legitimate — and only certain ways of speaking are heard or recognized as worthy contributions to the conversation.

This project tries to interrupt the value patterns that fail to recognize the contributions of so many people… and uses theatre to do this. The idea is that certain kinds of theatre can make visible and ‘play with’ cultural values, norms that underlie communication… and in making them visible, allow us to talk about them, and challenge them if they need challenging.

What advice would you give to a person new to performance-as-research who will be taking part on the Transforming Stories, Driving Change project?

A few hours before my first experience of a story circle and image theatre workshop, I met with a colleague in the School of Social Work who was also a participant. We were beyond ourselves!! We were so anxious… I was having complete introvert meltdown at the thought of being exposed, of not being able to prepare for what would happen, of having to move and play rather than stand and speak… and especially in front of academic colleagues. I suppose I would say to people: there is magic in it…


Katherine Kalinowski

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. Here, we’re delighted to be speaking with Katherine Kalinowski, Assistant Executive Director, Programs at Good Shepherd Centres in Hamilton.


Transforming Stories, Driving Change reminds me that there are other ways to look at what’s wrong with the system and how to fix it.”



How did you get involved on Transforming Stories, Katherine?

I connected with Chris Sinding [co-Principal Investigator of Transforming Stories, Driving Change] from McMaster. She was working on a project that would allow people whose voices are often not heard in our community to participate in a theatre-based project that would give voice to the matters that concern them. I’ve long struggled as a social service provider who has some responsibility around fundraising, with how the voices and stories of the folks we serve are used in very particular ways. I love the idea of groups of folks coming together and sharing their stories and creating something really meaningful, educational and invigorating without having to personally reveal the most painful pieces of their past.

I chair the Women’s Housing Planning Collaborative here in Hamilton, and we have an advisory group of women with lived experience who advise us on how to build better services for women who were experiencing housing precarity or homelessness. They expressed interest in the project and became one of the first groups to participate. It was amazing to see what this project meant to the women. It was transformative for many of them and allowed them to claim their voices in new ways.

In your opinion, how was Transforming Stories transformative for the women who participated?

Certainly, they could speak to that far better than I can. But from what I’ve observed, it created a space in which women who don’t necessarily get heard can be heard. And collective action is very powerful. Poverty, homelessness and oppression of all types thrive on isolation. So, when you can breach that isolation and get disparate people together and find their commonalities that is transformative for individuals but also for the community. It’s also the audience that is transformed. The audience, who may think that they are quite knowledgeable about an issue, is challenged to question assumptions and create new understandings of really complex, really difficult issues.

Have you participated in any of the activities that they call performance-as-research?

A couple of weeks ago I participated in a morning workshop where I and some of the other people involved in this project were invited to try some of the exercises and activities that result in the creation of performance pieces. It was very interesting. I can’t say I was surprised by the kinds of activities, but it really pushed me out of my comfort zone to have to interact in a group in that way, to share in that way, to use my body and my voice in different ways than I normally do. While I wasn’t entirely comfortable with every aspect of it, it was an incredibly supportive environment infused with intelligence and humour. I came away feeling far more connected to the project because I could understand how the creative process would unfold, which allowed me to endorse and support the project in a more meaningful way.

What difference do you think the project has made on a broader level in terms of your work as a social service provider?

Watching a pilot performance that was presented to a group of McMaster students, largely social work students, hearing their reactions and their “aha” moments after watching the performance, I was struck by the value of this type of exchange. You can learn lots from books, lectures and placement opportunities, but to sit and be present with people as they speak their truth, in a place where the people speaking have more power than they would in typical social work kinds of transactions, that is meaningful. That it can change how some of these students will go out into our community, how they will approach their work, and the kind of contribution they make, that is powerful.

What pieces of advice would you give a social service provider who is interested in being on this project, or endorsing Transforming Stories?

I would say that it’s easy to be too busy to participate in a project like this, especially in a time where human service providers are dealing with increasing demand and static resources.

These persistent pressures can limit our openness to creative community engagement. I would encourage other providers to take the time to find creative people in their communities and support and endorse their work. And learn from the work they do. Doing this can change our work for the better. Transforming Stories reminds me that there are other ways to look at what’s wrong with the system and how to fix the system.

I also think it is important that we continue to strengthen the relationship between community agencies and academia. I don’t think we are always effective as providers and as academia in connecting in meaningful ways or recognizing the more direct connections between our different streams of work and how they can be leveraged for the greater good.

I’m excited to see what comes out of this. I’m excited to hear from people who participate in it, and I am really grateful for the interesting and amazing people I am meeting through the process.


Welcome to the Transforming Stories, Driving Change blog!

Welcome to our blog. We envision this blog as a space to share our group’s experiences of creating community-engaged performance and of imagining a Hamilton transformed. We are glad that you dropped by.

We are a collaborative of educators, artists, social service providers, researchers, social planners and community self-advocates in Hamilton, Ontario.

Our project is about performance. In this project we use performance to understand the world, and also to imagine ways that it might be different. That means bringing members of our community together to create stories and make theatre about how Hamilton can become a better and more inviting place to live. We use performance to explore, and then show, how social exclusion affects particular communities in our city, and how these communities are responding.

Over the next few weeks, Transforming Stories, Driving Change will collaboratively develop a short community-based performance rooted in the lived experiences of members of our community who know the risk of losing housing due to the rapid development of our city. Together, the art that we create will help to envision a better Hamilton for all.

In staging these stories, we hope to contribute to conversations happening all across the city about how Hamilton can become a place where everyone feels welcome and recognized.

We invite you to follow our blog to see posts from our researchers, our community partners, and our participants. We hope that this blog gets you thinking about the stories that animate the everyday hustle and bustle of our rapidly changing city.

But wait! Before you go… We don’t just want you to read what we have to say. We actually want you to be a part of the conversation! So we encourage you leave a comment about anything you see on this blog.

We hope that you feel free to share your thoughts with us. We look forward to hearing from you!

To learn more about the project, please visit our website.