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.


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


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…

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 Audience Plays Their Part

Picture of whiteboard comments from audience
These are the stories of people who…

Our blog has been on a bit of a hiatus as we organize all the material that came out of our May 2nd performance of “When My Home Is Your Business.” We were pleased to see former TSDC performers, participants from the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton’s Displacements project, housing support workers, folks from the Community Legal Clinic and from church groups and community organizations, as well as a number of McMaster researchers, come out to the first performance of this new play. Our four performers did a great job of showing the audience what life is like in a building where tenants are trying to create a sense of neighbourliness, but where their needs and desires don’t seem count for much. They gave us a real feel for what it is like to try to build a sense of home when you are facing:

  • intimidating Supers who blame tenants instead of making repairs
  • elevators that don’t work reliably
  • fire alarms constantly going off because of excessive humidity or dust from construction
  • laundry rooms where half (or more) of the machines don’t work….

Despite all this, their performance offered the hope that people can work together to create a life where there is time and space for tenants to enjoy each other’s company and where despite it all, they can “stop and smell the flowers.”

But the story of “When My Home is Your Business” didn’t end with the performance. Discussions between audience members, the comments they left on index cards, their graffiti-like posts about what they thought life could be like in Hamilton if things changed for the better, all added to the story the play had started to tell.

After the performance, we asked audience members to write anonymous messages on index cards to tell us who they would talk to about the performance and what they would tell them. The messages reflected the different connections people in the audience have and the different kinds of messages they might want to relay to different people in their lives.

Audience responses transcribed from index cards
Audience responses transcribed from index cards

After filling out the cards, the audience divided into four different groups of 10-12 to discuss what life might be like for the people in the play if things changed for the better. A lot of interesting ideas and potential new stories came out in these discussions. Some people thought that non-profit and co-op housing would give tenants more control over their living situations. Others suggested that tenant’s associations were the key to protecting their collective rights, and some proposed that housing should be considered a fundamental human right, not just a way to make a profit for private businesses. One group discussed the current rent strike in Stoney Creek and how actions like this create a memory of collective action.

Other audience members emphasized the importance of places where people can get together to get to know each other, other than just the elevator or the space in front of the mailboxes in their building. Still others pointed to the fact that not all the problems shown in the play are fundamentally problems of housing: people need adequate incomes to be able to build stable living situations, we need more accessible support services for people living with, or caring for others who live with, mental illness and addiction. We also discussed how the city needs to get behind affordable housing and how city services need not only to respond to phone calls promptly, but to actually do something about the complaints they receive in a timely manner.

It was a lot to take in, but as people left the room, many of them shared their personal sense of what we should remember by summing up their views as “The story of people who… in a city where….”

Picture of whiteboard comments from audience members
In a city where…

Reading through all these responses, our research team was reminded of the way cultural theorist Michael Warner, in his essay “Publics and Counterpublics,” talks about what it takes to create public consciousness around an issue:

Public discourse says not only: “Let a public exist,” but: “Let it have this character, speak this way, see the world in this way.” It then goes out in search of confirmation that such a public exists, with greater or lesser success—success being further attempts to cite, circulate, and realize the world-understanding it articulates. Run it up the flagpole, and see who salutes. Put on a show, and see who shows up (82).

A lot of people showed up to see “When My Home Is Your Business” and their comments after the performance clearly indicated that they recognized the world portrayed in the play, could add to our description of it, could imagine how it might change. Thanks to the dedication of our performers, who spent 12 weeks working to collectively perform such a public vision, this play helped make visible some of the “world-making” that is already happening around public discussions of tenant’s situations in a rapidly gentrifying city. Audience response expanded on that understanding by using incidents in the play to circulate the world-understanding it articulated. What we have yet to see is, to take up Warner’s term, who else will “show up” and who else will “salute.”