TSDC’s design aesthetic

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

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

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

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

“Rocks” from TSDC production We Need To Talk

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

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

Artistic recycling 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennie, adding finishing touches on Emma’s door.

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

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

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

Works cited

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

Sustaining Connections

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

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

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

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

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

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


zine pages

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

…and made plans to reconvene in the new year!

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.


“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] 


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!


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!

Staging relational space

High-rise Buildings as Relational Spaces

Work on our newest play, “When My Home is Your Business…” is moving forward fairly quickly now. One of the crucial steps in making theatre out of the stories participants shared (see our previous blog entries) was to figure out how characters might actually come in contact with each other in the shared space of urban apartment buildings.

When we asked participants to imagine Hamilton ten years from now as a much better city, it was striking how unique each of their stories was. It became clear that each of us was coming from a particular experience of moving through the city. Some knew the city from the point of view of newcomers to Canada and others as long-time residents. Some knew the city from the point of view of single professionals, while others saw it through the eyes of retirees with grandchildren.

Despite these differences, when we asked participants to create a non-verbal image of Hamilton as it actually is, they had no problem using their bodies to create a sense of a shared physical environment that was immediately understood by all. In part because we had recruited participants for their lived knowledge of challenges tenants face, many of these images centred on how people relate to each other as they move through Hamilton’s large rental apartment buildings.

In the weeks of theatrical exploration that followed, our participants created dynamic images of how everyday life unfolds inside Hamilton’s apartment buildings. These images prompted our research team to think about how inter-personal relationships evolve in such places, and how the social dynamics that take place in a high-rise may facilitate and/or prevent people from living together in harmony.

What became increasingly clear as we explored these initial images was how the story we needed to tell was grounded in a very strong sense of place: that of a multi-story structure comprised of both private dwellings and common spaces that people are expected to pass through rather than gather in. From the very beginning of the workshop process, participants emphasized how building management often goes to some trouble to ensure, for instance, that people don’t linger or organize to meet as groups in the lobbies of buildings.

Translating Relational Space to the Stage

Because this is theatre, we needed a set. Contrary to what many people might initially assume, a theatre set is not so much about replicating the “look” of a particular space. What is more important is to create the space in which characters can move into an out of particular kinds of relationships. In our case, this meant a space where each character is expected to have control of the small space behind their own door, but where they must also move through common spaces where they encounter other tenants.

Our designer, Melanie Skene, whose gorgeous puppets some of you may have seen at Take Back the Night or at performances by the Hamilton Aerial Group, came up with a great way of showing this, as seen in the drawing at the top of this post. The set is simple, easily transported, and – one of the things that was most important to us – it asks the audience to imagine a space that may remind them of spaces they know, rather than suggesting that the action of the play could only take place in one particular building. Once we had a clear sense of the space, performers were able to weave together snippets of various stories by improvising encounters centred around the issues they have experienced, directly or indirectly. As they moved through the space telling these stories, the world of the play started to come to life in exciting ways.

On one level, creating the space of the action was important simply because this is theatre, not a series of speeches or a policy report. (French theatre theorist Anne Ubersfeld, in her book, L’Ecole du Spectateur, actually defines theatre as “talking bodies evolving in space.”) But through our workshops we quickly realized that defining the space in which we could imagine this world is about much more than the demands of a particular art form. As we started to tell stories by moving through this particular space, we quickly saw how the organization and control of any space opens the possibility for some types of relationships, and makes others much more difficult.

The question of the kinds of relationships that can happen in particular spaces, it seems to us, is not only a problem for theatre-making. Rather, thinking about space in our theatre-making process has pushed us to also think about the ways in which the control of space affects the kinds of relationships that will be possible in Hamilton ten years from now. This is already a pressing question where “my home is your business…”

Are there ways in which you have seen the organization and control of space affect the kinds of relationships people can develop in Hamilton? We’d love to have you share your observations by commenting on this post!

Image Theatre

Josie is a senior citizen who lives alone in an apartment halfway to the top of her high-rise building in downtown Hamilton.

Josie is frustrated by frequent fire alarms. She regularly finds herself struggling to race down the stairs in the middle of the night, her two dogs in tow, only to stand outside in the cold with her neighbours for up to forty-five minutes at a time.

 Josie often doesn’t go out because she’s scared she may get trapped in the elevator. It often gets stuck between floors, and everyone knows the super is too busy playing solitaire on her phone to even notice.

While Josie’s experiences may sound familiar to many tenants living in Hamilton, Josie herself is a fictional character.

Every week for the past three weeks, a small group of Hamilton renters has been gathering with the Transforming Stories team to develop believable characters and true-to-life situations that represent life as a tenant. Josie and her experiences were created using a community-engaged performance technique known as ‘image theatre’.

For the past two weeks, our group has been having a lot of fun experimenting with putting our bodies into collective statues (we call these ‘images’) that help us to tell a story about life in the city.

Last week participants imagined the ideal future Hamilton. They created a series of images that showed characters who took care of each other, felt connected to each other, and spontaneously danced with each other in their local park!

Image of the ideal Hamilton. (Credit Melanie Skene)

Last week we also asked folks to create images of what life is really like as a tenant in Hamilton. Our group experimented with several images depicting life in poorly maintained apartment buildings. We saw images of people disconnected from each other, looking downtrodden, and feeling frustrated about chronic maintenance issues.

Image of the real Hamilton (Credit Melanie Skene)


The difference between these two images is pretty stark, and it left us with nagging questions about the grey areas between the problem images and the ideal images. What are the practical steps to creating a better and more inclusive Hamilton?

This week, we explored some of those grey areas.

This is how our group generated the images of Josie and her neighbours dealing with elevator and fire alarm problems. These new images led to some interesting discussion. We found it really interesting, for example, that neighbours were getting to know each other in the context of difficult living situations, such as waiting for a broken elevator or standing outside together during a fire alarm.

These images prompted questions related to what exactly makes living in an apartment building difficult and/or bearable. We asked each other:

  • How do inter-personal relationships amongst neighbours affect tenant organizing?
  • What exactly are the dynamics that prevent people from living together in harmony?

We will be taking up some of these issues, and others, next week!

If you have ideas about the answers to these questions, please let us know by leaving a comment.

To be continued…

Story telling circle


Story circle is about telling a personal story with an object and using that object as a starting point to tell a story about how they want their community to change for the better. I know that a lot of people tend to think that we will ask them to tell the stories about their hardships and their traumas, because a lot of personal storytelling is about that, but the stories from Transforming Stories are different. The stories we ask for are intended to be both personal and public. It’s how the personal transitions into the public and ends with the changes you want to see you in the realm of the public.

— Melanie Skene, Transforming Stories


We had a great first meeting of our new performance group last week! The participants were recruited because of their knowledge of the difficulties of holding on to decent rental accommodations in a rapidly changing Hamilton. But we didn’t start by talking about housing problems. As always in the Transforming Stories process, we started with a story circle.

In the week before the workshop, we asked all the participants, including the researchers, to imagine Hamilton ten years from now as a much better city. We asked: “What do you imagine life might be like for people with experiences like yours in that much better Hamilton?” Each person then chose an object to bring to the workshop that would help them tell a brief story about how the person they imagined might experience that new Hamilton.

The collection of objects people brought were as varied as the experiences of the group members:

  • a “worry bird” with a broken wing (pictured)
  • a paint brush
  • a Tim Horton’s Canada 150 coffee mug (pictured)
  • a Presto card
  • a photograph of the night skyline of a large, modern city (pictured)
  • a fridge magnet
  • a rose corps bracelet
  • a large ceramic tea mug
  • a Canadian nickel placed beaver side up

After getting to know each other a little bit over sandwiches and salad, we moved to sit in a circle around a low table on which each of us placed our object. One by one, we picked up our object and told a story about what life would be like in a much better Hamilton. After each person spoke, they passed their object to the person next to them. That person shared their reaction to the story by telling the group what colour they imagined the story to be and what their emotional reaction to it was. The listener then summarized what the story meant to them through a sentence that started with “This is the story of a person who…” After the story object had passed through the hands of all the listeners, the storyteller answered the same questions to share their sense of what their story was about.

It was an amazing feeling to come together around what we dream, and not just around the problems we need to solve. Some people remarked that sharing stories in this way was a deeper emotional process than they had expected. Others felt that the fact of actually handling each other’s objects created a special kind of attention (This is something we also heard from some participants in the pilot project that led to Transforming Stories, Driving Change. Definitely something to think more about…).

By the end of the evening, we had started to weave our individual visions into a collective story:

A story about people who…

have dreams and aspirations

make better change

are dreamers

want to make connections

care about their communities

co-exist with nature, care about each other

walk different walks in life

have the freedom to come and go in safety

In a city where…

things need to be done

change was needed

there is great potential

everyone has a home to call their own

everyone is welcome

we build each other up

people respect each other

people are helpful to each other