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.


  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…


“Choose Your Destination.” Sketch by Sarah Adjekum.

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

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

Support & solidarity

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

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

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

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

A place to chill

“Dreaming.” Sketch by Sarah Adjekum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snow: …imagine being safe and happy

Joanne: Girl, you’re dreaming…

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

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



Sarah Adjekum reflects on the nuances of representation

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

                                      Sarah Adjekum

Sarah Adjekum is a social worker, PhD student in the Health and Society program at McMaster University and a research assistant with Transforming Stories, Driving Change. She is a longtime Hamilton resident who has been involved with community organizing on various issues including issues of racial discrimination. Her passions include social inequality, spatial justice, poetry and sketching. As we enter the final stages of our current Transforming Stories creation series working with Good Shepherd Youth Services Sarah reflects on some of the ways the youth are working to address issues of gender diversity, sexual orientation and race-based discrimination

Understanding Gender

“Building Scenes” sketch by Sarah Adjekum.

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

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

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

Tackling the Nuances of Race

“Developing Themes” Sketch by Sarah Adjekum.

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

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

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

Seeds: 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!


Jennie Vengris

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

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

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

— Jennie Vengris


So what is your primary role on Transforming Stories?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can Transforming Stories offer Social Work?

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

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

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

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



Melanie Skene

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

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

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

— Melanie Skene

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

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

And what is your role on Transforming Stories?

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

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

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

How did you get involved on the project?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!