Participant asks important questions

“Does It Really Ever Add Up to Anything? Who Is Listening?”

— Cass Henry

Community participant Cass Henry, who participated in creating the first performance of the pilot project for Transforming Stories, Driving Change, shares important questions about what effect this work actually has in the world. They are questions the research team will take up in the next phase of the project, in consultation with community participants who are working hard to make their voices heard.

Participating in this project has been a dual-punch for me. It has been a joy — to interact with my peers, to create a piece that is show-worthy, to perform and experience both the jitters and the post-performance-high. It has also been disastrously heart-breaking — to put so much energy into something and not really know that it will affect any form of change in the immediacy, to know that the next time I interact with a social service I am still likely to face the same problems I have faced previously, to expect that those in positions of power who have seen our work all agree it is though-provoking, but will it actually matter when policy is more of a financial numbers game than a human interest process?

I hesitate to think some of these thoughts and certainly to claim ownership of them by writing about them, because the process of creating our piece for Transforming Stories, Driving Change was truly a dream. I felt like a VIP who was coming to the table with all the knowledge and this research team was providing us with the tools (art) to squeeze out as much of that knowledge as I was willing to share. I felt respected, honoured, and truly inspired during the workshop phase of the process. When it came time to perform our work-in-progress, I felt treated like a real professional — we were fed, given time and space to practice, and we were financially compensated for our time. I have not previously (or since!) had such an amazing experience as a research participant, where I felt my integrity was upheld at every single turn. I highly recommend to anyone who has the opportunity to participate in this project that they take it!

But at the end of the day, tired from hours of work, practicing, performing and wrap-up discussion, I walk away wondering — does it really ever add up to anything? Who is listening?

We end our performance with the words “We need to talk.” And that couldn’t be more true. But when we leave our audience with their memory of our performance, that is the end of the conversation for us. We are still not invited to talk in other platforms. Our voices are given a momentary volume burst, before once more being silenced. Those with the power are making decisions that effect our daily lives, but rarely ever ask for our input or feedback in a meaningful way.

So do I write a review about my experience, about how lovely the researchers were, about how wonderful it was to be able to perform in front of students in the field and hopefully give them a different perspective of the system than they might find in their textbooks, about how empowered I felt in the moments after walking off stage after each performance …..?

Or do I write about how I really feel, about how I wonder whether this research ever informs true change? Are we merely stuck in the same rutted track, forever pushing against the edges, but in the end, succumb to the all-mighty dollar, sinking back once more to the path of least resistance?

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.”