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!

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