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.

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…

Personal and Community Transformation

“In the process of conversation, change happens”

— Jones

Editor’s Note: In this blog, "Jones" discusses the transformative potential of Transforming Stories and advises other Hamilton community members why they should participate. Jones is a community performer on Transforming stories.

Have you seen any changes come about from the transforming stories pilot?

I would like to think am a very good observer. That’s my secret. I observe things. And I have observed some changes in the community. The last time we came together I had to say, “Guess what? You know things are happening! And they asked, “What do you mean?” So I said, “Such and such agency have changed their policy and then another agency did the same thing. And some other agencies are doing the same thing. I don’t know for sure but we could be having some impact!” And it’s not just one agency. It couldn’t be just coincidence.

One person that could affect change attended almost every performance we did. She even knew when we changed some aspect of the skit. Sometimes we did a little tweak and sometimes I wondered if I should tell her what we did. And I thought, no I think she knows it. I don’t have to tell her anything. And she was like, “Oh, you guys changed skit up a little bit.” So, she was paying attention. From her agency there were some changes that were implemented. Which showed in my opinion that if you talk with people, and you have discussions, not telling them, not yelling at them, not blaming them, but have discussions change can happen. Transforming Stories is about discussing the problem. It’s a conversational piece. But in the process of conversation, change happens.

What about you? How has Transforming Stories changed you?

I think it gave me a voice, in an area I didn’t think it would. So, we’ve done talks, workshops, and interviews, which were all valuable. We’ve gone to some social work classes and some other community events. We have given some community talks and presentations. We’ve talked about the committee and what we do.

In going through all these stuff, it can be traumatizing. But I found conversing about these issues in this format, it was therapeutic, even though it was nerve-racking going up on stage and bearing it all. I am not very good at — one-on-one is great. Public? Oi! It’s nerve-racking! And I’ve gotten so many complements from people, including, the director. She said, “You’re really good at this. You are a natural.” And I say, “Mm-mm! You have no idea. I couldn’t sleep at night. I kept on thinking about this stuff. I was this nervous wreck!” And she says, “Girl, I didn’t see one hint of nerves.” And I will say, “Really?” So, I think something came out of this whole thing, which I didn’t even know I had. I began to speak and converse in a way. And my voice was heard. They were things that I want to say that I did not get to say at all. Or not allowed to say. Or I thought about it but didn’t say anything, but put on a smile. But I got to say some of those things. And I have more, trust me I’ve more stories to tell.

What advice would you tell a community participant who wishes to participate in Transforming Stories?

Advice number one, I would tell them to attend one of our performances. Most times they are free to attend. See what we are doing, and come chat with us. We look scary, but we are not scary. We are the most soft, shy, reserved women that you will ever come across. You know?

And I would encourage people to jump in. It’s not as scary as it seems. If you don’t feel that you have the guts to do the performing, sit around and watch the people that perform. You will learn so much. Because we still struggle with talking about this difficult stuff. And sometimes people feel or say that, “I don’t want my story to be out there.” Well these stories are a combination of people stories, it is not just one particular person’s story. My character’s stories are things that I’ve heard from friends, some have happened to me, some I have witnessed, Like taking someone to a place to get services and you hear some of these things being said.

And it’s good, because you get to say what you really want to say. And the people behind the desk get to hear what you really have to say without it being directed at them. Because they are human beings as well.

So, I say to people, just come. Attend performances. Join. And see where this can take you, because you would be surprised how much impact you can have for yourself and your community. It’s going to be the best thing ever, because you become part of the solution.


Chris Sinding

“I’m really fascinated by what art does and can do in the world…there’s a magic in it.”

Chris Sinding



In our in conversation with … series of posts we introduce you to the people behind the Transforming Stories, Driving Change project—the artists, researchers, and community participants who desire Transforming Stories to make a substantive contribution to civic engagement in the city of Hamilton. Chris Sinding is co-Principal Investigator on Transforming Stories, Driving Change and a Professor and Director of the School of Social Work at McMaster University.

What is your role on the Transforming Stories, Driving Change project Chris?

In the life of the project I feel my role is learner, observer, wonder-er… I’m really fascinated by what art does and can do in the world, and I bring that question to our big-picture conversations and also to the details of the workshops – to the image theatre exercises that my colleagues facilitate, for example.

I suppose too that, with some of the collaborators on the project, I hold down the social science end of the interdisciplinary spectrum of people involved in the project and thinking about what it all means. And then more specifically I have a role in considering how social work contributes to and can draw from what we discover together.

How did you get involved with Transforming Stories?

Many years ago, when I was a PhD student I was involved in (what we called at the time) a research-based drama project. The research part involved focus groups and individual interviews with women who had advanced breast cancer. The research team got together with a theatre director at Ryerson, and her troupe of amateur actors, and two women with advanced breast cancer, to create a drama, working from those interview transcripts.

And it had magic in it. It did things to us and to audiences that more conventional qualitative research rarely does. That’s not to diss conventional research… it just does different things.

I have done lots of qualitative research in cancer care over the past several years. And then more recently, I’ve started finding my way backwards and forwards, to arts-informed explorations and presentations.

What are your hopes for the project?

It’s partly about understanding the magic…! What does art do… and how does it do what it does?

As we reviewed the literature on arts-informed social work, the question we asked, over and over, was: what do the authors think art is ‘doing’ here? What is art achieving for service users or practitioners or student or researchers or communities – what is it achieving for relationships or for ideas about the social world… and especially what is art doing that that usual social work education or practice or research – does not do – or does not do as well?

In my readings on what art can do, three themes stand out. Art offers an alternative way for people to express themselves in situations where language or conventional or dominant language is ill-suited for what needs expressing, inadequate or constraining or exclusionary…

Art allows us to imaginatively enter the situation of another … The idea here is that when we engage with art about people and communities unfamiliar to us, we are able to participate vicariously in their worlds; our senses are activated; we respond emotionally as well as intellectually; we come to ‘know’ the other in ways we would not in a more conventional account. The classic metaphor here is that art enable us to walk in another’s shoes.

The third theme rests on the idea that dominant images (media images, stereotypes more broadly), inculcated into our ways knowing, become perceptual habits… habits of knowing that diminish others. The idea here is that artful images, especially as they are in compelling ways set against or in their contrast with dominant images – can interrupt our usual ways of understanding and knowing – art can ‘break bad habits’ of knowing.

There are all kinds of complexities and potential problems with these ideas as well… for example, what happens to someone else when we ‘walk in their shoes’ – might their shoes become damaged in some way? And if art is so good at ‘getting stuff out’ – might people who engage with art ‘say more’ than they might have wished?

So it’s not simple, the ethics of it are not simple. Now that I’m involved much more closely with scholars and practitioners from other disciplines, my ideas about what art does and can do are widening…

What can Transforming Stories, Driving Change contribute to the social sciences?

TSDC is concerned with the conversation happening in Hamilton about the future of the City, about life in this community, about what’s good for us as a community. We know that many people are excluded from this conversation, not because they have nothing to say, but because only certain speakers as recognized as legitimate — and only certain ways of speaking are heard or recognized as worthy contributions to the conversation.

This project tries to interrupt the value patterns that fail to recognize the contributions of so many people… and uses theatre to do this. The idea is that certain kinds of theatre can make visible and ‘play with’ cultural values, norms that underlie communication… and in making them visible, allow us to talk about them, and challenge them if they need challenging.

What advice would you give to a person new to performance-as-research who will be taking part on the Transforming Stories, Driving Change project?

A few hours before my first experience of a story circle and image theatre workshop, I met with a colleague in the School of Social Work who was also a participant. We were beyond ourselves!! We were so anxious… I was having complete introvert meltdown at the thought of being exposed, of not being able to prepare for what would happen, of having to move and play rather than stand and speak… and especially in front of academic colleagues. I suppose I would say to people: there is magic in it…