Death And The City
Headlines Theatre And The Uncertain Arts Of Democracy
"The man who loves sausage or legislation," said a worldly 19th century
statesman, "should never investigate too closely the details of how
either is produced." The amount of extraneous shit, misery and pure
human bloody-mindedness that go into either product doesn't bear too
much thinking about even now.
Late capitalism in all its globalized glory, has
re-defined us as consumers rather than citizens, and in the dim rooms
where we sit, sedated by CNN and Survivor, stimulated by video games
and on-line porn, there's no time or energy left for the engagement
that keeps civil society alive. Democracy has been voted off the
island. Too often, it has been replaced by advertising, commodity
anesthesia and special effects.
For nearly a quarter century, Vancouver's Headlines Theatre has
conducted a long and heroic campaign against this process of political
enervation. Founded in 1981 by a collective of young local theatre
artists and activists concerned about a housing and poverty crisis
(sound familiar?), the Headlines troupe took their first creation Buy,
Buy Vancouver to Ottawa together with then Mayor Mike Harcourt, who
arranged for the agit prop piece to play at the National All Sector
Conference on Housing at the Chateau Laurier.
The ornate Ottawa setting, full of developers, bureaucrats and policy
advisors, represented a slightly more upscale venue and audience than
the community centres and east side halls where the play had been
developed in ongoing dialogue with Vancouver anti-poverty activists and
Headlines, led by director/joker David Diamond, has created and
performed over 300 community-specific theatre projects on a wide
variety of issues from racism and violence to resource use and the
impact of globalization on human and environmental sustainability.
Increasingly, this ambitious set of topics has been approached in ways
that blend traditional theatre methods with elements of community
organizing and therapeutic group process.
Most notably, Headlines has been influenced by the populist,
interactive theatre discipline developed in Brazil by Augusto Boal,
Theatre of the Oppressed. Often this involves an approach (Power Play)
that first generates a story out of the lived experience of an
oppressed group through workshops, and then a performance that allows
audience members from that same community to come on-stage to enact new
turns to the plot.
Practicing Democracy (performed at the Japanese Hall on Alexander
Street in the Downtown Eastside, the Croatian Hall on Commercial Drive
and the Saint James Community Square in Kits for 19 shows this March)
pushes the link between the theatre experience and democratic practice
Boal did a brief turn as a member of his state's legislature and used
that vantage point to apply his participatory theatre methodology to
the task of creating proposed new legislation from the street
experience of his nation's poorest citizens.
Practicing Democracy is an attempt to apply this
experiment to the
Vancouver scene. The workshop involved its participants (thirty folks,
most of whom had lived with homelessness and poverty on Vancouver's
meanest streets and who worked together for a week to create the plot
and dialogue for the performance) and its audiences in how the city
could respond to years of cuts to social services. Vancouver City
Council endorsed this bold experiment unanimously and has agreed to
consider policy and legislative suggestions generated by the three-week
Although designed to call up proposals for city policy, Practicing
Democracy continues the Headlines tradition of turning its political
concerns into compelling theatre. The cast, James Mickelson, Sandra
Pronteau, Theresa Miles, Lilllian Carlson, Patrick Keating and Emily
Mayne, recreated every performance as a powerful, tragic arc of
narrative as lives scarred by poverty and homelessness spin out of
control into violence.
Forum theatre holds special challenges for its actors, who must respond
flexibly to audience interventions in an open ended dance of
improvisation . These performers rose to these challenges and delivered
strong, moving performances that embody the passion and suffering that
go with living poor in a wealthy city. They connected with audience
members who intervened and, under Diamond's deft, compassionate
on-stage direction (a process the artistic director refers to as
"joking") wove them into the creative process. This was moving theatre
and an encouraging experience of democracy right before our eyes.
Every performance was attended by Carrie Gallant, an adjunct professor
at the UBC law school and expert in law, mediation and conflict
resolution. Gallant has the task of generating, from the interactive
experience co-created by the Headlines performers and the audiences
this March, a set of policy proposals for concrete actions the city
could take to address issues of safety and survival for its poorest
The Province of BC was invited to participate as well, but the
Liberal's only response was a deafening silence. When the Columbia
Journal spoke with Gallant mid-way through the run of Practicing
Democracy, she could already see some themes for government action
emerging from the theatre process.
These include changing a police approach too often heavy with violence
and contempt when it meets poor people on the street, providing more
and better shelter for the homeless and training welfare bureaucrats to
communicate better and more respectfully with their clients.
Once again this courageous theatre company has expanded the boundaries
of what we can expect from theatre and from our political masters.
Headlines Theatre continues to be one of the nation's hidden cultural
Keep your eyes peeled for their next project Gimme the Keys and, in the
meantime, visit them on the web at www.headlinestheatre.com
Democracy can be a lived experience, not a wistful memory, and
Headlines is a model of the kind of public art that can help support
its continued vitality in evil times. Check them