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Columbia Journal logoVolume Nine, Number Two    April 2004    www.columbiajournal.ca

    Death And The City

    Headlines Theatre And The Uncertain Arts Of Democracy

    Tom Sandborn

    "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.

    Headlines TheatreLate capitalism in all its globalized glory, has successfully 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 Too often, it has been replaced by advertising, commodity anesthesia and special effects.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 community members.

    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 even further.

    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.

    Headlines TheatrePracticing 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 run.

    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 citizens.

    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 treasures.

    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 out.     

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