after homelessness: sinking heart

after homelessness

At the beginning of after homelessness, David Diamond, Artistic Director of Headlines Theatre, tells us to view the piece with an open heart, and I did just that. Unfortunately, by the end of the night, the strain made me in danger of suffering an aneurism.

The production is promoted as policy making theatre; a community scribe, Gail Franklin, will make note of ideas from the audience each night, write up a policy report, to be presented to different levels of government. Diamond tells us that “Tonight, we have the potential to create change”.

Forum theatre or “VCR Theatre” (ie theatre that can be rewound) works like this; the play itself is half an hour, it is then performed again with audience participation. If an audience member sees an opportunity for a character to make a better choice then they do in the play, they yell “freeze!” take over a role, and improvise with the actors. One of the rules, when an audience member assumes a character, is not to use “theatrical magic”; you can’t make someone not an addict, mentally ill, or homeless. It’s Choose Your Own Adventure Political Theatre.

Before the play, we are welcomed by a Musqueam Elder, who reminds us that his people welcomed the English and the Spanish when they first arrived here, resulting in the Musqueam being the first homeless people in Vancouver. This is a horribly profound and important thought, given that years later First Nations People who experience homelessness face multiple barriers, including the multigenerational effects of residential schools.

The set for after homelessness is really great; four SRO (Single Room Occupancy) rooms loom at the back, while the common room - filled with crappy furniture, complete with dirty needles slipped down the couch- is the preferable place to be. A “homeless” tarp home is stage right; set in a graffiti covered alley it’s a well crafted interpretation of what we see every day in Vancouver.

Nico (Justine “Fraggle” Goulet) arrives at an SRO on the Downtown Eastside where Katie (Janette Pink), Shawna (Sandra M. Pronteau), and Cloud (Sundown Stieger) are residents. Katie is working hard to get out, and find affordable regular housing away from the Downtown Eastside area.

Cloud is Katie’s surrogate son, and he is scared of the change leaving the SRO will bring; this is where he knows how to survive. Shawna has an ongoing struggle with addiction, and the resulting prostitution and shakedowns to pay for the drugs, which are supplied by her dealer and pimp, Cloud.

Meanwhile Bob (Kevin Conway) makes desperate and increasingly angry calls on his cell phone to track down a friend who owes him money. His landlady is about to put his belongings out on the street. This is his make or break night, and he’s already breaking.

Bob is bi-polar, and is mixing his meds with booze. Desperate, alone on the streets, Bob starts a conversation with Cloud, who invites him into the SRO. In the common room, Cloud summons Shawna to be Bob’s drinking buddy, possibly more, depending on how he wants to play this, or, more accurately, how they want to play Bob.

Nico tries to stay away from everyone, but back in her room (where the previous tenant killed himself), the bedbugs and lack of privacy fill her with fear and rage. Everyone is at a fever pitch due to inadequate/non existent housing.

Katie has a nightmare appointment with a BC Housing worker, who tells her that her name is not in the system. Katie believes she should be at the top and had been expecting something to be ready any day now. Katie is angry to say the least; she’s been phoning every week as instructed, and here she’s told she has to start again.

Bob spends the night on the SRO common room couch, and has his backpack stolen. The next morning he freaks; not only are his cell phone and ID gone, he doesn’t have his meds. If he doesn’t take them by noon, he’ll be severely ill, and unable to cope.

Such nightmares are why Otis (Holly Anderson) has found a solution to the problem; he’s made his own housing out on the streets. For Otis, staying away from the SROs, with their drug use and bedbugs, is the safest choice he can make to cope with his addiction, and mental illness. Otis likes his tarp home; he keeps things clean, and finds a toaster he can plug into an electrical socket in the building behind him, so he can offer fresh toast when old girlfriend Nico comes to visit. He’s solved his own problems.

When the building security comes with a cop to move Otis along, the situation quickly turns dangerous. Otis knows he can’t cope with jail and another round of SROs, and the trigger happy cop taisers away.

Morgan Forry had been scheduled to play Otis, but his real-life struggles kept him out of the production; Headlines Theatre casts their play with people from the local community. Holly Anderson, the production counseling/support person plays the role for the run. She rises to the occasion of this difficult and emotional task. Kevin Conway is good throughout, and has some beautiful moments of quiet desperation with Sundown Stieger, when Bob and Cloud teeter on the edge of trust, though never surrendering. The three female actors, Pink, Pronteau, and Goulet are obviously deeply committed to the realism of the piece, and the need for connection and understanding. The ensemble demonstrates strength and grace throughout.

The play is, however, problematic in its portrait of mental illness and other issues. Nico appears to hear voices, but this issue is not explored; does she have schizophrenia, or is she just lacking sleep? Bob wants to take his meds and is terrified when they’re gone which is often the opposite of reality; many mentally ill people refuse to take their meds. He is mixing them with alcohol, which is presumably contributing to his increased anxiety, but also not the behavior of someone who otherwise seems determined to stick to a regime.

The cop tasering scene is a shoddy interpretation of an ill trained officer over reacting with tragic results. When the cop first tasered Otis, someone behind me said, “Oh please!” The sudden and extreme reaction of the officer is cringe-worthy, undermining the point trying to be made: a tragic lack of police training for understanding/responding to the mentally ill.

Another big elephant in the room is family; no one has any. Living with mental illness is an extraordinarily painful experience. Having a family member with a mental illness is often referred to as having a funeral everyday. Families of the mentally ill are desperate for there to be quality resources for their loved one. Often, it is dangerous for the loved one to live with them, especially when not taking their meds can turn them violent. To not address this seems like a substantial cheat.

At the end of play, director David Diamond returned to the stage and the interactive part began, which is when my open heart sank like a stone.

Diamond took an audience poll of how many people have jobs involving work with the homeless and/or mentally ill. He estimated about 40%, and I am part of that group; I’m a Legal Information Outreach Worker (LIOW) at Legal Services Society. He asked that we take off our professional hats and be human beings together for the rest of the evening.

It took a long time for anyone to interrupt the play and join in. Diamond addressed this fact, likening the silence in the room to the silence “out there”. Excuse me? Discomfort/inexperience for an interactive theatre experience is different from the community apathy he saw “out there”. Also, surely suggesting this flies in the face of the inclusive atmosphere that will encourage participants to give ideas for a policy report to initiate change.

When Diamond asked for explanation for the silence, someone said it seemed disrespectful to speak on someone’s behalf when you haven’t lived a similar life. They were assured by Diamond that it wasn’t. Finally someone called “freeze”.

On the night I saw after homelessness, the cop tasering scene had two audience members join in. One asked to be the cop in the piece. She portrayed the cop not being trigger happy after all, but wanting to reason with Otis. When Diamond asked her and the actors to “think of the one thing your character wants/is thinking, and would never tell anyone. Commit to it, and then tell us” The Audience Cop said she wished she didn’t have to move Otis along. Sundowner Stieger as Frankie, the security worker who had to call the cop, said, “If I had a back yard, I’d let you stay there.” A very real moment, and when Diamond asked how many of us could relate to that feeling, most did.

Diamond followed up with, “why aren’t there tents in all your back yards, then?” Why aren’t there tents in David Diamond’s back yard? Is it because there are zoning laws, because neighbours would call the police, and above all, because it’s not a safe solution? Is it perhaps a ridiculous question?

Of course it’s often safer for people to spend the night outside than in a shelter filled with violence, thievery, and above all drugs. But this doesn’t make it safe. Last January in Vancouver, a homeless woman died in a tarp home fire when she lit candles to keep warm. Is the solution for that to instead happen, literally, in our own back yard?

The next audience member to change the scene was a Pivot Legal Society lawyer, who assumed the role of Otis.  With his hands above his head, instead of fighting off and getting tasered, Audience Otis said, “Officer, if you go into my tent, you’ll find a business card for a lawyer at Pivot Legal. I’d like you to call them.” This brought the house down with laughter and cheers. Diamond asked if people living the life of Otis would know about their legal rights/contacts, and if anyone is telling them.

Yes, I said, as an LIOW, my job involves outreach in the community, letting people know about their rights, and about resources. However, we’ve had cuts to funding, (I don’t yet know what sort of service there will be come April 1). It was unfortunate that any discussion of this and other points made in this rewind part of the evening were rushed and not discussed with any detail; it seems unfortunate to not at least quantify the nature of the resources on offer and where and how these resources may or may not be being used.

Diamond asked how many people recognized that a lot of voices were going on inside the character Shawna’s head. He suggested that not all the voices originate inside Shawna, they come from us. Hang on, I thought we were too silent, now we’re the cause of a chemical brain disorder? If there’s “a lot of voices  going on for Shawna” in terms of character motivation, rather than mental illness, it needs to be clarified; there’s enough misinformation about mental illness “out there” as it is.

There’s a lot of good intention and hard work put into after homelessness. For example, one of the people listed as part of the “Community Working Group” is someone I’ve met a few times, and she is a tireless advocate working for people to get decent housing. There is much to be admired about the intent of after homelessness. Diamond says he was inspired by Michael Kirby, chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, when he said, “We have turned the streets and the prisons into the asylums of the 21st century”. There must be more money, compassion, and community involvement to help the mentally ill in their struggle for housing and dignity. While interacting with an audience filled with advocates/community workers might have some value, I’m not sure how this project reaches out to the mainstream, where people may be learning for the first time how these asylums are imploding, making life worse not just for those living it, but for their families and you and me.

The arts must involve itself in the most difficult experiences of humanity, to reach out, and bare witness. Political playwright Howard Brenton says it particularly well, “If you are not prepared to show humanity at its worst, why should you be believed when you show it at it’s best? ...You must not sell human suffering short.” Ultimately, I think where we are sold short with after homelessness, is not recognizing humanity at its best, because with this project, community is not shared in equal measure. “Policy making theatre” needs to acknowledge that people are proposing policy all the time, with the very same good and meaningful intentions this project seems to have. By not having a balanced perspective, after homelessness breaks an open heart.

after homelessness continues at Holy Trinity Cathedral, 514 Carnarvon Street, New Westminster, December 1 -6, 2009. For more information seek shelter here.

By Cathy Sostad