Why Would You Bother? Reflections of a Community Engaged Arts Practitioner Working with Youth in a Low-Income Neighbourhood
Guest post by Dale Hamilton
It smacked me on the face the night before the performance, when only 3 of 8 cast members showed up for the dress rehearsal (and only random handfuls at previous rehearsals) that we’d be facing an audience the next day having never gone through all the scenes with all the cast, with all the costumes & props, even though the cast were all being given honourariums. As I looked around at the room filled with costumes and not filled with cast members, I reminded myself never to do a community arts project again, bearing in mind that I’ve said this same thing at low points during every project over the past 20 years.
When we finally reached some of the absent cast members by phone, they told us that they’d memorized their lines so they didn’t think they needed to show up, even though attending the dress rehearsal was written right into the letters of agreement they’d signed months before and we’d reminded them frequently and recently about the importance of the dress rehearsal. I had to remind myself that in most cases this was their first experience being in a play (why is this, educational system of Ontario?) I guess I’d assumed that everybody knew the importance of a dress rehearsal. Another assumption down the drain.
That same evening we took the cast members (the ones we could find) over to a local bike shop run by volunteers who were donating bikes to the cast (to use as props in the play and then as community bikes, to be loaned out to residents.) Having just navigated an incident involving one of the cast members stealing gum on our way past a convenience store, a “teachable moment” for them (and for me) arose when a loud argument erupted amongst some of them over who got which bike and I reminded them that the bikes were going to belong to the neighbourhood and that everybody working in this bike shop is a volunteer. One cast member looked at me, incredulous, and asked: “So if they’re not getting paid, why would they bother?” This gave me an opening (about the size of a barn door) to talk about environmentalism and voluntarism without sounding too preachy, seeing as it was in response to a question in a real life situation. I like to think I saw a few light bulbs flicker on, certainly not full-fledged life-changing epiphanies, but maybe enough new light to see the world slightly differently.
The bike shop incident re-energized me to find ways to have these kids (and my own) experience more “giving” and less “getting”. Most social service workers/community artists/parents (myself included) focus on giving, and that can be a good thing, but I want to focus more energy on finding ways to co-create environments where “disadvantaged youth” find meaningful opportunities to experience voluntary giving. I don’t know exactly what that will look like yet, but it’ll be interesting to see if we can develop a spirit of voluntarism amongst young people who are accustomed to being the “target population” for well-meaning volunteers.
The next morning, hours before the performance, I reminded myself that I was just going to have to get through this day and then never do this again. This thought was reinforced when the musical director and I arrived to find jackhammers, pavement cutting equipment and other heavy machines working literally on top of our first performance area. I tried to talk to the construction guys about it, but they couldn’t hear me over the ear-splitting noise. It was at this point that I seriously considered turning around and heading home (via the nearest liquor store).
But then things started to turn around. The workers agreed to hold off on the noisy part of their work during our performance. The sun came out and the wind died down. The cast all showed up for a hastily-called morning rehearsal and we did a stumble-through that ended ten minutes before the performance. And it turned out that most of them knew most of their lines and at the very least seemed to be getting the hang of looking to the prompter when they got lost.
And then, during the performance, the “influence” of live theatre took over (I won’t call it the “magic” of live theatre because that implies that getting there isn’t a hell of a lot of hard work). What I mean is that the audience and the performers came to be “under the influence” of theatre – the performers gave their best, the audience responded, the cast reciprocated and the creative to-and-fro began. And there it was, right in my face, tangible, I could almost taste it – the reason why I bother.
Despite all the hiccups (and there were many), there were enough moments during the performance that made it all feel worthwhile – like the moment when the audience quadrupled in size as people saw there was something crazy happening out on the street. Or like the moment when the single mother, on her way to work, stood in awe as her son rapped about protecting the environment (as a single mother myself, I like to think that she went to work feeling that the struggles are all worthwhile). Or the moment when the little kid thought the guy in the tree costume was actually a talking tree. Or when the audience erupted into applause at the end and some of the kids in the audience rushed forward wanting to try on the costumes and re-enact some of the scenes.
It’s worth noting, I think, that the musical director and I ended up filling in at the last minute for two cast members who dropped out entirely about a week before the performance – one because she realized that performing brings on panic attacks and the other because she got a job (and omitted telling us until we tracked her down). This “emergency” casting arrangement ended up being a blessing in disguise because it enabled the musical director and the director (me) to keep things on track and keep the energy up between scenes. So from now on I’m going to build a couple of professional actors (not me whenever possible) into the casting from the beginning. Out of the ashes of crisis and chaos, some kind of creative order can arise.
I honestly don’t know if the youth really learned anything during this process. I like to think so, but I can’t say for certain and if they did, I don’t know how to measure it. I’ve been around the block often enough to know that “success” is a relative thing and that small victories can add up, and that changing the direction of even one life out of, say, eight, is no small task but that it can pay off big time in the long run.
I know that I learned something, even if they didn’t – one thing being that somehow I need to take the give-and-take “magic” that happened between the cast and the audience during the actual performance and infuse it into the process.
And I re-learned that relationship-building takes time and I shouldn’t forget that this play is only a step in a longer, larger process.
Oh ya, and I re-learned that I really need to find a way to make this work less labour-intensive. The problem is that I don’t have time to do the work necessary to make the work less work, if that makes sense (I think I’m over-tired). I guess I’m still working on how to do this. And, yes, I’ve already broken my promise to myself to stop doing community arts.
Dale Hamilton has been writing, producing and directing theatre for over 25 years and has been instrumental in the community-engaged theatre movement in Canada.