Interview with “AWAKE” Co-Director Chris Tolley

Cast picture of the "AWAKE" ensemble.AWAKE is a multi-media experience that incorporates spoken word, dance hall, hip hop, docu-theatre and gospel music into an event that sheds light on gang violence, community, and human resilience. Based on hundreds of interviews conducted with real people from the Jamestown and surrounding areas, AWAKE runs until July 17th as part of The Toronto Fringe Festival. I spoke with co-director Chris Tolley about the production and the issues that are central to AWAKE.

What initially prompted you to create AWAKE?

My partner Laura Mullin and I have been working in Jamestown for 8 years through UrbanNoise, and we’ve come across the most incredible stories. But they’re so far removed from most people’s lives- if we hear them at all, it’s through a tiny blurb in the newspaper. We wanted to really get those stories out there, so that people could hear what they don’t normally have access to.

Performers from "AWAKE".What do you think are the most common misconceptions about Jamestown, and how do you attempt to rectify those attitudes?

We want to show how easy it is to fall into trouble, and that it’s not a reflection of character, but just the roll of the dice in terms of what circumstances you’re put in. So much of it is about a lack of opportunity, even with tiny things that most of us take for granted. Kids in Jamestown can’t even hang out at the mall, if they’re in a group of three or more, without police asking them to leave. We want to give audiences a better understanding of these neighbourhoods, and to remind them that they exist in Toronto.


Cast member from "AWAKE".

Your production incorporates a number of different types of performance. What was the intention behind that choice?

What we learned from our work with UrbanNoise is that so many different cultures co-exist in Jamestown,  which lead to all of these different art forms. We wanted to capture the essence of that vitality and diversity. We also wanted to make sure that we weren’t re-victimizing the neighbourhood. Something like Dancehall is so lively and exciting, and it’s a great contrast to the more depressing aspects of the play.

Cast member from "AWAKE".Your collaborative method of production relied heavily on community participation. How difficult was it to convince community members to get involved in your project?

We were initially concerned, because it can be really dangerous for these people to share their stories. But everyone was so hungry to have their story heard, and felt that the city didn’t know or understand what was going on. So in the end the reaction was the exact opposite of what we expected, and we were overwhelmed by how many people were willing to contribute. We had also already built up trust within the community through UrbanNoise, which probably helped us as well.

Cast member from "AWAKE."

What do you think can be done to improve the conditions in Jamestown?

Well there’s no easy solution [to gang violence], and we don’t try to present one. But it’s really about a lack of opportunities. Arts programs, sports programming, anything that can make a kid feel like they have something to be proud of, like they have something to look forward to, and that someone is recognizing their voice and giving them a chance to be heard.

AWAKE is performing at 8:00pm every night this week until July 17th, at the Walmer Baptist Church. Tickets are $10 at the door, or $11 in advance. For more information, visit this link. All photos are courtesy of Expect Theatre.

Amy Goudge is the Summer 2011 Membership Intern at Neighbourhood Arts Network.

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