Over the summer of 2013 I produced and directed an extraordinary community-based project in Victoria called From the Heart: enter into the journey of reconciliation. Audiences were invited in small groups to wend their way through a beautiful 14,000 sq. ft. indoor labyrinth made from salvaged doors and windows, trees, and hundreds of metres of fabric, all lit by paper lanterns. In the alcoves and chambers of the labyrinth, the audience encountered songs, scenes, and shadow theatre performances created by our ensemble of non-Indigenous Canadians to tell the transformative stories that have deepened their personal understanding about the lived experience of Indigenous peoples in Canada. We created the show to encourage dialogue about what it might mean for non-Indigenous people to take responsibility for learning more about our own history as a first step toward standing in solidarity with First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people. The show was produced in partnership with VIDEA: A BC-based International Development Education Association and The Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria . The labyrinth was designed by two internationally acclaimed architects, Mark Lakeman and Mar Ricketts, in consultation with project participants.
Much of my work as a theatre director/producer involves collaborating with groups to co-create original plays about the issues that they feel affect their lives. In some instances, co-creation means that I facilitate the development of a collaboratively authored script involving highly participatory research and playbuilding, which is then performed by the participants themselves. The techniques I use in these projects, are described at length in my book. For other projects, I take on more responsibility as playwright, conducting interviews with community members, writing material based on what I learn, and then bringing drafts of the scenes and song lyrics back to the interviewees for their assessment until they feel the script best represents their experience. These plays may be performed by the community members themselves, or by professional actors, or by a combined ensemble. I have also worked as a dramaturgical coach, helping performers shape and refine their own material to create a show.
One of my favourite websites is the archived web page for the Community Arts Network , which for over a decade offered experienced practitioners and first-time visitors a good sense of the shape of the field of community-based arts/applied theatre.
I have been in Canada since 2005, officially immigrated in November of 2007, and became a Canadian citizen in 2014. I live in British Columbia, where I recently defended my PhD dissertation in Applied Theatre at the University of Victoria. My research centres on issues of co-authorship and reciprocity between professional artists and community members in community-devised theatre projects. I am interested in theorizing models of collaboration that allow for all members of the project to enjoy an equal share in the creation of the work, as compared to models in which the artists take primary responsibility for shaping the participants' stories.
For my dissertation project, I examined hundreds accounts of unforgettable moments in theatre performances that were described as having produced among the spectators a kind of epiphany: a sudden and unexpected emergence of insight, or the radical re-assessment of a long-held assumption. Using a methodology called grounded theory I tried to 'reverse-engineer' these moments of aesthetic arrest. When I compared and contrasted what was happening on stage in all the descriptions in my study, I discovered that even though the plays were very different, there were clearly identifiable patterns in the staging. Five key categories emerged in the data, each with about six to ten variations. From this research, I constructed a vocabulary of theatre staging designed to give applied theatre artists and their community partners a common language to creatively co-author powerful plays about the community members' lives and their cultural perspectives. In the summer of 2016 I will be launching my new "how-to" book based on my doctoral research. RETURN TO TOP
Theatre director/producer, playwright
I began directing neighborhood kids in sketches when I was about seven years old; my professional directing and producing debut was at age fifteen with a rag-tag production of the back-alley opera archy and mehitabel, performed by an ensemble of teenagers at the Reed College Theater in Portland, Oregon.
In the late 1980s I co-founded a youth theatre company called Young Actors' Forum dedicated to bringing together ethnically, culturally, and economically diverse groups of children and teens to devise and perform plays about their perspectives on social issues.
A video adaptation of our production Turn Loose the Voices about young people's perspectives on the impact of prejudice and the value of diversity, won the top honour--the Gold Apple Award--at the National Educational Film and Video Competition, and is still used across the US as a teaching tool for diversity awareness courses and workshops. I wrote Strategies for Playbuilding primarily in response to the many members of the public who saw our theatre company's productions, and encouraged me to write about our collective creation process.
Some of my recent projects include Common Wealth, Rama and Shinta, you and me, and Full Frontal Nursing: A Comedy with Dark Spots.
Common Wealth was an original large-scale musical play produced in collaboration with an inter-cultural, inter-generational ensemble of over one hundred residents of Darrington, Washington (population 1100) and the nearby Sauk-Suiattle Indian reservation (population 400). Performed in a large festival tent on the edge of town, it incorporated stories from both communities over the course of time: their individual histories, their relationships with each other, and with the natural world that surrounds them.
Rama and Shinta, you and me, was a reminiscence theatre play I wrote and directed celebrating the life stories of an elderly couple who had immigrated to Canada from their native Indonesia, and who had both come of age during the horror of the wartime occupation of their country. This project was focused specifically on issues surrounding the devising of theatre scripts based on stories of real-life traumas. Inspired by the work of Dr. Julie Salverson, I experimented with approaches to devising and staging that were designed to avoid re-inscribing the traumatic experience on the storytellers during the course of the work, and to keep the play compelling without creating a performance that turned their very real life traumas into dramatic fodder for the audience's theatrical enjoyment.
Rehearsal stills from Rama and Shinta, you and me.
While in San Francisco, I worked with Candace Campbell, RN, to assist her in creating Full Frontal Nursing: A Comedy with Dark Spots, a one-woman show about the life of a middle-aged single parent in the nursing profession.
I occasionally work as an actor and storyteller with Puente Theatre here in Victoria. Since 2007, I have performed from time to time as the 19th century Canadian journalist and political reformer Amor de Cosmos for the British Columbia Legislative Assembly, The Victoria Times-Colonist Newspaper, BC 150 (for the 2008 Provincial sesquicentennial celebration), and the Victoria Freemason Lodge.
I have recently worked as an instructor in the Applied Theatre program at the University of Victoria. I have presented a number of papers and facilitated workshops at academic and professional conferences as well as special events such as the 2008 Alfred Edelman Lecture Series at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon, the 2009 Indigenous and Diversity Research Forum and the Teater Jambore Indonesian Theatre Festival near Jakarta, Java. I taught a course on community-based arts for the University of Victoria's department of Continuing Studies, and in the spring of 2009, I co-facilitated a course on arts-based research with Dr. Budd Hall of the University of Victoria's Office of Community-Based Research.
I am also a sculptor, puppet-maker and maskmaker. In addition to a commissioned work at the San Francisco Zoo, my work has been exhibited at the Community Arts Council of Greater Victoria , Xchanges Artists' Gallery, the Victoria Arts Connection and (in collaboration with Claudia Lorenz), The Port Angeles Fine Arts Center.
While working with young people to create scripts to perform for adult audiences, I often saw the kids produce riveting original material dealing with social issues. I began with the conviction that their perspectives are valuable in a community dialogue. For years I had been impressed by my young actors' sensibilities. I found them to be profoundly affected by many of the concerns and hopes held by adults. But it was a struggle for me to help them translate their perceptions into a script. Writing and improvisation about socially relevant issues generally led to talky scenes that didn't hold interest dramatically. They would tend to create scenes according to what they thought I wanted to hear or what they felt the audience should be taught. And they slipped too easily into playing out scenes and characters drawn from television and the movies.
Searching for a way to help them showcase their strengths, I kept returning to their keen insights about what went on between them and their friends, parents and siblings. This was the key. To produce theatre that would promote understanding of young people's perspectives, their real strength lay in dramatically presenting what they believe happens among human beings in a social environment.
Because this approach drew on their skills as social observers, I reconsidered their role in the process. I asked them to think of themselves not as actors creating individual characters, but as artists looking for ways to communicate their perceptions.
I asked them to tell stories about actual events in their experience related to our chosen topic. Rather than dramatize the stories as actors, they unpacked them: they together identified the most vivid, compelling elements in each story, pointing out the single phrases, gestures, sounds and images that, for them, reflected the essence of the event. It was an exciting exercise that drew upon their natural abilities as social observers. The elements they pulled out were inherently theatrical: these were the turning points, the subtle and glaring moments that defined the very nature of the relationships in the stories. They told more stories, and unpacked those. By stripping away the extraneous details of half a dozen different stories on the same basic topic, they found it surprisingly easy to identify patterns of behavior in the kind of things people had done or said. They began to appreciate the potential for incorporating these elements into one scene or song or dance that would capture the sense of what people do in situations like these.
But it wasn't enough to identify evocative elements or patterns of behavior. They also had to be able to present what they were learning in a dramatic form on stage. So, as artists, they began to experiment with found (commonplace) objects, props, and musical instruments, using them as tools to stage visual and aural metaphors that most elegantly and powerfully characterized their observations. How different were the results of this work compared to their earlier work! Instead of just inventing dialogue, the actors were fiercely searching for the most effective and theatrically exciting ways to show how they saw the world. As the exercises progressed, they became adept at bringing together all the different elements: text, movement, props and music, to collaboratively orchestrate a piece of theatre that expressed what they were discovering. They began to exercise substantial control over devising a show that communicated their collective vision.
This approach to playbuilding is founded upon the premise that a group of individuals can create vital and valuable theatre when they put aside opinions about what should happen and work to communicate on stage their perceptions about what does happen. The process is designed so that those with less experience or verbal ability are not left out. It is designed to enable a cast to directly translate the results of their research into an evocative, compelling script.