Theatre for Living: Us and Them -- The Inquiry

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David Diamon of Headlines Theatre with a Vancouver audience devising Us and Them [The Inquiry]. Photo Tim Matheson.

Headlines Theatre Company was founded in Vancouver in 1981 by a group of writers, actors and theatre directors who were "disgruntled by the kind of theatre work we were asked to do," according to its artistic director David Diamond. The Jessie award-winning company is about to enter its 30th year with its most ambitious project yet. Us and Them [The Inquiry] brings ordinary people to the stage to tell stories of conflict and explores reasons and resolutions. Diamond explains the company and the process involved in devising theatre this way.

Cathryn Atkinson: I don't quite know whether to start with your concept Theatre for Living or the company itself, they are so closely connected. Which would you prefer to start with?

David Diamond: Chronologically, it's the company and then Theatre for Living.

CA: Ok. Tell me a bit about Headlines Theatre Company.

DD: [The founders] had political leanings and in 1981 we decided to make a play about housing problems, so we made a play about organizing for affordable housing. We had no idea we were starting a theatre company, we just wanted to do a project.

And it was a kind of cult hit! None of us were prepared for what happened. It played in a different place in Vancouver every night, and was rewritten every day, based on the news. It named names and was satirical and had music.

It was packed. We were using the answering machine as the box office and it got to the point where I couldn't stay home! [Laughs.] It was incredible. Documentary filmmaker Nettie Wild was part of the company and we ended up with a video documentary on organizing for affordable housing, and Project Ploughshares phoned. They asked if we'd be interested in doing a piece about disarmament that turned into a project about militarism and toured across the country and then it was 1984! It was three years later and it just kept going.

CA: It sounds like there was a real need.

DD: It hit a lot of nerves, yes. It started off as a collective. Nettie and I were the people who were doing all the admin work and then by 1984, that person had become me... it had turned into a full-time job.

I met and worked with Augusto Boal [Brazilian theatre director, writer, politician and founder of Theatre of the Oppressed] in Paris and that began a very long and deep friendship. That introduced me to Theatre of the Oppressed, and that shifted Headlines' work.

By the early 90s, invitations were coming to do Theatre of the Oppressed work, but to find a way to change the language of the work.

CA: Why was there a need to change the language of the work?

DD: Because communities I worked with were finding it was polarizing their communities, in particular First Nations communities. They were dealing with issues of residential schools, that was the work I was being asked to do, and it wasn't helpful to them to divide their own communities up into oppressed and oppressors.

CA: It was too much?

DD: It wasn't that it was too much. It was that there were oppressed oppressors and oppressing oppressed. This binary way of looking at what was going on [used by Theatre of the Oppressed] wasn't helpful. So it started to adapt and that really led me down a very different path that links into my own lifelong interest in physics and a systems view of the world.

I started to confront my own issues in letting go of the language in the model, my own need to have very clearly defined enemies because it made my political organizing simpler, my life easier. I started to really question that.

CA: So how would you say Theatre for Living is doing now, as opposed to where you started with Theatre of the Oppressed?

DD: It has not only let go of the language of oppressor and oppressed, it has let go of the model entirely.

CA: When you say you're Theatre FOR Living it sound like a more positive dynamic.

DD: We're not talking about something that condones bad behaviour. But I got tired of dealing with symptoms. What started to happen was, working with communities, recognizing that the living communities themselves were living, integrated, complex organisms that had all of these different elements inside them, just like all of us do.

The great oppressors of the world, the iconic oppressors -- the Hitlers, the Pinochets -- they didn't come from outer space to make our lives miserable. We GREW them, and this is always the case, that we trick ourselves into thinking that we're prisoners of the structures that we inhabit. But nature teaches us that it is patterns of behaviour that creates structure, not the other way around.

[Paulo] Friere writes about this really eloquently in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, where he states the challenge isn't winning the revolution, the challenge is, having won the revolution, not becoming the very thing you were fighting against.

CA: There are many examples of that.

DD: Yes, and why does that happen? I think it happens because our activism tends to focus on changing the structures, and we neglect really challenging the patterns of behaviour that created the structure in the first place. So we are doomed to recreate the same structures all over again.

CA: It's very thought provoking, your work. You must get some very strong reactions.

DD: Yes, I do. It's interesting; [When doing the] events I started to understand how radical it really is.

CA: Tell me about Us and Them [The Inquiry], your current production.

DD: Part of the way I introduce the evening is that I say that the global warming issue has the potential to be a great teacher for humanity.

Some of the questions that are there for us to ask are: On this little blue speck, hanging out in the middle of nowhere, there really is nowhere to go -- Who are "They"? And when do we figure out that there is only "Us" here? What is it about humanity that compels us to create "The Other"? What kind of systems and structure would grow out of us if we really understood this at a fundamental level? It would transform the world we live in.

The event uses a technique from Boal that I've adapted called The Rainbow of Desire -- there is no play, there are no actors, there is no script. It's just me and an audience, a group of people that just gather each night.

I ask for three people to offer stories out of their own lives, not their friends' lives, not relatives, not the movies, but their own lives. A moment in their recent history when they come together with another human being and either they turned that person into "The Other" or that person turned them into "The Other." We hear the three stories and the room chooses a story, the person who is telling the story is then with me on the stage for the rest of the evening being themselves. We're not there to do a psychoanalysis of this person, the story is going to become an image.

Last night, the story came from a man, a black man, his racial origin is important. He was speaking to an old friend. She was in her car and the man was leaning through on the passenger window, and out of the blue comes this voice that says, "Don't fucking move!" And a gun is at his head.

An undercover police officer has decided that he is the guy they are looking for, someone who has just done a home invasion in the neighbourhood. A moment of racial profiling.

Somebody comes to you, in this case, to play the police officer. Why play the cop? Not to demonize that character, not to make fun of the character, but to put that character on the stage with as much integrity as we can.

If we want to get inside what is happening here, we have to honour both of these characters. We don't need to agree, but we need to put humanity on the stage. The officer is doing what he is doing because he believes he's right, not because he believes he's wrong.

The challenge is to put the story on stage with integrity. So somebody comes to play the officer because they understand something about what is happening for the officer. It takes courage to do, from both sides of the coin.

So we've got the story up on the stage, and as a theatre director I'm looking for that moment when the fears and desires of both characters are pounding up against each other.

CA: That's an easy point to reach quite quickly with these two characters.

DD: It depends on the story. In this scenario I had them do it over and over until we could find that place where it actually became alive, and not a demonstration of the moment.

CA: And how long did that take?

DD: To do an introduction, to get stories, to choose a story, to put the story up -- it takes about an hour. So now we've got the scene and I say the storyteller, the person who is narrating the story, "In this moment you have desires towards the officer. Please don't explain anything, show me a shape of this desire."

He makes a shape and I say to the audience, "Who understands this desire?" and all kinds of hands go up. "Who can up and be it? Turn it into a character?" and lots of hands go down -- but somebody comes up. Why does somebody come up to play his desire? Not because they know what's inside the storyteller, but because they know this desire. We are pluralizing the story. We are not turning it into a psychoanalysis of one person.

The room is going to own this story.

I say, "There is fear towards the officer. Make a shape of the strongest fear."So another shape, another person. We people the stage with the fears and desires of both characters. Having these fears and desires on the stage, we can do some improvisation work in different permutations and combinations. During the course of doing that, funny things happen because it's improv, really profound things happen because it's about us.

We peel the layers away from what starts off a personal story but has become an iconic story for the room.

CA: Does it have a deep impact with people?

DD: Yes. At the end of the evening I am always asking audiences what they are taking away from that night. And last night... many people speak, but last night two women got up, both of them First Nations women, and said similar things. Their sons had had exactly this thing happen to them and had been beaten up by the police, and what had happened there in the room was a release for them because they know inside them that the way to deal with this issue is not just to go ‘fucking pigs', but to try and find why it happens because there are human beings involved here and we all have choice.

It was the first experience they said they'd had that helped them to understand how to deal with what happened to their sons. I believe this is because it's not only honouring one side of the story. That if we really want to deal with the issues that we a struggling with, we have to be prepared to investigate what's really going on.

If we want to deal with racism, for instance, we have to be prepared to talk to the racist. It's not something that people are taught to do.

I run training workshops every summer and this last summer, there was a woman from the United States who had taken the training. Near the end of it, because we do discussions every day, she said, "you know, the more I understand what this is, the more radical I realize this is, and I am starting to wonder if the community I live in can do this, because they are so attached to the polarized lense. It's the idea that this is more radical than can be accomplished in the community that I am living in."

I mean this when I say that I believe the planet needs a revolution and it's this: to mature enough to get beyond this idea that there is any kind of "Them" out there.

CA: I'd like to know the response of the young man whose story you devised this way.

DD: He loved it. God, he was beaming. It's not so much what he said; he and the guy who played the cop, and I don't need to know why this young man came to play the cop, understands the cop, I didn't ask him that... They had this huge embrace in front of the audience when the whole thing was over, because I think they'd both been challenged and learned things about themselves and about the larger issue.

They weren't actors but they were both brilliant. [They learned] that we all, in every moment of our lives, we have choice.

This is the second performance of Us and Them (the Inquiry) which involved a confrontation with police. I can answer this question more clearly from the first event, rather than the one I just described.

That story came from an anti-Olympic demonstration. A young woman got into a confrontation with a police officer and he pushed her to the ground. And there were a number of people who had been at these demonstrations in the audience. The man who ended up playing the officer, and I know this because he shared it with us, was a police officer in South Africa under Apartheid.

And the activists in the room, when it was over, talked about how amazing it had been because, of course, the police are always "the pigs". If we get inside the fear and desire of the human being on the other side of the line our tactics shift.

This isn't about condoning bad behaviour or saying we shouldn't work to change structure. It is about how we get down, inside the moment, not the symptom but the root causes, and at a really human level start to investigate the patterns of behaviour that create the structures in which we live in.

CA: How many productions a year do you tend to do like this?

DD: Headlines does one main stage piece a year, and this is it this year, but this is an unusual moment because Us and Them (the Inquiry) is the start of a two-year-long project.

Last year, the main stage project was After Homelessness, created and performed by people who knew homelessness. There was a play that got made, got performed each night, asking the question "What does it take to create housing that's safe and appropriate when people have been homeless?"... and the mental health issues that tend to go along with that? How do we create safe and appropriate housing so that once people come off the street, they don't end up back on the street.

That piece won outstanding production of the year at the Jessies last year. It's important because good intentions or good politics are not enough. What actually creates the transformative moment is good art.

CA: And it's art that comes through public participation.

DD: Yes. It is the language of humanity. You don't have to be a trained professional actor to be on the stage. Like anything else, some people are better at it than others, but we all can speak the language.

So, Us and Them (the Inquiry) -- is a two-year-long project. There these 21 events where there's only process, there is no product. And then, in February [2011], a subsidized two-day intensive training in the Rainbow of Desire.

People are signing up to take the training, it won't be first come, first served. We want people to apply and tell us who they are, why they want to take the training. We're going to look for a really diverse group of 30 people who have the desire and ability to sign letters of agreement with us that they then take what we teach them and do Us and Them events in their own communities.

CA: And this will allow the unique approach to be fanned out.

DD: Yes. We want some kind of promise. Then, this time next year, there is going to be a big theatre/dance collaboration. This will be a piece that will work in an audience interactive kind of way. A more iconic piece, that uses the insights from the Us and Them (the Inquiry) events, from the training and other work, to create a larger piece on issues of Us and Them. It will be our 30th anniversary production.

CA: Have all of your previous projects been along this line? Was it a journey from more traditional theatre to this?

DD: I trained as a professional actor in the mainstream theatre, and I did that for years -- theatre, radio, television, film. I guess I fell in with the wrong crowd and ended up doing this! (Laughs.)

I've been very lucky in that I've managed to marry my interest in human rights and social justice with my art. Not everybody gets to do that. It's a lot of hard work but I recognize I am in a very privileged place that way. I get to have wacky ideas -- doing a piece on water privatization in a pool of water.

CA: But theatre is one way you can do that. It is such a unique form of storytelling.

DD: Yeah.

CA: How does this fit into Canadian theatre? Obviously, with the Jessies last year what you are doing is appreciated, but it is not your standard theatre. In Canada, to my frustration, companies get so caught up in producing classics or old musicals to make sure there are bums on seats.

DD: A healthy theatre community has a lot of diversity in it, like any other eco-system. Headlines isn't alone. There are other companies and writers doing issue-based work. There has been a lot of pushing. About a decade ago, the words "forum theatre" actually made onto the Canada Council application forms -- and I sat down and cried, frankly. That was a big moment.

Interestingly, there is a kind of an explosion of it right now, which is both good and bad, of community engagement. It's become a buzzword. I say it's good and bad because... Headlines Theatre Company has a full-time outreach co-ordinator for a reason, because we really engage collaboratively with communities.

Outreach is not publicity. You don't engage with communities to try to convince them to come and see whatever it is you're doing, whether it's relevant to them or not. Unfortunately, I think, the words "community engagement" have been married to marketing. That's a sad thing that is happening right now.

Art is the psyche of a nation. You see this functioning in a different way in Quebec. The theatre scene in Quebec, I would suggest, for decades is much more grounded in the daily lives of the Québécois.

If the budget cuts for arts and culture that happened here in B.C. happened in Quebec people would have been on the streets. This move for the government to start having a say... "We've just cut all this money, and Look! We just found more money and you get it if you do work that celebrates the spirit of the Olympics." It was outrageous. They stepped back from it quite a distance, but if that kind of thing would have happened in Quebec, there would have been outrage.

CA: Is there a lack of connection to our arts here in B.C. in comparison?

DD: I'm not a popular person when I say this, but I think the arts and culture community in English-speaking Canada bears a certain responsibility for it, because -- and don't get me wrong, I love Shakespeare -- for some reason to the cultural community, from my perspective, seems to have fallen in love with form over content. So very often, I leave shows thinking the production value is amazing, but it didn't touch me. And it didn't touch me because it didn't come from a place that is truly rooted in the realities of the communities in which we are living.

If that was happening here in Vancouver, for instance, we'd be seeing a lot of various kinds of Asian theatre. But we're not. Considering the demographics of where we live, there is a disconnect. It's one of the things that makes arts and culture very vulnerable here in British Columbia.

The final shows of Us and Them [The Inquiry] are in Vancouver this weekend, Nov. 26, 27 and 28. Times and locations can be found here

To find out more about David Diamond's book Theatre for Living: The art and science of community-based dialogue, please click here

Cathryn Atkinson is's news and features editor.

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