Continued from: Some key moments in the history of Theatre for Living (Headlines Theatre)
One of the things that struck me during this 10 days was how much fun we were all having investigating very serious issues like poverty, family relations and the miner’s strike in the UK at the time. Our fun was a direct result of the fun Boal was having; here was a person who was on fire, who saw the world through very confident and yet critical eyes, who had a strong political message to his work, and who had not forgotten that the making of theatre had to be filled with joy. His joy filled us with enthusiasm and our enthusiasm fed his joy. The techniques were important, but just as important to me (and many others there, I believe) was the modelling of the theatre-maker.
I went home to Vancouver filled with ideas and started to experiment. What I had encountered was an innovative and beautiful physical language of games, exercises and theatrical techniques that moved me beyond imagining the transition from for to with and into concretely making that transition. Over the years I had other occasions to work with Boal in St. John’s Newfoundland, in Vancouver BC, in Orvelte, the Netherlands and in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Over many years until his death in 2009 we traveled a journey from mentor/mentee to colleagues to dear friends.
I also returned to write my first play, The Enemy Within, taking the title from what Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister of England was calling the striking miners. This play was about the transformation that was escalating in Vancouver and BC, manifesting in the City hosting the 1986 World Exposition on Transportation and Communication (Expo ’86). The transformation involved breaking Unions and laying the ground for Vancouver to become a “World Class City”, the “Pearl of the Pacific Rim” and today (2018) the “Lamborghini Capitol of North America”. One of the most expensive cities in the world. The Enemy Within toured BC during the build-up to a General Strike. The play was so deeply connected to community that Unions offered to move picket lines so we could perform and their Members could attend performances.
In 1986 I had an idea. Was it possible to use the language of Theatre of the Oppressed to take a group of people who were not actors but who shared a common community concern, on a journey from not having done any theatre before to performing plays they had made about local community issues AND doing an interactive Forum Theatre event in their community? I worked out a 5 day “map” on paper. Each day had a beginning, middle and an end and each day took the group deeper into group building, issue exploration and acting and then Forum Theatre techniques.
This would be a good moment to explain Forum Theatre. This is one of Boal’s great contributions. In Forum the play builds to a crisis and stops. It offers no solutions. It is performed once for the audience all the way through and then performed a second time. The second time the audience can yell “stop” and (in classic Theatre of the Oppressed) replace the oppressed character on the stage and work to fight against the oppression by another character or characters. I adapted this model over many years, starting in 1992 as explained below into a more systems-based approach, letting go of the strict “oppressor/oppressed” model and allowing audience members to replace any character whose struggle they truly understand, in order to create “safety” or “health”…the invitation changes in response to the subject matter.
The only way to figure out if my 5-day “map” led anywhere valuable was to try it out. Headlines Theatre already had a touring network in BC and so I put word out through that network, explaining this was a big experiment (I was learning as I was working) and 6 community organizations said “yes”! I needed a name and called the week-long process a Power Play, and that name stuck.
The organizations were: Chilliwack Area Indian Council in Chilliwack, BC (Sto:Lo Territory); Credible Alternatives in Telkwa, BC (Wet’suwet’en Territory); The Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Tribal Council in Old Hazelton, BC (Gitxsan Territory); The BC Human Rights Coalition and the Canadian Association of Smelter and Allied Workers in Kitimat, BC (Haisla Territory); The Queen Charlottes Health Care Society in Old Masset, Haida Gwaii (Haida Territory); and the Native Women’s Sorority Group in Prince Rupert, BC (Tsimshian Territory). I’ve named all the Community Sponsors as an indicator of how connected to the “real world” the theatre company’s work was and remained throughout its history. This connection to community is central to the philosophy of the work. Our large projects from 2000 onward would have 100+ organizations in a collaborative network.
I didn’t want to do all this alone and so brought Kevin Finnan over from the UK – we had met and become close friends in the first workshop with Boal in Paris. Kevin traveled with me for the first 5 workshops and then had to go home for a scheduled project. Friend and colleague Margo Kane did the final workshop with me.
That first workshop with people from the Sto:Lo Nation was the first experiment (we were very transparent about this) and the participants were courageous and generous. We made very powerful plays about local issues together that affected the community deeply. The “map” led somewhere. Over the course of the six community tour, I was able to understand the process more and more, learning to trust it. Of course it has evolved over the years. I also added a day, it is now 6 days (I wanted more rehearsal time once the plays were made!) but the core of that first “map” is still there. Power Plays happen now in many parts of the world.
The deep work with communities on Power Plays helped me understand something that became integral to all Theatre for Living work. Theatre could emerge from an organic process like this and be a true voice of the community. It wasn’t just important whose stories were being told on the stage, but equally important was who was getting to tell the stories. Part of the power and the responsibility of the work was the authentic representation on the stage. This applies everywhere of course, but is very clear in Forum Theatre where cast members have to improvise with audience members. The cast members must have lived experience to draw on or the work is irresponsible. Creating Squeegee in 1999 for instance, a play that investigated safety in the street for street youth had to have street youth as cast members. It would never have worked to hire young actors just out of theatre school to pretend they had experience of living in the street, or people who had no lived experience of being refugees as cast members in ¿Sanctuary?. This common sense philosophy has meant that the casts of Theatre for Living projects and our audiences have always been representative of the diversity of Vancouver and the communities into which we’ve toured.
There were also various large and transformational projects, some based in Theatre of the Oppressed and some not. One very large project that was not Forum Theatre was No` Xya` (Our Footprints)(1987 – 1990) – a collaboration with the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs in Northwest BC. This play was the Chiefs’ first art-based articulation to the public about why they were taking the Queen to court regarding what became known as the ground-breaking Delgamuukw Land Claim. This play with discussion sessions after every show, toured BC twice, toured ocean to ocean across Canada and into Maori communities in Aotearoa (New Zealand).
Then in 1991 an invitation came from Ron George, the President of United Native Nations (an Indigenous organization representing Urban First Nations people in Vancouver) to do a play on family violence issues. Ron and the Board of Directors had one request of me: We knew there would be an abuser in this play about family violence. They wanted an assurance that the character would not be portrayed as a “monster” but rather as a survivor of Residential Schools who, through all that trauma, was acting in ways we would never condone, while still being able to have compassion for the person. Criminalizing the abuser was not helping the community.
This was very challenging for me, having come out of a rather dark childhood. I was very invested in their being “monsters” in the world. It helped explain my past and also made my political organizing easier. I knew who the enemy was, and it was “them”. Ron and the Board were correct, though, and a very courageous workshop group, cast, production team and I created Out of the Silence (1991-92). This play not only changed hundreds if not thousands of people’s lives as it played in Vancouver and then it toured BC, it challenged the way I saw the world and the way I was creating theatre inside the strict “oppressor/oppressed” model of the Theatre of the Oppressed. This project, along with my own life-long interest in physics, started me along the path that became Theatre for Living.
This transition did not happen instantly of course, it took time – evolving over many projects – there have been over 600 in the years between 1985 and 2018 – and the process continues to evolve today.
As the way I approached the work evolved, it started to become clear to me that, as much as I loved and respected Boal and the Theatre of the Oppressed, what I was doing was no longer Theatre of the Oppressed. I needed to start calling the workshops something else. It was, literally, in the middle of a Tai Chi exercise that the name Theatre for Living bubbled to the surface. I didn’t understand that people would invariably make the mistake of calling it “Theatre for the Living” (as opposed to “Theatre for the Dead”)…there is complexity in everything.
Then in 2013, during a conversation with a Publicist, I heard this: ‘I love the work you do. How is it reflected in the name of the Company?’ I was calling ‘the work’ Theatre for Living, but the name of the theatre company was still Headlines Theatre. The publicist was correct. Headlines Theatre was formed in 1981 (and called Headlines) because the work was, in a way, about drawing attention to an issue – creating headlines out of hidden issues. People do that today with their cellphones and the internet. The work had evolved into something that encouraged communities to engage in dialogue about issues we all know about, but don’t want to talk about; to get beyond symptoms (the fact that something is happening) and into root causes (the reasons it is happening)) as a way to try to create real transformation in the individual, the larger society and the structures we inhabit. The name Headlines Theatre did not reflect the work anymore. The Society went through a legal name change to Theatre for Living (Headlines Theatre). We kept Headlines Theatre in the name, recognizing that the “branding” over so many years was deep in the public consciousness.
I want to take a moment to talk about collaborations with Indigenous communities. All Canadians live on stolen, Indigenous land. There was a hidden genocide committed in Canada. Making theatre focused on social justice and human rights, it is essential that there would be many projects over the years in collaboration with Indigenous communities and artists.
I’ve already mentioned No` Xya` (our Footprints) and Out of the Silence. Both of these projects affected the path of the theatre company in profound ways. Other projects included:
Reclaiming Our Spirits (1996): A woman named Lisa Charleson from the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Nation contacted me, having seen Out of the Silence when it toured in 1992. Lisa ran a small organization called Native Families in Crisis and wanted to know if it was possible to create another project, but one that looked at issues arising from Residential Schools. This was a very courageous request as there was very little discussion of these issues in Canada in 1996. After many conversations we agreed that rather than making a large play for the public, because the issues were so sensitive and traumatic inside the Indigenous communities themselves, that a closed workshop (a Power Play) would better serve the community, and if participants wanted to invite the general public to the interactive Forum Theatre that was created from the 6 day process, that would happen. If not, it would remain internal to the community.
The workshop happened on Meares Island in Nuu-Chah-Nulth Territory at the site of the old Christie Residential School. The group chose to perform for the public in the school gym in Tofino. Almost 300 people attended what turned into a deeply powerful evening.
The Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council was so impressed by the results that they collaborated and supported 10 more workshops happening with other Indigenous communities across BC. One of the reasons to do this (one of many) was to help people prepare for the arduous task of telling these deeply traumatic and secret stories in court.
Meth (2006/07), later renamed Shattering (2008) began with an invitation to meet with Chiefs and Elders from the Sto:Lo Nation. Some of them had seen Out of the Silence in 1992 and were also aware of Reclaiming our Spirits and wondered if we could create a theatre project on issues of addiction. Meth, in particular, was hitting their community and the whole country hard at that time. After numerous conversations we agreed that this project would be most effective if it bridged the solitudes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, because both meth in particular and addiction in general did not discriminate by race. No cause or solution, we agreed, was the sole responsibility of any one community. Meth performed in Vancouver to general audiences and toured BC in 2006/07 and then toured BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan, returning again to Vancouver in 2008 as Shattering. Every touring performance was a collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations working on issues of addiction. The name change was due to the fact that while the “meth wave’ had subsided, the issue of addiction remained. Exactly the same play. Different title.
After 2008 I realized that a way to recognize, honour and respect the fact that Theatre for Living worked on Unceded Indigenous land was to include Indigenous people in everything the theatre company did regardless of subject matter. This might seem obvious in retrospect but let me admit that understanding that Indigenous people needed to be reflected in every issue, not only specifically Indigenous issues was an evolutionary step for me and the theatre company. Every large project (that had a play at the centre) from this point on, included Indigenous workshop participants and cast members.
This also affected how we toured. Both maladjusted (a play created and performed in 2013/15 by mental health patients and caregivers about how we are all being asked to adjust to a maladjusted mental health system) and šxʷʔam̓ət (home) (a play in 2017/18 about our struggles making reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people – this was also the theatre company’s final large production) toured into many communities across BC and Alberta. The same as with meth and shattering, these performances were hosted by collaborating Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations in each community. The activism, the bridge-building, the process of reconciliation is not only on the stage, but in the conception of the project and how it manifests out in the world. This also reflects the systems (as opposed to the binary) approach that permeates all of the Theatre for Living work.
Some key transformational non-interactive projects that really pushed me as an artist and the theatre company as an edgy production company were:
Mamu: a currency of life, (1994) written and directed in collaboration with Kevin Finnan, who came on the Power Play tour with me. Kevin had grown into a wonderful choreographer and co-founder, with his partner Louise Finnan, of Motionhouse Dance. Mamu was a “theatre/dance extravaganza” with actors playing beetles, birds and humans in a story about species and habitat projection. The project had a conference around it with daily workshops and facilitated discussions with guest speakers after every performance.
THIR$TY (2002) was written in collaboration with Kathryn Ricketts who at the time was the founder and director of MainDance. She is currently (2018) Assistant Professor of Arts/Dance Education at the U of Regina. THIR$TY was a theatre/dance production about privatization of water that took place in a pool of water. Every performance was followed by facilitated discussion featuring Oscar Olivera who had led the successful Bolivian struggle in Cochabamba against the Bechtel Corporation and water privatization.
Us and Them (the play) (2011) was the culmination of a two-year long project investigating “our” need to create “them”. This was another theatre/dance project written and directed by long-time friend and collaborator Kevin Finnan and me. The innovation in this project was the approach to Forum Theatre. The set was a very, very large wall that we projected images onto. In the Forum, we projected “thumbnails” of a moment from each scene in the play and instead of starting at the beginning and moving through to the end, invited the audience to “time-travel” inside the story back and forth, into any scene an audience member wanted to investigate, in order to ‘create bridges’ between the characters. We were then able to analyze the ‘ripples’ that these actions created through the fabric of the play and the community, really embracing the concepts of interconnected systems.
The theatre company also pioneered a form of live, interactive television and webcasting in collaboration with Mike Keeping, initially through Rogers Community TV and then SHAW Community Television. This collaboration began on a small Power Play project in 1988 with Amnesty International and the refugee community. This small project was to grow into a larger play on the same issues called ¿Sanctuary? in 1989.
The Rogers TV crew came in with 5 cameras, sound and a remote studio and telecast a performance of the Power Play live across Metro Vancouver. If viewers had an idea to replace a character in the Forum Theatre, they could call a number, talk to what I called a “tele-actor” who would ask them some questions and then run into the theatre and do the intervention on the viewer’s behalf. I’m not naïve, I am certain the “tele-actor” was a filter who changed the intervention, but without hologram technology this was a great step forward in reaching a wider and new audience in a truly interactive way. And it worked! We did telecasts of every large project until 2000 when we moved onto the internet with Corporate U, a play on globalization issues. This also then involved Chris Bouris from Stellar Jay Communications who took all of the productions onto the web.
Now, instead of “tele-actors” we had “web-actors”. The remote viewer would log into private chat space with a “web-actor” who would ask questions and then enter the theatre and do the intervention. The very first web-intervention was from a person named Sasha in Croatia! These webcasts gained a large following of people from all over the world and also gave us the high quality recording of projects that are now viewable through the Theatre for Living website. (Link above).
Boal returned to Brazil in 1986. In 1992 he ended up running for office in the Legislature and was elected a Vereador in the District of Rio de Janeiro. There is a great story about how this happened – for some other place and time. Being elected led him to experiment with what he called Legislative Theatre. Many people, including us at Theatre for Living, were inspired by this. Numerous projects, including Practicing Democracy (2004), Here and Now (2005) after homelessness…(2009) and maladjusted (2013/15) had elements of Legislative Theatre attached to them. This meant that there was a “scribe” at every performance taking notes about the desires inside audience members’ interventions in the Forum. Those desires would be studied, collated, and turned into policy suggestions at local organizational or City levels or, in the case of Alberta Health Services and maladjusted, also Provincial policy recommendations. The Legislative reports are all available by following the individual project links.
I had an idea in 1994. Was it possible for me to use the Boal workshop techniques of Rainbow of Desire and/or Cops in the Head, that investigate internal voices, as a stand-alone theatre event (not as part of a workshop)? No play, no actors, no script – an evening of theatre where everything came from the audience – from the psyche of the larger living organism in the theatre space that evening?
The first experiment was something we called The Creative Audience and it failed. We couldn’t figure out how to market it. But then in 1996 we tried again with Safe Sex: High Risk Theatre. We investigated negotiating safe sex. Although attendance was smaller than hoped for, response was very positive. This project gave birth to numerous other projects of this nature: 2º of Fear and Desire in 2007, investigating what stops us from taking action on global warming; Us and Them (the inquiry) in 2010, investigating humanity’s need to create “the other”; Corporations in our Heads in 2013 asking how we change our relationships to the corporate messages that affect our core perceptions of ourselves and the world around us; and Reclaiming Hope (from a culture of fear) in 2016, finding ways to reclaim hope, of course, from a growing culture of fear. Requests come in to duplicate these events from people and organizations in various parts of the world.
In 1998 we started offering training workshops every summer in Theatre for Living techniques. 2018 marked the 20th annual trainings. There is a Level 1 and level 2 – the Level 1 fills at 30 people every year with participants from all over the world. Because of the trainings there are people doing Theatre for Living work around the globe.
In 2009 I published my book: Theatre for Living: the art and science of community based dialogue, with a foreword by scientist and author Fritjof Capra. The book has opened many doors over the years and has been published in German under the title Theater zum Leben (translated by Armin Staffler) and, as I write this, is coming in Spanish and Farsi.
Some of the doors that the book opened are: It led to me being invited to become Visiting Faculty at the UNESCO Peace Studies Program, U of Innsbruck, Austria, where Theatre for Living is on the curriculum. The book also led to being invited to be Visiting Theatre Director, Arts & Humanities in Health & Medicine Program, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Alberta where we are using Theatre for Living to shift culture inside the learning environment across the Faculty.
The reason this “Key Moments” essay has been written is that with the support of the Board of Directors and Staff, in 2018 I decided to devolve the theatre company after 37 years of production.
I continue to respond to invitations to do workshops, trainings and speeches, but retired from fundraising and being responsible for people’s salaries and the financial viability of projects. At a very personal level, I wanted the stress and responsibility of raising between $300-500,000 every year gone.
I had hoped that with the infusion of new money in 2018, the Canada Council for the Arts (Canada’s national arts funding body) would increase our operating grant to a realistic, sustainable level. We should have been, I believe, a “poster child” for the Canada Council in terms of our level of community engagement and artistic product – having been doing our work the way we had for decades, long before “community engagement” became an important cultural buzz word. Community Engagement was supposed to be the centre of the new criteria. However, we were frozen once again at $55,000 a year, after 37 years of production. That news sealed the decision for me to make the transition. The fundraising mountain to make up the rest, even with contributions from the City of Vancouver ($24,000) and BC Arts Council ($35,000) was just too high each year and was no longer physically/emotionally sustainable.
People have asked ‘why not hand it over to someone’? A percentage of the company’s earned income was always from me going out and giving workshops, trainings and making speeches. I am going to continue to do that. Anyone taking it over would not only be burdened with a monumental fundraising task every year, but that income that I brought in would also be gone. The theatre company would have to transform completely in order to manage and would no longer BE Theatre for Living. Everything is born, everything lives, and everything eventually transforms. The corporate idea that anything continues forever is, in my opinion, against the laws of Nature.
And so, this marks a sad ending and an exciting beginning. Life and Theatre for Living are an ongoing series of discoveries. Who knows what adventures await?
Again, I want to thank all the people and organizations who contributed to Headlines Theatre and then Theatre for Living since its founding in 1981.
All the very best, David Diamond
šxʷʔam̓ət (home) - (2017)
Reclaiming Hope (2016)
maladjusted Tour (2015)
Voices of Love (2014)
Corporations in our Heads Tour (2013)
I have to tell my story (2013)
Corporations in Our Heads (2012)
Us and Them (The Play) (2011)
Us and Them (The Inquiry) (2010)
The Gaza Mono-Logues (2010)
after homelessness… (2009)
2º of fear and desire (2007)
Palestine, Israel and Me (2006)
Here and Now (2005)
Gimme the Keys (2005)
Practicing Democracy (2004)
Don't Say a Word (2003)
Shutting Down (2003)
Doctor/Patient Rainbow (2003)
Reaching Across (2001)
Language Reclamation (2001)
Through a Clear Lens (2001)
Corporations in our Heads (2000)
Corporate U (2000)
¿Qué pasa with la Raza, EH? (1999)
Street Spirits (1999)
The Dying Game (1998)
The Gagged Voice (1998)
Reclaimining Our Spirits (1996)
Safe Sex (1996)
Flesh and Blood (1993)
Out of the Silence (1991)
This is my Life? (1991)
Real Men Don't Buy Kids (1988)
Power Play (1988)
The Enemy Within (1986)
Under the Gun (1983)
Right to Fight (1982)
Buy, Buy, Vancouver (1981)