Potential challenges — and why they’re worth the time!

“Community workers bring essential knowledge to a project like TSDC! They help facilitate performer-advocates’ participation in the creative process by paying attention to context on (at least!) three levels. Community workers are alert to immediate personal contexts: they ask, ‘what do performer-advocates need to know in order to make a decision about their participation, and what social or emotional needs might need tending to first before they can participate fully?’ They pay attention to structural contexts: they suggest supports that can be put in place, or ways the process can be adapted, to make it possible for more people to take part. And finally, they pay attention to the bigger social contexts of participants’ lives: rather than relying on individual-level or psychological explanations, they draw on knowledge of the violence and exclusions performer-advocates face in the world to understand and respond to what’s happening in the workshops.”

Jennie Vengris, TSDC research and workshop team, School of Social Work.

When we worked on the play Choose Your Destination with youth connected to Good Shepherd Youth Services, we were extremely fortunate to work with Good Shepherd staff through every stage of the project — from project planning through to the project’s culminating performance. Of Good Shepherd’s many contributions to the project, one of its most significant was the commitment of a community worker from the Youth Services program, Paige Butler, to attend every workshop. We were also fortunate to have Sarah Adjekum, a PhD student at McMaster University, join the TSDC workshop team as a research assistant. Sarah’s background as a social worker and community organizer (around issues of housing, community health, and racism) made her contributions to the workshop and research team invaluable.

Reflecting on her experience with Choose Your Destination, Sarah speaks about the value of working with community partners — and specifically the involvement of people with backgrounds like hers and Paige’s — for a project like TSDC:

“Workshop participants with this kind of lived experience come into close proximity with really stressful situations. There needs to be an awareness that sometimes participants’ everyday lives will leak into a performance or leak into a workshop session. To make sure that we’re engaging ethically and that we’re going to be able to finish the project, those considerations need to be taken into account.” — Sarah Adjekum, TSDC research assistant and member of the Choose Your Destination workshop team.

Sarah and Paige brought an exceptional capacity to ‘take into account’ the lived experiences of the youth at every moment in the process. More generally, TSDC’s community partners play a crucial role in orienting workshop facilitators to the conditions and stresses that the communities we are working with encounter, and how these can matter in the workshop process — how these conditions can ‘leak in,’ as Sarah says, and how the process needs to respond or adapt.

The contributions and value of community workers within the workshop is something we’ll discuss in more detail both later in this chapter and in the chapter to come (The Art (and Craft) of Facilitation). For now, however, we want to note that one of the many reasons we look to community workers to educate us (as theatre facilitators) about the lived experience and life contexts of workshop participants is so as not to burden participants with the task.

We understand that since TSDC’s participants come from marginalized populations they are far too often in situations where they’re called upon to explain the circumstances of their lived experience. While participants are welcome to share this kind of knowledge in order to contribute to the play’s story arc, we don’t want to put them in a position where we are relying on them to educate us. We’re also conscious of the dangers of misunderstanding or missing the point of things participants share because we’re not familiar enough with the context.

In the early stages of TSDC, we often underestimated ‘what it takes’ to bring about a sufficient understanding not only of the lived experiences of workshop participants but also of the multiple worlds — among participants, and between participants, community workers, and workshop facilitators — that intersected and, at times, conflicted, during the workshops. Left unexamined, misunderstandings can accumulate, cause confusion, impede the collective creative process, and result in insufficient safeguards for participants.

Without the guidance of community partners, the gaps between worlds and world views that can occur include:

  • Missed cues about barriers that may be affecting participation in workshop activities.
  • Missed cues about the significance of themes that are emerging from the workshop process.
  • Tensions being misunderstood as interpersonal conflicts rather than differences in understanding about what it means to perform a certain image or scene.
  • Lack of clear communication about how the narrative of the play is shaped.
  • Inadequate ‘safeguards’ in place during and between workshops to address issues and concerns that may arise in response to workshop activities.

Jan Cohen-Cruz identifies “insufficient time” as one of the biggest challenges confronting the kind of uncommon partnerships we are proposing. She goes on to explain that the danger of this time shortage is that it often results in “insufficient cultural orientation.”[1] Cohen-Cruz is particularly focused on the risks that can arise when arts practitioners work with communities who have been socially marginalized. This is not to suggest that many socially-engaged theatre practitioners don’t already have considerable experience working with marginalized communities. No matter how experienced theatre practitioners are, however, they will not necessarily be knowledgeable about a particular community and the contexts of participants’ lived experience. This is why it’s so important for the creative team to work closely with community partners. And that takes time.

To respectfully balance the time demands collaboration places on our community partners, while also ensuring that the project has the benefit of their expertise, guidance, and community networks, it’s helpful to begin with a conversation about the potential scope and/or limits of what community partners’ involvement might be. As members of TSDC’s creative and research teams we recognize that, in the past, we’ve tended to underestimate the project’s time demands. So, with the benefit of hindsight we offer the following at-a-glance overview of a typical TSDC project’s phases, timeline, and tasks. We hope that this will be a useful resource for clarifying the time demands, limits, and commitments for collaborators on potential future projects. (Note: Each of the project’s phases and the tasks and activities that take place in them are discussed in greater detail in upcoming chapters.)

Project stages, timeline, and tasks

Project Stages Timeline Tasks
Project planning
Planning begins 1 to 3 months in advance of start of workshop series
  • Discuss project goals, feasibility and potential participants who may be interested
  • Develop a recruitment plan
  • Discuss agency involvement throughout planning, workshop, and performance stages
  • Work out logistics (workshop space, food, transportation, etc.)
  • Host recruitment session with interested participants
Performance creation workshops 12-15 weeks of weekly 3-hour workshops
  • Take part in weekly workshops
  • Meet between workshops to discuss any themes, issues, or concerns
  • Plan subsequent workshop sessions
Performance preparations Planning begins approximately 2 months prior to performance
  • Discuss possible audience and site for the performance
  • Work out performance logistics (space, promotion/invitations, food, etc.)
  • Plan post-performance activities

  1. Cohen-Cruz, Jan. Remapping Performance: Common Ground, Uncommon Partners. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. 2015.


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Transforming Stories, Driving Change Copyright © by Helene Vosters, Catherine Graham, Chris Sinding is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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