Preparing for the performance

While the performance itself has a marked beginning and end, it is also part of an event that is nested in a larger series of activities involving many ‘actors,’ playing often overlapping roles that include:

  • The performer-advocates who have worked for weeks creating and rehearsing the play to be presented at the performance event.
  • The creative team who, in addition to working with the performer-advocates to develop and rehearse the play, are also responsible for the design and creation of the set and props.
  • The logistics team who secure an appropriate venue, create and send invitations, and organize refreshments for the event.
  • The post-performance activities team who develops activities to creatively engage audiences as actors in an ongoing conversation about the future of the City.
  • The audience, who are invited to consider themselves as both attentive listeners and viewers of the performance and as actors in the ongoing story that the play addresses.

Approximately two months prior to the performance, while participants and the creative team are hard at work/play generating and refining material for the play, it’s time to begin working out logistics and thinking about post-performance activities! (Again, keep in mind that there will most likely be substantial overlap between the different ‘teams.’)

Finding the right audience

“I’m really happy that the entire audience, the room was all there because they wanted to be there and wanted to hear what we had to say. It wasn’t just like, random people that bought tickets from somewhere, they don’t care what teenagers are doing on a bus. I don’t know how to explain it. But I’m really happy that the group of people that were there that got to see it, got to see the result of what we worked for. Like, got something out of it.”

— Performer-advocate, Choose Your Destination.

Participants have a say not only in what the play’s story is about and how it’s told but also in who they want to present it to. Once participants have had an opportunity to gain some confidence in their performance-related skills, and have begun to generate content for the play, time is set aside during the workshops to talk about who they would like to invite to the performance event. In these conversations a range of wishes and concerns are voiced. A common theme during these discussions is participants’ eagerness to present the play to people in decision-making or service-provider positions. Since most participants have never performed before, some are also understandably nervous about performing to an audience of strangers and therefore express a desire to keep the audience small with invited friends and advocacy community colleagues. Yet others, like some of the youth who worked on Choose Your Destination, expressed concern about performing for peers who are not close friends out of fear of being teased or bullied.

Community partners involved in supporting the workshop or who work in the sectors that the participants are engaged with are also important contributors to the conversation about audience make-up. Like the participants themselves, community partners are in an excellent position to understand who might benefit from seeing the performance and how the performance might affect audiences who are in positions to further the dialogue and affect change. Community partners are also likely to have access to contact lists to send invitations through and have inside knowledge about important logistical considerations. These might include things like location, time and duration of the performance event, and potential conflicting events that might interfere with sector-specific community workers, community and self-advocates, and policy-makers’ ability to attend.

“When presenters stand at the front of a class and bring PowerPoints, students are either distracted by the PowerPoint or tune out fairly early on. Arts based research and dissemination affects people differently. They experience the information. You feel invested, you feel more empathetic because their emotions are on display. I think I paid attention for a lot longer, I wanted to hear what happened next, I wanted someone to say ‘yes’ to them. I remember better what I heard and learned because I wasn’t writing anything down or sitting at a desk.” — Audience member from McMaster social work class, We Need to Talk!Another way that audiences are determined is via specific requests to perform (as always, the decision of whether to accept an invitation is in the hands of performer-advocates). Sometimes, the invitation is connected to the recruitment process and the relationship between community partners and the community and self-advocates who create the play and become its performer-advocates.

This was the case with TSDC’s pilot performance project, We Need to Talk! The five women who performed were from the self-advocacy group Women’s Housing Planning Collaborative Advisory (WHPCA) in Hamilton. Jennie Vengris, who has been with the TSDC project from the beginning and had previously worked as a senior policy analyst in Housing and Homelessness for the City of Hamilton, suggested that WHPCA would be a good group to approach about the possibility of creating a performance. An Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at McMaster University, Jennie participated in the workshop series and invited the women to perform We Need to Talk! for social work students enrolled in a mandatory social welfare course that Jennie teaches and where some of the women had previously been invited as guest speakers.

Other times, the invitation comes from community partners who are familiar with the play and become aware of an event where they feel the performance could make a contribution. This happened with When My Home is Your Business, a TSDC production created with participants recruited through the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton’s (SPRC) [Dis]placement Project. Community partners from SPRC, Good Shepherd, and McMaster University who were familiar with the play invited the performers to present it at the 2018 Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness national conference and the Gathering of Art, Gentrification, and Economic Development (GAGED).

Finding an appropriate audience involves a number of considerations:

  • Input from performer-advocates and community partners
  • The relationship between the audience, the performer-community, and the social concerns the play addresses
  • Attention to ensuring that it will be a receptive friendly audience
  • Finding the right venue

Finding the right venue

TSDC performances can take place in a range of community or public spaces. At times the space is determined by the event that’s hosting the performance, as is the case with invitations to present on University campuses or at conferences. Often, community partners draw upon their community networks and institutional connections to help secure a venue. Keep in mind, it’s important that someone from the creative team who is familiar with the set and production is involved in the discussions and decisions about the venue.

If a performance is presented in a more porous public space (like a public library) special attention needs to be paid to ensure that a significant portion of those attending will be a supportive audience who is predisposed to be interested in the issues being presented. This can include family and friends of the participants, community allies, social service providers, sector workers, policy makers, and educators who are working on issues that the performance addresses. The advantage of these kinds of public spaces, however, is that they open up the performance to a more accidental audience and therefore have the potential of expanding the ‘public’ that the play is intended to engage.

Logistical considerations when securing a performance venue include:

  • Will the stage set fit?
  • Is there an extra room for the performers to use as their ‘green room’ (a place where they can gather before the performance and where they can safely secure their belongings during the performance)?
  • Is the room’s sound quality adequate for a performance (not too much echo, no sound coming from adjacent spaces)?
  • How many people can the space comfortably accommodate?
  • Are chairs and tables available?
  • Is it accessible?
  • Is the space available the for rehearsal(s), set-up, and clean up?
  • Cost?

The day of…

It’s the big day! Everyone is busy with final preparations. Performer-advocates and the creative team gather early. In addition to the time they’ve spent rehearsing the play, they’ve also had conversations to prepare for the mix of feelings that can arise for anyone who is performing (even seasoned professionals!). Together, the group grounds their excitement and pre-performance jitters by going through some of the by-now-familiar rituals of checking-in over food and doing warm-up exercises, before rehearsing — one last time.

Preparing the space

While the performers and the creative team prepare to perform, the logistics team prepare the space which is actually two related yet different spaces: the performance space and the audience space. Set-up varies depending on the venue. In some situations (like a conference or a classroom), where there is minimal time prior to the performance, a separate nearby rehearsal space may need to be booked and the set-up of the physical performance space will have to be done at lightning speed (sometimes even while the event facilitators are introducing the performance). In these situations, it’s especially important to have someone who is very familiar with the play’s set and props take charge, and to rally volunteers to support them.


Melanie and Sarah preparing the space before Choose Your Destination performance.

When not presented at conferences or in classrooms, TSDC performances tend to take place in community or public spaces. Though it’s important that performers have a clearly delineated performance space (and time) from which to address the audience, the rooms are also set up to minimize the sense of separation between performers and audience and to create an environment that fosters a sense of collectivity among audience members.

Where possible, audience seating is arranged around tables ‘cabaret style’ to encourage conviviality. As in the workshops, refreshments are always on hand. This focus on creating a sociable collective environment is itself a performative act. It mirrors the collective nature of both the workshops and the performance and lets the audience know that we don’t see them as isolated individual ‘spectators.’ Our intention in setting up the environment in such a way is to invite the audience to see themselves as we see them — a caring collective who have gathered to witness the play that the performer-advocates have created as a focus for our attention.

Audience members are given information about the play they are about to see. This can be as simple as a paper version of the email-invitation or it can be more elaborate when time, resources, and community connections can be mobilized. For example, the performance program can take the form of a ‘zine.’ These zines can themselves be community arts projects that are created in workshops with community and self-advocates connected to the performers and to the issues the plays address.

Preparing the audience for their role

The audience’s first encounter with the play is through its set. As with any theatrical production, the set is designed to situate the performers within an environment and to orient the audience to the context of the play: When audiences arrive to see We Need to Talk! three tables marked ‘Income Support,’ ‘Housing,’ and ‘Food Bank’ signal to the audience that the action of the play will centre around these social service agencies; Choose Your Destination’s three familiar Hamilton City bus-stops signs let the audience know not only that the action of the play will traverse the City, but also that the characters use, meet, and talk on public transportation, and; The side-by-side doors of When My Home is Your Business visually situates the action of the play in an apartment block.


When My Home is Your Business set at Gathering of Art, Gentrification, and Economic Development
When My Home is Your Business set at the Gathering of Art, Gentrification, and Economic Development.

Ideally, the welcoming address and introduction of the play is done by a community partner who has either participated in the workshops themselves or who has been involved in the broader organizing around the event. The important thing is that they be knowledgeable about the context of the participants’ lived experience and about the audience’s relationship to that context.

The event host invites those attending to think of themselves not only as an attentive audience, but also as actors. Drawing on theatre metaphors, they might say: “We consider the performance ‘Act I’ of a larger social performance that we all play a role in.” The host then goes on to suggest that the audience think of the post-performance activities that will follow the performance as ‘Act II’, and that the play’s ‘Act III’ will unfold in the ways the audience-as-actors continue to engage the play’s themes in the days, weeks, and months following the event. In addition to possibly being actors in the particular sector that the play’s content addresses (housing, anti-poverty, youth services), audience members are invited to see their roles extending to their families, neighbourhoods, and communities.

Introducing the play

In addition to preparing the audience for their expanded role, it’s important to let them know a little about how the play was created. Here’s an example of what Catherine told the audience about using theatre to address social issues at a performance of When My Home is Your Business at the National Conference to End Homelessness in Hamilton, Ontario:

“With theatre, we take up the question ‘How do we end homelessness?’ not in policy or service terms — that’s not where our expertise is — but in ‘cultural’ terms: We ask, “What are the cultural beliefs and habits that lead to homelessness becoming a problem in our Cities?  Where are the contradictions between those beliefs and habits? How could we show the contradictory values that are driving thinking about things like housing and homelessness and make the values and habits a subject of discussion? The title of this play reflects one of the contradictions we noticed in the theatre workshops: for some people housing units are evaluated as profit centres, for others they are evaluated in terms of the basic human right not only to have a roof over your head, but to have a home.— Catherine Graham, TSDC research team lead and artistic director, School of the Arts.

Prior to the performance, the host also tells the audience that while the play is based in people’s experiences in the City, the performers are playing fictional characters and that the stories in the play are not only about their own lives, but also about things they have observed. As noted earlier, one reason for this kind of fictionalization is to produce a kind of undecidability, wherein audiences don’t know which parts of the collectively created characters and story are actually true for any individual performer. This is particularly important in situations where some of the audience members will be community workers who know something about the performers’ lives and experiences.

TSDC’s focus on creating fictionalized performances, and on ensuring that the audience is aware that the plays are fictional, is grounded in both ethical and political considerations. In terms of ethics, fiction is a way of allowing personal, intimate stories to be publicly heard, without requiring individual participants to subject details about their personal experiences to public scrutiny.

Politically, fiction positions performer-advocates as authors, creators, and public interveners who control what information about their personal lives that the audience knows, or thinks they know, even if the audience knows the name and/or physical appearance of the participant. Through the creation of a fictionalized collective story, audiences are encouraged not to seek ‘authenticity’ or ‘truth’ by looking into the performers’ personal lives. Rather, they are encouraged to look at the believability of the performed story and the argument it makes.


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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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