The performance: A poetic world-making public
“When it comes to speaking to the people who can actually make a change, I don’t think they really listen when you have a speech. Whereas I feel like the theatre performance that we did, it gets at a different part of the brain and it forces a different reaction out of you that is harder to ignore. You become more engaged in what you’re listening to and it felt very powerful.”
— Performer-advocate, All of us together.
There is a magic to art. Art touches our hearts as well as our minds. It stirs us in a way that information alone does not. Admittedly, as performance-based researchers and artists, we’re biased. Still, we suspect that few people haven’t experienced being moved by a performance or some form of art.
Theatre’s particular version of art-magic is often inseparable from its spectacular presentation — lights, costumes, sets — and the virtuosity of the actors. But at TSDC performances there is no spectacular lighting. The Sets & Props have a do-it-yourself aesthetic and are mostly constructed out of everyday materials like cardboard and paper-mâché. To the extent that there are costumes, what hasn’t come from the performers’ closets has been gleaned from friends’ closets or second-hand shops. The performers are not experienced actors. They are community and self-advocates who within an incredibly short 12 to 15 week time-frame have not only generated the play’s content, they have also undergone a crash course in performance basics. And yet, (and again, we’re biased) at each presentation of TSDC’s four plays — Choose Your Destination, When My Home is Your Business, We Need to Talk!, and All Of Us Together — magic was afoot.
So, where does the magic of TSDC performances come from? First and foremost, it comes from the performers. It comes from the collective story they’ve crafted that is grounded in the knowledge they carry from their lived experiences, their visions of what a better City would look like for people who have experiences similar to theirs, and the tensions between what is and the yet-to-become. It comes from their courage to speak, to take risks, and to share their knowledge, desires, and visions. It comes from the fact that they are not simply actors playing a part. Though it’s true (and important!) that they are performing fictionalized characters, it is equally true (and equally important!) that they are the authors of the collective story they are presenting, and that the story reflects aspects of their lives and the lives of people with experiences similar to them.
Theatre’s art-magic is also in the face-to-face encounter that takes place between performers and the audience, as well as among audience members. Unlike viewing visual art or a movie, watching a play puts audiences face-to-face with those who are presenting the work, as well as with others attending the performance. In this way, the magic of TSDC plays are also in the way they invite audiences to be part of a public who, together with the performer-advocates, are engaged in the task of what philosopher Michael Warner calls “poetic world-making” — a way of thinking and talking about our shared futures that integrates imagination into conversations about pragmatic policy considerations.
In many ways, the absence of theatrical bells and whistles enhances the shared sense of publicness. The performers real-life attire, the familiarity of the locations the plays take place in, the accessibility of the materials used in the sets, the absence of special effects, stage, and dramatic lighting, all work together to remind the audience, that though they may occupy radically different positions from the performer-advocates, they are co-residents in the public — the City — of the play.
“I wish this [play] could be a snapshot into a meeting, at the beginning, before we even begin to discuss programs.”— Audience member, When My Home is Your Business, National Conference to End Homelessness in Hamilton, Ontario. Similarly, the dual role that performer-advocates play, as ‘actors’ in the play, and as real-life ‘actors’ who live with and address the issues the play brings attention to, amplifies the attitude of accountability that can be cultivated through face-to-face encounters. Audiences are not witnessing professional actors perform a role. They are watching co-residents of their City perform a story they created that sheds light on some of the values, inequities, and challenges of that City.
Many of TSDC’s audience members work in social service sectors or institutional settings in which they are confronted with aspects of the issues addressed in the play on a daily basis. The play offers them an opportunity to view this world, not so much through the lens of their social service or institutional setting, but through the poetic lens of the play. Using the poetic language of their fictional, collective, future-oriented story, performer-advocates propose not only a policy or an action: they invite the audience to see the world in the way they see it.
- Warner, Michael. “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public Culture 14(1): 422. ↵