TSDC’s creative approach

In social work we often have this idea that art can help us ‘walk in the shoes’ of someone whose life and experience are very different from ours. But what I’ve really appreciated about the TSDC approach is how it gets at the value questions. It’s less about walking in the shoes of someone else than perceiving the values that create the conditions of walking! Like, do we all deserve to be able to walk easily, walk comfortably, through the City? Do we all deserve to feel steady on our feet (or on the bus, or using a wheelchair, or however we get around the City)?

Watching TDSC plays, I think members of an audience come to a more resonant ‘yes!’ in response to these kinds of questions. And that’s the big step. Once we get there, then the questions of how we organize ourselves as a community to make sure that everyone has decent shoes (or housing, or food, or clothes, or income, or transportation) follow. Answering the ‘how’ is not easy, but it’s a lot easier if we’re more together on the values part.

That’s the real (and magic) contribution of performance to public debate, from where I stand…

— Chris Sinding, TSDC research team Lead, School of Social Work.

Just as there are many kinds of stories, there are many ways of creating plays. As we worked on this community-based performance initiative, four concepts emerged as core ingredients in TSDC’s performance creation approach. Workshop activities are designed to focus participants’ imaginations in the direction of creating and performing a story that is — fictional, collective, future-oriented, and focused on publicness.

We’re not suggesting that these four concepts are, or should be, intrinsic to all community-based theatre projects. Rather, we view them as having a direct relationship to the particular goal of TSDC — to make plays that interrupt the usual patterns of public discussion about the City by supporting marginalized populations to speak and be heard on their own terms.

TSDC core concepts icon

In the following sections we’ll share some of the reasons we think the four ingredients are vital to TSDC’s creative approach and will close this chapter with a discussion of prompts — the creative tool we use to set the concepts into motion. For the sake of explanation, we’ll deal with one ingredient at a time. As you read, however, we ask you to keep in mind that for them to work — as is true with any recipe or community — they need to work together.

Together, TSDC’s four core ingredients work to:

  • Draw attention to how our norms of public communication exclude some speakers from public discussion and do not recognize some speakers as agents of social change.
  • Engage more and different kinds of people in public talk about visions for their communities and build solidarity between constituencies.
  • Extend the reach of performer-advocates voices and deepen the receptivity of audiences to these voices.
  • Expand the horizons of our imaginations — as performer-advocates and members of audiences and communities.


“My home is off limits and I like my private life. But I also like to participate too and put myself out there and I just was nervous around people. I didn’t want to share too much about me. But the little bit I have shared has been safe and it’s been okay. It’s wonderful that I got to do that.”

— Performer-advocate, When My Home is Your Business.

A major ethical consideration in having performer-advocates publicly share personal stories is the risk of exposing details of their lives to public scrutiny. TSDC performances focus on fictionalized accounts as an aesthetic tool for transmitting the knowledge that performer-advocates have gained through their lived experience and their understanding of the social context of that experience.

“The creative exchange of stories and collective interpretation of shared lived experience enable participants to throw off unwanted labeling and prejudice and become authors of their own lives.” — Amanda Stuart-Fisher. “The Playwright in Residence: A community’s storyteller.”

Benefits of sharing experiential knowledge through a fictional creative account stem from the kind of questions we tend to ask of fiction. In response to an objective report, we are expected to ask, “Do we believe this is what really happened?” or “Did this really happen exactly this way?” In responding to fiction, we ask “Do we believe this is possible? What conditions have to exist to make it possible?” In this way fiction shifts the audience focus from the authenticity or accuracy of individuals’ accounts to the ways in which the conditions the performers bring to light make different scenarios possible.

The use of fictionalization has advantages during the workshops’ devising process, as well as in the creation of a fictional, collective, future-oriented story to be publicly performed.

Advantages of a fictional approach during the workshop process include:

  • Working with fictional characters in the workshops can make it easier for participants to talk about differences that arise within the group without individual members feeling targeted.
  • Working with fictional situations and characters in the workshops can support risk-taking by providing participants with creative resources for exploring new and unfamiliar ways of interacting.
  • Working with fictional situations and characters can make it easier to share stories that are personally painful by providing participants with a method for externalizing them without having to expose details of their personal experiences to the group if they don’t wish to.

Benefits of transmitting experiential knowledge through the performance of a fictionalized story include:

  • Allows aspects of personal, intimate stories to be publicly heard, without requiring individual performer-advocates to subject details about their personal experiences to public scrutiny.
  • Produces an element of undecidability, meaning audiences do not know which aspects of the fictional and collectively devised characters and story are actually true for any individual performer.
  • Provides participants with an opportunity to experience themselves, and be seen by audiences, as artists, creators, and performer-advocates.


“Sometimes people feel or say that, ‘I don’t want my story to be out there.’ Well these stories are a combination of people’s stories; it is not just one particular person’s story. My character’s stories are things that I’ve heard from friends, some have happened to me, some I have witnessed.”

— performer-advocate, We Need to Talk!

There can be considerable overlap in how the fictional and collective ingredients of TSDC’s performance creation approach work. Through the creation of composite fictionalized characters, performer-advocates are able to enact a collective story that they have personal experience with, or knowledge of through their social relationships and advocacy activities. Collectively framed stories provide performer-advocates with a method for inviting audiences to consider the complexity of their worlds as well as for demonstrating how people’s lived experiences are part of broader social contexts.

TSDC’s performance creation approach is collective both during the workshops’ devising process, and in its focus on creating a fictional, collective, future-oriented story to be publicly performed.

The workshop process supports collectivity by inviting every participant to take part in:

  • Identifying and developing themes and descriptions of the conditions that make certain kinds of interaction either possible or impossible.
  • The creation of characters, dialogue, and the key images that form the foundation of the play’s scenes.
  • Decisions about potential audiences.

Benefits of the transmission of experiential knowledge through the performance of a collective story include: “The way the women constructed the performance, and the way Catherine help them figure out how to convey their experiences using performance, really helped students understand people’s lived experiences of a much broader collective problem around income insecurity, housing and food insecurity. That’s huge!” — Jennie Vengris, TSDC research and workshop team, School of Social Work.

  • Situates audiences within the story by directing attention away from autobiographical testimony (which can sometimes lead audiences to see themselves as judges or ‘saviours’ in relation to the people on stage) and towards a multi-perspective point of view that frames the issues within a social context.
  • Resists compartmentalizing issues (health, housing, food security, etc.) that community and self-advocates are often faced with by exposing how interconnected the problems are.
  • Supports performer-advocates in telling a story that focuses on the broader social values that they wish to communicate or contest, rather than on the details of particular incidents.
  • Helps to disrupt the isolation that is often produced or exacerbated in situations of social, economic, and institutional oppression.


“TSDC is adding different layers of voices to our vision of Hamilton. Hamilton is changing. There are people talking about change, and a lot of times it’s the same people, the politicians and that. So, we need to add new voices that don’t get heard, because they also have a stake in how Hamilton changes.”

— Melanie Skene, TSDC set & prop designer.

A perception of community-based theatre productions is often that they are telling stories about past events or documenting bad things that are happening in the present. TSDC’s focus on future-oriented stories offers another perspective. We invite participants to dream, and we work with them to communicate their desires and visions for a better world in the form of a play.

One reason for our emphasis on future goals is that when we first heard from community and self-advocates during the recruiting process, they kept saying over and over, “You need to realize how painful it is for us to tell stories of the bad things that have happened to us.” We don’t expect workshop participants to tell us about particular things that have happened to them. Nor do we expect them to offer solutions to specific problems (though both may come up and are welcome in the conversation). Rather, our ‘ask’ is that they participate with us in envisioning a future social world that would make life better for people with lived experiences similar to theirs, and to imagine what kinds of steps need to happen to arrive at that better world.

This orientation to an imagined better collective future provides performer-advocates with a vantage point from which to examine and bring attention to conditions in the present that are in need of transformation in order for their collective social desires and values to manifest. We also believe it’s a perspective that positions audiences in such a way that they are neither learning about a fixed-in-the-past history, nor are they focusing only on current conditions. Rather, they are being asked to think about the relationship between the current conditions presented in the play, and the possibilities of the yet-to-become.

Benefits of focusing participant attention on a future-oriented story include:

  • Performer-advocates’ desires are encouraged and recognized as important in the broader social context.
  • Orientation to an imagined better collective future provides a vantage point from which performer-advocates can more clearly examine and reveal the present conditions that impede their desires.
  • Orientation to an imagined better collective future provides a frame of reference through which audiences can recognize themselves as collaborators with performer-advocates in the creation of a mutually meaningful world.


“Imagining publicly is socially useful through its capacity to embody alternatives.”

— Jan Cohen-Cruz. Remapping Performance: Common Ground, Uncommon Partners.

TSDC uses the concept of publicness in two intersecting ways: To reference the play’s presentation as a vehicle for enhancing the potential of marginalized voices to be publicly heard, and to draw attention to the ways in which performer-advocates and audience members are co-residents of a shared public environment, a City. For TSDC, this City has been Hamilton. But it could be any City. A public in this sense, speaks to the kinds of political choices we make when we live together.

“A public is a poetic world making.” — Michael Warner. “Publics and Counterpublics.The concept of publicness is emphasized in all stages of TSDC’s performance creation process from its first storytelling activity through to its culminating performance. Within the workshops, participants are invited to frame their stories in a broader collective context, a public where decision-makers can be called to account for their actions. In this way, the process seeks to affirm participants’ sense of belonging to a ‘we,’ or a public that can demand accountability. The plays provide a platform and a method for performer-advocates to issue their own invitation to an audience to also see themselves as part of this broader shared public.

TSDC plays are also always set in public, rather than private, spaces. The publicness of the play’s settings, directs audience attention to the conditions of our shared collective environment, rather than placing the focus on the private lives and individual choices of the play’s fictionalized characters or the performer-advocates who created them.

Another important aspect of publicness is how the performance of the play facilitates a particular kind of public encounter. Performer-advocates and audiences are brought together as a public, but it’s one where the social expectations associated with theatre delays the moment of audience interaction until after the performance’s final scene. The uninterruptable nature of the performance provides performer-advocates with the time and space to present the story that will lay the foundation for post-performance interactions (which are essential components of TSDC performances).

TSDC’s focus on publicness:

  • Bridges participants’ personal experience with their sense of social belonging.
  • Draws attention to the values that underpin decisions about shared social worlds.
  • Enhances the potential of marginalized voices being included in public discussions about the future of the City.
  • Provides performer-advocates with a platform and a method through which to address a broader public.


The central creative tool we use to set these four concepts into motion are the one-to-three sentence creative propositions we call prompts. A prompt can be thought of as a nudge, a suggestion, or an invitation to some kind of action. TSDC’s creative team uses prompts throughout the different stages of the performance creation workshops to invite participants to imagine something which they are then asked to creatively express through storytelling, Image Theatre, a word or spoken phrase, an image or drawing. We also use prompts in post-performance activities. For examples of how we work with prompts see Story Circle Prompt, First Images, or Fill-in-the-Blank Audience Response Prompts. With a touch of theatrical flair we like to think of prompts as imagination-sparking magic wands.

prompt wand

As we discuss in greater detail in The Art (and Craft) of Facilitation, it’s preferable in theatre-based workshops to match how you introduce an idea or an activity with the kinds of engagement you’re inviting participants to take part in. For example, imagine arriving as a participant to your first TSDC performance creation workshop and the facilitators launch into an explanation of the core concepts. Oh my — Yawn! TSDC prompts are not explanatory. Nor are they simply questions or a set of instructions (though they often contain elements of both). They are designed to inspire imaginative and creative expression.

TSDC’s carefully crafted prompts are designed to offer a concise and creative method for introducing participants to the concepts by inviting them to frame their attention and imaginations in a specific way. This is not to say that each individual prompt will overtly address each aspect of a fictional, collective, future-oriented story that is focused on publicness. Taken together, however, they address the concepts and the larger goal of facilitating the co-creation of plays that will amplify the voices of people who are socially marginalized in public conversations about the City.



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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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