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Starting Sept 10, 2004, the Vancouver Sun ran a six-part series of arwticles that focused, in large part, on violence in the Indo-Canadian Community. As a result, Headlines Theatre staff requested a meeting with various leaders in the community who are on the front-lines dealing with the violence issue. The purpose of the meeting was to investigate the possibility of working with the community to create a main stage project that would reach behind the news headlines.
Since that first meeting, we have discussed the project at length with other community leaders, some of whom have agreed to be an advisory panel for the project.

Here and Now Advisory Committee (During Fundraising and Pre-Production)

Shashi Assanand, Vancouver & Lower Mainland Multicultural Family Support
Hemi Dhanoa
Ravinder Dhir, Immigrant Services Society of BC
Charan Gill, Progressive Intercultural Services Society
Suki Grewal, South Asian Family Association
Aneeta Jandu, Surrey/Delta Immigrant Services Society
Kamal Sharma, Headlines Theatre, Board of Directors
Nav Sanghera, VIRSA – Sikh Alliance Against Youth Violence
Sadhu Binning
Amar Randhawa, Gurjit Toor and Parm Grewal, UNITED
Daljit DJ Parmar & Kabir Shaukat Ali, A Community That Cares

What we have understood is this: The newspaper articles do not, and probably, cannot, tell the whole story. There are, indeed, violence issues in the community, but they are not manifesting as “organized crime” in the manner that is being portrayed in the media.  While the news media focuses on ‘high profile’ crime, very little is discussed about the roots of such crime and violence and its specific impact on community life as it is lived from day to day.

Immigrant communities face specific challenges in Canada. Often people come here because they imagine the potential for a better life. Upon arrival they are faced with a new language, climate, and an over-arching culture with very different values and ways of seeing.These challenges sometimes lead to marginalization of both individuals and groups, to community frustration, and to both internalized and externalized violence.

We have had very enthusiastic consensus that a main stage THEATRE FOR LIVING project using the techniques of Forum Theatre, and growing out of the experiences of Indo-Canadian community members who are struggling with these issues, would serve numerous functions:

  • It would help the Indo-Canadian community itself reflect on the realities of its own current situation and explore ways to deal with the violence internally;
  • The production would serve as a public education project about the realities within the community that exist behind the sensationalist headlines.  In turn this would generate a cross-cultural dialogue that would encourage various other communities to investigate the roots of and solutions to violence in their own communities;
  • By adapting the methodologies of last year’s very successful Legislative Theatre project, Practicing Democracy, the production would generate a Community Action Report that contains concrete suggestions for social service agencies and anti-violence programs that the community itself believes would be effective;
  • As with all Headlines’ main stage productions, a community television broadcast would be organized and a video/DVD  from the broadcast would result. This is something that agencies could use once the live production had ended.

On October 24, 2004 the BC Government announced it had committed $1 million to a new Indo-Canadian Gang Violence Task Force, with which the Vancouver and Delta Police Forces and the RCMP have agreed to participate.

BC Court of Appeal Justice Wally Oppal is quoted in the Vancouver Sun (October 25, 2004) as saying that, “…the Task Force will help, but that the community must work to educate young people before they get caught up in the violent criminal underworld that has cost 80 to 90 Indo-Canadian men their lives.” “The buck has to stop with us”, he said.

A project such as the one we are proposing functions from a philosophical place that knows that a living community has both the responsibility and the ability to deal with issues in the community. While the theatre expertise may be coming from outside the community, the knowledge that the theatre process unlocks resides in the community itself.

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Focus of the production

If one has paid attention to the news in the last ten years or more, it will be apparent that the media has, at different times, focused on different communities regarding the issue of gang and street violence. The truth is that these issues affect all communities, not only the one or two that find themselves under the media spotlight at any given time.

A theatre production such as the one we are proposing must, however, tell a specific story. Because the Indo-Canadian community is the focus now, this provides an opportunity to use the public perception around this issue to explore solutions for all communities.  This approach ensures that the project will not sensationalize the issues of the Indo-Canadian community while, at the same time, provide a specific meeting point from which to discuss the complex issues at a broad, multicultural level. The symptoms of violence certainly manifest in somewhat different ways from community to community, but the core issues from which the symptoms arise are, we believe very similar.

We will invite the general public to the performances. Headlines is very successful at drawing out a broadly multicultural audience. This audience’s engagement in the Forum Theatre process (see below) will build cross-cultural understanding and also help investigate solutions to the issues that are relevant to all audience members.

Because the actual content of a project like this must come from the community workshop participants, it is impossible to be absolutely specific about the issues that will be addressed in the play. I can, however, write about the questions and issues that arose in the discussions with people from the community so far as it is likely these will also be reflected by the larger community:

Does the issue of street violence connect to the issues of violence in the family, schools, clubs, etc.? If it does, how? How is it that people get involved with violence? It appears that issues of identity are central. An immigrant youth trying to fit into the larger Canadian culture is subject to tremendous pressure. This can manifest differently for boys than for girls. Is the person “Canadian” or someone of “South Asian heritage”, or both? Getting involved in violence can be a way to try to establish and then assert one’s identity and individuality.

There was discussion of the hidden issue of large numbers of young girls entering the sex trade, many from wealthy families. The issue is not necessarily money; it is one of image and glamour and growing into a very sexualized culture. Often, parents have absolutely no idea what their daughters are doing.

Parents who begin by coming here ‘to make a better life’ find themselves buying into the consumerist culture, or often have two jobs in order to support their family’s needs or to achieve their desires, and so, are absent from life at home. Children are raising themselves and/or looking to other adults for guidance.

There was discussion about how issues of violence manifest between 1st and 2nd generation Indo-Canadians. What happens when a family has moved to Canada with traditional values, but the children are growing up here where different value systems are in presented to them? What stresses are creating by the ‘tearing’ of the traditional fabric of the family?

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What is Forum Theatre?

Forum Theatre is an opportunity for creative, community-based dialogue. The theatre is created and performed by community members who are living the issues under investigation.  Over the course of a Headlines' THEATRE FOR LIVING  workshop, participants engage in very specific games and exercises that help them investigate issues at a deep level. Then, they create a short plays, in this case, perhaps 5 minutes in duration. Each play is performed once, all the way through, so the audience can see the situation and the problems presented. The story builds to a crisis and stops there, offering no solutions. Each play is then run again, with audience members able to "freeze" the action at any point where they see a character engaged in a struggle. An audience member yells "stop!", comes into the playing area, replaces the character s/he sees struggling with the problem, and tries out his/her idea. We call this an ‘intervention’. The process is fun, profound, entertaining and full of surprises and learning.

"On Feb. 21, 2003 I saw a powerful and very familiar portrayal of bullying and the effects it has on people involved. Don't Say a Word was an excellent tool that used youth involvement to create a powerful and very impacting message about real and important issues, while ensuring the participation and recognition of culturally and socially diverse voices that individual youth represent."

Monica Lee, Asian Society for the Intervention of AIDS (ASIA), April 3, 2003

"I was impressed with the way Don't Say a Word created a space for people to grapple with issues of violence in very real and meaningful ways.  It was fabulous to see the engagement of the audience, particularly the youth, in creating new possibilities. I was struck by the multitude of openings for change highlighted in the production, and it prompted me to consider the opportunities I have in my life to make 'insightful interventions'.  I left the production feeling very hopeful and inspired."     

Desiree Sattler, audience member, Feb. 28, 2003

Headlines has a long and strong history of developing process-oriented theatre with communities. The project forms the basis of transformational dialogue. In 2002 we had the opportunity, through our production on school violence, Don’t Say a Word, to have a quantitative survey done by Dr. Shelley Hymel. The survey found measurable, positive result in the school regarding changes in attitude towards school violence and bullying.  We have known this was true for years through anecdotal evidence, but it is great to have the hard, statistical data.

"Students who participated in the Anti-Bullying Forum Theatre events were significantly more likely to feel that they "know what they can do to stop harassment" than students who did not participate. Students who participated reported more willingness to respond and be responsible than did students who did not participate.

Given that these data were collected only a short time after the Headlines Theatre presentation, these effects are actually most encouraging. In just a few short weeks, this unique theatre effort planted seeds that have already begun to grow in the minds of those students who participated. Over time, the increased awareness that is evident among participants should continue to affect how students think and behave, as students apply what they have learned to their own real-life situations."

Excerpted from the quantitative report: "Impact of Headlines Theatre's Anti-Bullying Forum on Secondary Schools" April 4, 2003, by Shelley Hymel, Ph.D., UBC Faculty of Education. The full report is available here

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The Community Workshop

In October, 2005 we will gather a group of up to 20 participants together who are living these and other issues identified by the community. Prior to the start of the workshop, we will interview all the participants and from those interviews, decide on a cast.  The reason for this is that the workshop itself should not be an audition. It is important that each person coming into the process knows what their involvement and time commitment will be.

All twenty workshop participants will be paid to participate in a week long THEATRE FOR LIVING workshop, out of which will come the core material for the Forum Theatre play.  Using theatre games and exercises we will explore how the issues affect the lives of the participants. We will, at that point, be seeking the problems they face. It is these points of tension that will form the subject matter of the play.

Using the workshop as the material from which the performance grows, the cast, production team and I, will then have 3 weeks to create an artistic production for presentation to the public. This is the same creation model as was used in our very successful Forum Theatre projects such as Squeegee (1999), Corporate U (2000), Don't Say a Word (2003) and Practicing Democracy (2004) 

Designers, technicians, and a stage manager will be involved at this stage to ensure that the play has a high quality of production when it is ready to tour. Our intention is to draw these personnel as much as possible from the community, so that the production looks and sounds authentic.

We have already, of course, started the outreach work on this project. Dafne Blanco, Headlines’ Outreach Co-ordinator writes:

The first step will be to research and identify the obvious allies within the community such as Indo-Canadian community workers, service providers in neighbourhood houses, community centres, agencies, non-profit organizations; developing new relationships and nurturing those already established.  However, I also see the need to develop a closer relationship with the community itself well in advance and beyond the above usual channels. In order to do that, I’m planning to conduct an ongoing research of scheduled community events and Indo-Canadian festivals so I can coordinate with organizers to attend and make presentations about the project.  The goal will be to recruit workshop participants and build expectancy around the performances.  In addition, I believe that for this particular project, it is necessary to develop a strategy to reach out to the community at a very grassroots level.  By that I mean, accessing women’s and support groups, ESL Programs, sectors of the community affected by violence, small neighbourhood gatherings, always in close collaboration with Indo-Canadian workers.

Selective bilingual mail outs in areas where there is a high concentration of Indo-Canadian residents may be a valuable tool to reach out directly to their households. I also have the capacity to develop large format bilingual displays that can have brochures with the project’s information attached, to be placed in strategic malls, Indo-Canadian movie theatres, festivals booths, etc. Bilingual pre-show slides may be screened in the same Indo-Canadian movie theatres.

The graphic signature for the project will be created by Baljit Singh Deo.

By creating the best art we can from the material and artists emerging from the community, the production will in itself provide a positive focus of community energy.

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The Performances

The play will tell a story in which characters are struggling with the complex issues of violence and the underlying sources of violence. The Forum events will ask the audience to engage in concrete solution investigation.

We will perform in Vancouver and in Surrey. In order to really reach a core audience that is representative of the issues, it is our intention to tour this production to where the community lives, rather than ask audiences to travel to a central theatre location. Community organizations involved in the issues under discussion will work with Headlines' Staff to promote the theatre events in their community spaces. We are anticipating two different community venues during the two and a half weeks of the run.

Community Action Report

A person from the community who is knowledgeable in the social services area will be hired by Headlines to be present at every performance. This Community Scribe will gather the desires, the actions that come onto the stage from the audience at each performance. These will be collated and analyzed in terms of the kinds of initiatives that could evolve in the community that would either enhance existing programs or start anew to address issues of violence. A Community Action Report will then be written that will be made available to social service agencies and other interested parties.

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Reaching further

Because of a desire to reach out to all generations, we are discussing the possibility of the production being bilingual somehow so that the audience can be truly intergenerational. This will also involve the possible use of translators in the Forum Theatre event. Of course an undertaking such as this costs more money and will be contingent upon available funding.

We are currently in very preliminary conversations with SHAW Cable who is interested in partnering with us on an interactive web/telecast. We do these telecasts, on average, once a year. This will broaden the reach of the performances greatly. It will also generate video/DVD that can be used by the community after the live project has ended.

“Headlines Theatre’s Practicing Democracy makes for riveting theatre.”

Paul Grant, CBC Radio, March 21/04

“…the benefits of using actors who really do know a thing or two about living in poverty become strikingly clear. These are simple truths, bluntly told, but grippingly poignant. While the reasons behind Practicing Democracy are deeply political, the project still manages to maintain a very high entertainment value.”      

Alexandra Gill, Globe and Mail, March 4/04

“Emme Lee delivers the night's most stunning performance, reminding the audience, in a single, heart- scorching monologue, just what live theatre is for. The superb company of actors on stage with her (Valerie Laub, Kevin Millsip, Charlene Wee and director David Diamond) all work well within the play's experimental structure. (Diamond) knows that there are, always, more questions than answers, and that real life drama is long on pain and short on simple heroes or villains. Headlines makes their difficult material dance. Corporate U offers an advanced course for the educated heart and an intelligent seminar on globalization in a single evening.”

Tom Sandborn, The Globe and Mail, Dec. 11, 2000

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Project Timelines

Fundraising/pre-production * Now – October, 2005

Outreach * Now to end

Community Workshop * Oct. 17 – 22/05

Creation/rehearsal * Oct. 25 – Nov. 15/05

Community tour performances * Nov. 16 – Dec. 11/05

Community Scribe prepares the Report * Dec. 12 – 17/05    

Action Report goes to service providers * Dec. 19/05

Final reports to funders * Dec. 19/05

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Why is this project important?

A community is a living organism. In the same way that our bodies are comprised of cells that make up the living organism of our bodies, a community is comprised of people that make up the living organism of the community. The way communities used to express themselves was once through song, dance, drama etc. Today, these activities have become commodified; we buy movies, books, dance, theatre, TV – we pay strangers to tell us stories about strangers.

If an individual doesn’t express herself, she gets sick. In the exact same way, if a community loses the ability to express itself, it gets sick. The violence all around us is a sign of dysfunction at a deep level in all of our communities.

The use of primal language (in this case the theatre) to tell collective stories (in this case about the community’s struggle with violence) and then the resulting community dialogue through Forum Theatre cannot help but be very healthy for the living community.

The public aspect of these performances will also function as a vehicle for other communities to gather around the Indo-Canadian play and reflect their own experiences off of the symbolism of this specific story. This level of the project is anti-racism work in a very subtle but effective way.

It brings various communities who share similar issues together and encourages them to problem solve collectively. In the process, they will recognize their differences and their similarities. They will engage in real dialogue, which breeds understanding.

Final reports on all these projects are on our web site


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