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Practicing Democracy

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Is true, participatory democracy possible in the world today?

Headlines Theatre and Vancouver City Council think the answer is YES!

The cuts to welfare policies in BC are having a profound effect on all people throughout the Province. While these changes are the jurisdiction of the Provincial Government, the impacts will be felt locally, in homes, workplaces, schools and on our streets.

Practicing Democracy means making decisions about how we support those who are most affected. How can the City of Vancouver and its residents respond to the Provincial policy changes and not criminalize people in poverty?

This is a chance for people to use theatre to communicate with Government and define civic law. By putting our ideas into human, theatrical form, we will affect policy and practice.

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What is Practicing Democracy?

In March of 2004, Headlines will tour an interactive theatre production exploring how the city can respond to the cuts to welfare. The play is performed once - showing a series of conflicts. Then, it is performed a second time and the audience is invited to replace characters in the play to create solutions. Based on the audience's ideas, a Legal Expert will create a report for Vancouver City Council. Using theatre, Practicing Democracy invites Vancouver residents to create civic legislation!

The show will tour through Vancouver community halls March 3 - 21, 2004. In early April, the Legal Expert's Report will go to Vancouver City Council, service providers, media and to you via our website.

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How was the topic chosen?

On February 27, 2003 Vancouver City Council unanimously passed a motion confirming their participation in Practicing Democracy.

In April 2003, Headlines and City Council came up with a short list of potential topics based on what would be relevant to City Council in March 2004.

We then held a referendum through the company's extensive local networks to determine which topic the play will focus on. Here are the results:

How can a Ward System work?

In a "ward system" the elected person represents a neighbourhood instead of the entire City. What are the human mechanisms necessary to help make this work?
39 -- first choice 49 -- second choice total votes = 88

The relationship between youth and the police.
35 -- first choice 45 -- second choice total votes = 80

Seniors and the City.
Seniors are expressing fear about venturing out into the city and when they do, find difficulty accessing many services. What can the City do?
35 -- first choice 38 -- second choice total votes = 73

And the topic that Vancouver residents chose:

Results of welfare cuts
Province-wide cuts to welfare will take effect in March 2004, making tens of thousands of people ineligible. In what ways can the City of Vancouver respond to the resulting effects?
96 -- first choice 48 -- second choice total votes = 144

Thank you to all who participated! Your continued input is important to us!

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Why focus on the cuts to welfare?

Of course welfare is the jurisdiction of the Province of British Columbia not the City of Vancouver, so the first question that comes up is, why focus on welfare cuts? The practicalities of what will happen due to the welfare cuts will fall to municipalities and local service providers. Already, we can see increases in homelessness, panhandling, shelter and food bank usage, as well as increasing difficulties for impoverished children, for people with mental health issues, in policing....the list goes on.

For more detailed information please read, "A Bad Time to Be Poor: An Analysis of British Columbia's New Welfare Policies" by Seth Klein and Andrea Long. It was co-published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Social Planning and Research Council of BC in June 2003. You can download this report from

Although we wish that these problems were not happening, they are. The challenge for a democratic society is to agree on ways to organize around solutions for the future while not neglecting the realities of the present. Legislative Theatre is a dynamic, democratic and joyful mechanism for problem solving and the creation of community dialogue. It is a way for people to use the theatre to communicate with Government!

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How does the play get created?

Our mandate is to create theatre with people in community. What this means is we will be using theatre games and exercises to explore how the issues affect the lives of the participants who are living the issues of the cuts to welfare. It is these points of tension in the lived experiences of the workshop participants that will form the subject matter of the play. This ensures that the play is created by the community and not solely from the 'executive artist's' perspective.

So how does this happen? From Feb. 1-6 we will gather a group of 30 participants. All 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. No acting or theatre experience is required.

We had over 80 applicants for 30 positions! While this made our selection process difficult, it demonstrated that many people are interested in this project. We are grateful to everyone who applied.

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What will happen in this THEATRE FOR LIVING workshop?

The workshop will use theatre games and exercises to build trust and explore the experiences and perspectives of participants around the cuts to welfare. To a large extent these games and exercises are non-verbal. Participants will be asked to look into moments of stress, tension, internal and external struggles from their own lives in order to investigate issues at both a personal and a systemic level. This will happen through a physical language -- not testimonials. This workshop does not go to public performance. Its purpose is to create a mandate for the creation of the Forum Theatre production that will tour inside Vancouver. The workshop will take place from February 1-6, 2004.

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What happens in Forum Theatre?

The play is performed once so the audience can see it. Then it is performed again. This second time, audience members can yell "Stop!" if they see someone struggling with a problem and have an idea of how to solve that problem. The "Stop!" freezes the action. The audience member enters the playing area, takes the place of the character who is in struggle, and tries his/her idea, improvising with the other actors. In this way the public gets to use the theatre as a concrete tool to investigate various perspectives on a particular issue and to find real solutions to those problems in the real world. Forum Theatre is a rehearsal for social change; the theatre becomes a tool for community dialogue. It is fun, fast paced, meaningful, thought-provoking and always entertaining.

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How is Legislative Theatre different from Forum Theatre?

We will engage a legal expert for the project. At every performance, it will be this person's job to document the ideas that come onto the stage from the audience, collate them, study them, and translate the desires at the core of the actions into legal language. This will become "The Legal Expert's Report".

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What will happen with "The Legal Expert's Report"?

Once the performances are over, The Legal Expert's Report will be presented to City Council and participating agencies as a discussion paper for the creation or revision of civic legislation around the issues. City Council has agreed to use the input as a valid part of their deliberations about the issues at hand. We will also make the report available to service providers, the media and anyone else who wants it.

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Where did this idea come from?

THEATRE FOR LIVING is based on the work of Augusto Boal, the Brazilian creator of the "Theatre of the Oppressed". In 1997, Boal became a Vereador (the equivalent of an MLA in BC) in the District of Rio de Janeiro. As part of his agreement to run for office, he took his entire theatre company into office with him, and together they developed Legislative Theatre. In this system, Forum Theatre was used to enable groups around Rio to create plays on issues of importance to them. Through this interactive process, they had the opportunity to suggest laws that might be passed to improve their lives. Boal then took these laws to the Chamber and proposed them. In this way, 22 laws were passed over two years.

As Boal writes in his book, "Legislative Theatre does not accept that the elector should be a mere spectator to the actions of the elected official, even when these actions are right: it wants the electors to give their opinions, to discuss the issues, to put forward counter-arguments, to share the responsibility for what their elected official does." (Legislative Theatre: Using Performance to Make Politics. Augusto Boal. Translated by Adrian Jackson, Routledge, 1999.)

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Has Legislative Theatre ever been done in Canada before?

Legislative Theatre has never, to our knowledge, been done in Canada. However, for over two decades Headlines has been a national and international leader in the development of Boal-based theatre techniques. We have had numerous successes in creating structural change through this work. For example, as a result of a play that Headlines created on refugee issues called ¿SANCTUARY? (1989) the BC refugee hearing interview seating arrangement was re-designed in order to create a more equal physical relationship in the room.

In a more recent project, regarding safety for youth in the streets, (Squeegee, in 1999) legal advocate Rina Zweig, BA, and LL.B., created a report for City Council based on the ideas and desires of audience interventions. Even though the Council of the day refused to participate in the project, agencies working with street youth took the recommendations in it seriously and adapted their programs. Read the Squeegee Report.

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Read Mayor Campbell's Letter:

Mayor's Letter Image

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