After Homelessness... may be the most important show you can seen this year. It may also be the most frustrating. The latest forum theatre piece from David Diamond and Headlines Theatre tackles the crisis of homelessness in metro Vancouver along with its inseparably related issues: addiction, mental illness, poverty, government bureaucracy, community-police relations, and more. Both the scripted and unscripted, rehearsed and unrehearsed elements of the production make for pretty compelling drama. Whether they provide a real basis for generating useful, concrete ideas about social policy is another matter.
As with all Headlines shows, After Homelessness... was generated over a year or more from the company’s meetings and conversations with the people directly involved in the problem—government, social services agencies, and the homeless themselves. They invited participation in the stage play itself from the community and received 120 submissions from which six actors were chosen. All had experienced homelessness and most had also struggled with addiction and/or mental health problems. All but one had no professional acting experience.
The evening follows the Headlines formula. Diamond addresses the audience (a full house at the Firehall the night I attended) and explains the genesis, purpose and dynamic of the event, followed by the 30-minute play. Diamond then explains that we’ll see the play once again but this time audience members are invited to intervene if they feel they understand a character’s situation and have an idea of how it might be improved or resolved. The audience member, rather than telling the idea, goes onstage, takes the place of the character, and performs the idea while the actors improvise around him or her. Diamond then analyzes the intervention, asks questions of the intervener, the actors and the audience, challenges assumptions, and generally steers the discussion. The audience member sits down, the play resumes, someone else intervenes, and the process repeats itself until the end.
The script and language are extremely naturalistic. Three people live in a constant state of bickering and tension in crappy rooms in a run-down SRO, just a step away from homelessness. Cloud (Sundown Stieger) deals drugs, Shawna (Sandra M. Pronteau) is an addict, and high-strung Katie (Janette Pink), a recovering alcoholic, is in frustrating negotiations with a government agency to get on a list for real housing. Otis (social worker Holly Anderson, subbing for hospitalized Morgan Forry) lives on the street under a tarp and is about to be dislocated by the city and the police. His sometime girlfriend Nico (Justine “Fraggle” Goulet) has been steered by social services to the SRO, where she’s freaked out by the bedbugs and the fact that the previous tenant of her room hanged himself. A down-on-his-luck middle-class guy (Kevin Conway), alcoholic and on lithium, also ends up at the SRO. There is no happy ending.
The acting is fine. The performers all seem like real people (they are, of course, but that doesn’t guarantee that they will come off that way) and a couple have powerful presence. They handle their scripted scenes very well and their improvs are terrific. The show also has professional production values: grotty set by Yvan Morissette and costumes by Barbara Clayden, and very effective sound and lighting effects by Candelario Andrade and Conor Moore, respectively.
The forum part of the show on the evening I attended was more problematic. One group of audience members were on their own wavelength and made a lot of noise that wasn’t particularly relevant to the issues at hand. As moderator, Diamond spent much of his time and energy keeping control , like a teacher having to deal with rowdy students in a class. Diamond is extremely committed, intense, and very, very good at this. You have to wonder how, if at all, it could work without him there. In fact his presence and role are so very central, and so commanding, that it sometimes seems to be the David Diamond Show.
The problems dramatized in the show are difficult and complex. The reactions and solutions proposed by the audience interveners were almost all naive and simplistic: be nicer, don’t do drugs, don’t go off your meds, don’t succumb to despair. The government, cops, landlords, social services, and olympics got a lot of blame. But I didn’t hear a single idea that the official scribe, assigned by Headlines to take notes that could later be translated into policy suggestions, could realistically do anything with.
A couple of the interveners were fascinating—people who had, themselves, obviously been there. For the actors this may prove to be a life-changing experience. And the evening does give the rest of us--people who feel concerned about this problem and frustrated by its apparent intransigence--an outlet. It makes us feel that we are doing something. But I’m not convinced that anything more than feeling better will actually come out of the project. I hope I’m wrong.