On January 18, something magical happened: about 20 people gathered in a room at the Boyle Street Community Centre to share our experiences of gender-based violence, and provide perspective on how our grandparents, parents, and children experience or experienced gender-based violence. The workshop was organized by Undercurrent Theatre as part of their process of co-creating a new piece, set to hit the stage at Azimuth Theatre in April.
I first encountered Undercurrent Theatre at their production of (un)earthed at the University of Alberta last year. When I was interviewing (un)earthed‘s Director, Nikki Shaffeeullah, she told me that the show was a community-based (or community-engaged) theatre project, where the performance was created through a collaboration between all the actors and the director. (un)earthed was a great show and the start of my interest in community-based theatre and how it is created.
After participating in the January 18 workshop, I had the opportunity to meet with Nikki Shaffeeullah to learn more about community-based theatre and the process that goes into organizing a community workshop as part of creating a new piece of theatre. Nikki says, “the forum was an event in and of itself. We see this whole project as a chance to talk to people about gender-based violence in the context of minority communities and media stereotypes. The workshop was a space to bring the conversation beyond just what [Undercurrent Theatre has] in and among the six of us – in particular we were looking to connect with people from different generations. We range in age from mid-twenties to late thirties so there’s only a particular age range represented. We wanted to connect with kids and grandparents and our own families… That’s part of our creative process but it’s also an event in and of itself. So, we are trying to create many opportunities for people to have conversations with us.”
The workshop used a variety of different theatre-based techniques to answer the questions Undercurrent Theatre had coming into the workshop to inform their next play. I have to admit that when I first heard about the workshop, I pictured a group of people sitting around and discussing the issues – the workshop ended up being much more interactive than that, including the opportunity to look at visuals of gender-based violence over time, draw our communities, and respond to focused questions through writing, verbal response, and creating poses or images with our bodies. Of the multi-disciplinary format of the workshop, Nikki says, “we wanted the workshop to have many ways for people to converse. I’m a theatre-based facilitator, I use theatre-based methods to facilitate [classes, workshops] because I think that embodied discussion is very evocative and visceral in ways that sitting and talking aren’t. Putting it in your body makes it real and not theoretical. Putting it in your body makes it personal and not abstract so we had theatre-based methods – we used some image theatre – but we used other entry points for people, so we also used drawing and mapping and writing and small group discussion. When people entered, we had these boards – the image gallery – where we wanted to be able to reconcile the fact that we didn’t want to impose too many of our opinions on the workshop with the fact that we wanted to acknowledge that we had already come into this process with a lot of thinking on the table and we wanted to share that with the group… We took a lot of things that inspired us – quotes, images – and made stuff and printed stuff out and put it on this mural that we made and invited people to come half an hour early, have some snacks, mill around and write their responses to this [mural] – that way their ideas and responses were in concert with ours so that hopefully ours provided a foundation but were not driving opinions.”
With an eye to Undercurrent Theatre’s upcoming play, Nikki said her and her co-creators got a lot of really interesting insight from the workshop. “We had one activity where the questions were all about [generational responses to gender-based violence]. One of the things is someone wrote about how their grandfather was very comfortable exacting gender-based violence and abusing the women in his life. The same person, same handwriting wrote about how their grandmother wouldn’t stand for it. It’s possible the [grandma and grandpa] weren’t together, but it was a reminder that these things co-exist. You’re not “oppressed” or “not oppressed”. You can be both. These systems exist all the time, and you’re part of them, whether you know it or not. That was a really interesting take away. Another thought was around the question about “how do you respond to gender-based violence?” Everyone was talking about their defiance against it and the ways they protest it, whereas [Undercurrent Theatre] in our group – maybe because we’ve been talking about it for so long and have sort of moved away from that – are really interested in talking about how we silence each other and ourselves and help normalize gender-based violence.”
Undercurrent Theatre’s as-yet untitled project hits Azimuth Theatre April 2-6 at 7:30 pm with additional 2:00 pm matinees on April 5 and 6, however, as a community-engaged theatre project, the group will continue to connect with people interested in the project or the themes it explores by holding open rehearsals where they will collect feedback from audience members. “We want to hold ourselves accountable. Ultimately this project is about our own experiences and our own perspectives and we are accountable to ourselves, but in trying to talk about these big themes, to some extent we will be accountable to other communities and we want them to be involved in the process.”
Learn more about Undercurrent Theatre, or their upcoming show, at undercurrenttheatre.com.