Reclaiming Hope with David Diamond

David Diamond as he appears on the January issue of Many Peaces Magazine

David Diamond as he appears on the January 2016 issue of Many Peaces Magazine

‘Hope is a verb’, says David Diamond, the founder and artistic director of Vancouver’s Theatre for Living. As the company celebrates 35 years of creating award-winning, interactive community theatre, Diamond reflects not only on what it takes to keep hope alive but also on what has effectively become his ‘life’s work’.

‘Nobody is more surprised than me,’ he jokes as he recalls the loose beginnings of the company in 1981 when it was ‘a group of writers, actors and directors frustrated by the housing problem’ who created theatre that toured the country addressing that issue.

35 years later Theatre for Living (formerly Headlines Theatre) has a remarkable body of work of over 550 projects and trainings not only in Canada but also throughout the world, addressing complex issues such as climate change, globalisation, rampant consumerism, endemic violence, substance abuse and addiction.

Influenced initially by the radical pedagogy of social educator Paolo Freire, Diamond later trained with Augusto Boal, adapting Forum Theatre and other Boal methodology.

Boal called Diamond’s work ‘extraordinary and groundbreaking’ referring in particular to his adaptation of Forum Theatre for TV and the Internet and most notably, his highly acclaimed work with First Nation communities throughout Canada.

Diamond, who, among many awards, has received an honorary PhD from the University of Fraser Valley, the Otto René Castillo Award for Political Theatre and the City of Vancouver’s Cultural Harmony Award and the Mayor’s Award for Culturally Engaged Art, attributes some of the success to the company’s approach when working with communities.

‘We are not engaging with those community people because they are broken and we are going to fix them…they have expertise that nobody else has and we are employing them, paying them for their time…this is not therapy’Important too, is the premise that he makes about those who enter the space of the theatre, both in the audience and on the stage. In his book Theatre for Living, Diamond explains his break away from the binary of oppressed/oppressor of Boal’s approach and what he feels is the responsibility that interactive theatre has to ‘represent the complexities of life.’

At the same time ‘we have got the responsibility to make the best art that we can,’ Diamond stresses from Vancouver where he is preparing for the next project Reclaiming Hope.This is a series of ten events across Vancouver that will be asking audiences ‘how are you being asked to be afraid?’ He explained that the project aims to make visible the ‘voices of fear that are encouraging us to do things against our value systems … to change our relationship towards those voices so that we can reclaim hope.’

The work is being hosted by different organisations including a joint Jewish, Christian and Muslim organisation and environmental groups. For our North American friends you can find more information on www.theatreforliving.com.

Later in the year Diamond will be joining the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where he has been asked by the Dean to help change the culture of the teaching environment using the Theatre for Living approach.

At the same time fund raising has already started for a large 2017 project that is examining the reality behind ‘reconciliation’ in Canada, ‘what does reconciliation really look like in today’s society?’.

David Diamond rejoices in what he considers a great privilege ‘ I get to have crazy ideas and do them…and work with incredible people in intimate and interesting ways!’

Hope and Why Theatre Matters

hector-facilitating-grey-shirt (1)

Hector Aristizabal from Imaginaction

When I first met Hector at the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed conference in Austin 2010, I was impressed by his open, clear energy and his strong but gentle presence; when I found out about his work and life experience I was truly inspired. Hector Aristizabal embodies hope.

The founder of ImaginAction, a social theatre company based in Los Angeles, Aristizabal is himself a survivor of violence who was captured and tortured by military groups, and who lost his brother to the violent events that have ravaged his native Colombia. A true artist and social practitioner, Aristizabal combines the aesthetic and transformative power of theatre and performance with his own experience of extreme oppression into a creative source of power to help communities around the world. His work has taken him to many zones of conflict including Palestine, Northern Ireland and Afghanistan.

When I spoke to Aristizabal earlier in December he had just returned from Gaziantep, a region of Turkey bordering war torn Syria. He had been teaching theatre techniques such as Boal’s Image Theatre and Rainbow of Desire to the staff of a German organisation working with Syrian refugees. Most of the traumatised asylum seekers had fled the city of Aleppo where bombs have left the town in ruins.

“Sometimes when we were eating people around the table showed me photos on their phones of the (destroyed) town…sadly everyone had photos of people who had died or who they might never see again”, he recounted.

“What we can do with the theatre is create a container for the stories and that alone is very humanising and healing…sometimes all we need is for our stories to be heard and theatre allows many ways of processing, where people recognise themselves, their story and their humanity.”

Speaking from Colombia, Aristizabal was about to embark on the next phase of an ongoing reconciliation project that he holds close to his heart. He spoke excitedly and optimistically about the healing process that had been taking place in Bojaya, in the region of Choco where 119 people were massacred and 6,000 displaced by FARC (guerillas) in 2002.

Working with FARC, para-military, military and locals from the region, Aristizabal is hopeful about the role that theatre has played in facilitating alternatives to violence. When asked why theatre matters Aristizabal is quick to respond:

“Theatre is the closest thing to life itself because it is something that happens once and cannot be repeated; yet different because it’s a symbolic game; it’s a human laboratory par excellence”.

“…theatre is a place where humans can learn about ourselves and our behaviours; reinvent ourselves and rehearse our life”.

Hope quotes-Emily-Dickinson hope with bird

Blowing my own trumpet…and that of those who inspire us

blowyourowntrumpet 1
I hope this blog finds you feeling passionate and motivated; creative and expressive; at the very least I hope you are feeling content and engaged in whatever you are doing.I have just returned to Australia from what has been a remarkable year overseas during which; among other things, I completed, as in, totally finished, done and dusted, one of my biggest project to date. Here it is!
One huge goal...completed!

One huge goal…completed!

I put this up here not to blow my own trumpet (ok…just a little!… I am very proud of having completed this and also about how far Act Out has come since we started in 2007) but to share how humbling it is, on reflection, to recognise and acknowledge how much we depend on the support, encouragement and inspiration of others to accomplish and sustain our goals.Over the next few newsletters I will be honouring… or blowing the trumpets… of some of the people who have supported, encouraged and inspired me this far.
Anne Sorenson at Parliament House, Canberra receiving the Australian Migration and Settlement Award for Innovation

Anne Sorenson at Parliament House, Canberra receiving the Australian Migration and Settlement Award for Innovation

Anne Sorenson, now the Artistic Director of Southern Edge Arts Inc. and Creative Producer of Myriad Productions, based in Albany has been an ongoing source of inspiration and counsel since I started on this path.Sorenson was the former coordinator of the Sharing Stories Project for the Metropolitan Migrant Resource Centre in Perth, and has been successfully working and engaging with young people for nearly 20 years. In 2011 Sorenson was a consultant for a community project Act Out conducted with young people dealing with bullying and ‘sexting’, resulting in a forum theatre play Relationship Status funded by CANWA, Healthway and Department for Communities.
I interviewed Sorenson about engagement for my upcoming book Peeling Them Off the Wall, about what it takes to genuinely engage young people, especially young people we label ‘at risk’. With scores of successful projects under her belt Sorenson stresses that engagement is about ‘generating a level of curiosity in participants so that they ask themselves “what’s going to happen if I stay with this?”’‘We have to evoke a curiosity… Ultimately you know they are engaged the moment they decide that they are going to stay with this activity and want to see what develops.’
She outlines three key elements in her work:1. It’s all about them
‘When working in community arts, it is not about me, or expressing what I want, it’s about what their community wants – that’s the ultimate struggle’. A facilitator’s role is to create the space and the energy through the methodology so that there is a point where participants start to throw ideas in; they start to contribute to the dialogue and offer of themselves. The facilitator does not lead, or leads to the point at which the young people can take over that lead. ‘Movement is not so much directed by me’ but it is up to the practitioner to ‘meet people where they are at…to adapt’.‘I always let them talk a lot…and never shut people down when they are contributing…nothing is impossible’

2. Get used to being in the unknown
‘When you work in community arts you have to be happy to be in the unknown’. 
Sorenson reminds us ‘this is something that they (young people) are volunteering to do, they’re busy, there is a lot going on in their lives’. 
You have to work with ‘what is in the room – have they had a shitty day? Has there been a death in their family, in their community? Are they fighting with anyone, is anyone in their family fighting with anyone?’‘People are always afraid to be in the messiness of it…you have to give up control’.Giving up control means ‘letting go and not being afraid to fall…not being afraid to fail’.
This means really learning the skill of improvising and this means having good awareness of yourself; ‘know thyself and be thyself!’

3. Invest in your professional development

Community artists need to continually invest in PD. Like us at Act Out, Sorenson uses Boal techniques and other embodied and aesthetic practices to create arts-based interventions like forum theatre and films about issues that matter to the young, often marginalised, people that she works with.Sorenson has trained in Australia and overseas in Drama Therapy, Theatre of the Oppressed, Contact Improvisation and Body-Mind Centering, and continues to attend PD events as often as she can. Methodology is very important to Sorenson.It is a practice that requires us to have a deep level of awareness so that ‘we can listen for that moment where I can engage them into the development of something, so that you can establish trust and self-awareness and body awareness.’

For Sorenson, this is a service and it has to be done with love and tolerance and no judgments, continually developing cultural competencies so that you can accomplish something ‘…a moment to shine’.