Bulletin Interview

march09_bulletin_cover From The Bulletin, a journal of Japanese Canadian community, history & culture Vancouver Moving Theatre was formed in 1983 by Terry Hunter and Savannah Walling, who met at the Simon Fraser University non-credit dance program in the early 1970’s and then co-founded the Mime Caravan (1971-73) and Terminal City Dance (1975-83). Over the years Vancouver Moving Theatre has developed an international reputation for creating cross-cultural performances that often featured masks and percussion, frequently in collaboration with other artists from various disciplines. In recent years, the company has shifted from touring towards producing large-scale community engaged cultural events including In the Heart of a City: the Downtown Eastside Community Play (2003) and its offshoot, the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival (2004 – present), an annual event that celebrates the artists, history, culture, people and stories of the Downtown Eastside. Other recent community-engaged productions include We’re All in This Together (2005-2007) a giant shadow screen play about the roots of addiction, and A Downtown Eastside Romeo & Juliet (2008) a tragic-comedy about marginalization, stigmatization and homelessness. Terry and Savannah recently received the 2008 British Columbia Community Achievement Award for their work in the Downtown Eastside community, and Vancouver Moving Theatre recently received the 2008 City of Vancouver Cultural Harmony Award. Vancouver Moving Theatre is one of the producing partners of the upcoming Japantown Multicultural Neighbourhood Celebration. I met you two way back in the early eighties, when Katari Taiko was first getting started and was itself very much a part of the Strathcona community. In the time I’ve known you two, I’ve seen a real evolution in the company and its focus. You’ve gone from simply being based in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, to actually making the neighbourhood part of your identity, through the work you’re doing. Is that something that happened organically, or did you sit down and map out a plan, as in, “Let’s create a whole body of work based in the neighbourhood we live in”? TERRY It definitely arose organically. But what is interesting is that the seeds of our present work were established back in the 70s when we first moved into the Downtown Eastside—these seeds were a fascination with interdisciplinary and intercultural work, in bridging barriers between cultures, and in connecting artistic practice with community. And in turn our home community has very much shaped who we are and the work we do. Witnessing the Chinese Lion Dancers at Chinese New Year events in the streets of Chinatown inspired us to take our work out onto streets, plazas and public spaces. Japanese taiko has also inspired us, and led to a number of years where Savannah and I created our own unique style of drum dancing. SAVANNAH Asian practices of combining dance, percussion and mask inspired us to create characters like Drum Mother with whom we toured around the world. But as we began to raise a family, we started to plant deeper roots within our home community. TERRY A big step in this evolution to a deeper connection to community came after our son Montana was born in 1990. We began to do less international touring, and began the Strathcona Artist at Home Festival. This festival opened a huge and very rich vein—the history, culture, struggles and story of this area. This work led to an invitation by the Carnegie Community Centre to partner with them to co-produce the Downtown Eastside Community Play, a play which the mandate to celebrate the struggles and history of the community, and to build bridges between the cultures and socio-economic groups of the community. SAVANNAH I agreed to undertake this gargantuan project in gratitude to the Downtown Eastside neighbourhoods that have contributed to much to our artistic practice and provided a welcoming, culturally rich community in which to raise our son. TERRY Everything that we’ve done here since producing the community play—from festivals to productions—has been a natural evolution of work for, by and/or with this community. So it very much has been an organic development, with us having no idea how the work was going to evolve over the long-term. If thirty years ago a soothsayer said to me that “Three decades from now in the future year of 2008 you are going to produce in this neighbourhood a festival that features over 1000 artists in 170 events at over 40 locations through the community,” I wouldn’t have believed them. The Downtown Eastside is famously known as having Canada’s poorest postal code and has faced myriad accompanying issues including addiction, homelessness, prostitution and crime. Yet I sense from you two a commitment that transcends white middleclass guilt or pity. You seem to have a real affection for the area and its residents, and that comes across in your work. How do you see your role in the development of the DTES community? SAVANNAH This is my home. I live here because I like this home—its values and history, its art forms and cultures, its compassion and courage. I like my friends and neighbours. We share the same kinds of challenges lots of urban and rural communities face. To build healthy communities, all of us are needed. I take the small steps I know how to take—creating art that excites me, involves and engages people from my community, and challenges negative stereotypes. I learn about the neighborhood and share what I learn. Festivals and theatre productions offer lots of opportunities to give voice to many voices. TERRY Savannah says it so well. I would only add that I see myself as an artist/producer and a resident—a kind of public servant living and working with community. Given the challenges inherent in living and working in the DTES, do you ever lose hope, or feel that you’re swimming against the current? TERRY No, I don’t lose hope. I’m a very positive person by nature. But I certainly do feel discouraged at times. One of the central purposes of our work is to counter the negative and two-dimensional portrayal of the neighbourhood in the media. It can be very discouraging at times to see the huge amount of stigmatization and misrepresentation that goes on in the mainstream media, but I don’t let that stop me. I keep plugging away at it and take courage and hope from those in our community who have brought positive change through their fight for dignity and human rights. SAVANNAH I’m often daunted. I’m not as positive a person by nature as Terry. I know big problems can take generations to repair. They won’t be solved in my generation. I plan as if I’m going to live forever, and try to conduct myself as if I’m going to die tomorrow. When I’m totally lost, I focus on the next step—one step, I can manage. I accept that I’m not perfect and try to do better next time. I remind myself I’m only one of many people who are working to restore our community’s health. One thing that has impressed me is your commitment to the values of not only diversity, but authenticity. Not in the sense of, let’s go get some authentic Japanese drummers to play at our show, but rather through inviting in performers from the various sub-communities, whether they be Japanese, Chinese, First Nations, Ukrainian or African Canadian, to perform here in their own backyard. When you mount these performances and events, do you have a sense of programming for those from outside the neighbourhood, to show them the talent that’s here? Or is it more a case of providing an opportunity for artists to perform for their friends and neighbours. TERRY Our work is for both the local community and the larger community. First and foremost, it’s with and for the local community. But the work is presented in an open house format, in which the larger city is invited to see our community and hear what it has to say. We like to create high impact events with strong production values that have a large impact in terms of their depth and scale, within the community and beyond. Communities need allies and partners, and allies and partners from outside the local community are vital to ones success. SAVANNAH These events create a legacy for our community, documenting its history, its struggles, its people, its great stories and its art. It’s a legacy for our neighbourhood’s children, for the next generation of artists, and for other communities facing similar challenges. The Japantown Multicultural Neighbourhood Festival came out of the City’s DTES Revitalization initiative, specifically the Powell Street (Japantown) Historical and Cultural Review. How did this review come about and what did it encompass? SAVANNAH The Powell Street (Japantown) Historical and Cultural Review was commissioned by the City of Vancouver in the context of the Downtown Eastside Official Development Plan, and in response to stakeholders in the Oppenheimer Park Development Plan process. This Review was developed in a community consultation process on the revitalization of the area, it explores the history of the Powell Street area, and it identifies places and activities that can relate its important stories.  Terry and I were part of the Review Team and I co-wrote the historical context statement. What was the impetus behind the upcoming event, and how did VMT become involved? TERRY The Japantown Multicultural Neighbourhood Celebration arose from informal conversations between members of some Japanese Canadian organizations to create a collaborative, community-based event following the City of Vancouver’s Japantown Historical and Cultural Review (2008) and the desire to commemorate the 80th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Canada and Japan.  The Japanese Hall, Tonari Gumi and the Powell Street Festival Society wanted to move forward on the review, to do expand the mandate of their organizations Japanese Canadian focus to embrace the present multicultural communities in the neighbourhood, to build relationships with the current community so they together have a common a voice in its future. Vancouver Moving Theatre was approached by Rika Uto, chair of the Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall, to co-produce the event along with other community partners including Tonari Gumi and the Powell Street Festival.   Rika also works at the Carnegie Community Centre with whom our company has a long-standing working relationship (we co-produced the Downtown Eastside Community Play at the Japanese Hall).  We had participated in the Historical Review. We really like Rika and really like working with her, and, well, sometimes you just can’t say “no”.   It was also a natural fit for us—an obvious next step in the evolution of our work – and we are very glad we did as it is really a pleasure to get to know and work with Joji Kumagai of Tonari Gumi and Kristen Lambertson of the Powell Street Festival. Is this a one-time event or do you seeing things coming out of it? TERRY It was initially conceived as a one-time event, but the producing organizations are also interested in the possibility that it may continue as an annual event. We will assess the celebration after it’s over and then make a decision about whether to do it again. And what about VMT—do you have a long-term vision for the company or are you just living festival to festival? TERRY My long-term vision is to continue to work in community-engaged practice in the Downtown Eastside. There is still lots of work to be done. And I have a lot of energy and passion to do this work. SAVANNAH Last year, we produced a National Community Play Symposium that drew artists from across Canada who are excited about the kind of art and cultural development emerging in the Downtown Eastside and around Powell Street. I’m beginning to think a lot about legacy and succession and how important it is to document our work—and this community’s work —in a way that it can be transmitted to emerging artists, artists in other communities and to future generations. TERRY So we continue to do the work while we prepare for legacy and succession.