Learning from Our Mistakes: Building Relationships through the Arts with First Nations Communities

Originally published in alt.theatre vol. 10.4 (Summer 2013) Download a PDF version of this article By Rosemary Georgeson with Savannah Walling
As theatre artists involved in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in British Columbia, we—Rosemary Georgeson and Savannah Walling—have been friends for over ten years and have collaborated on various projects together. We’ve also spent a great deal of time sharing with each other about other projects we’ve had on-the-go in rural and urban communities, bringing together what we’ve learned through our mistakes and discoveries, our successes and our practices. We’ve thought that this dialogue—which evolved through our conversations and relationship—would be of interest and relevant to our larger arts community.

storyweaving circlephoto by Mark Montgomery

Rose As a fifty-five-year-old First Nations woman, it is only in my lifetime that we as First Nations people have been accepted in theatres and presenting houses. We could perform but we were never audience members. My culture has always had its own theatre and forms of community arts, but the Canadian government shut them down from the 1880s to 1951. Although many of our cultural traditions continued underground, our voices are only coming fully back into the public now. Just that knowledge of this legacy explains the need for creating relationships inside First Nations territory that you are situated or entering. Years ago I was at an arts conference participating in a workshop on how to engage First Nation communities in the arts. I heard a theatre producer speak about going into a Northern community with his show and how much effort and money he put into getting his show there. He was very angry that no one even made an attempt to come out for his production. When I asked about his outreach process, he had no response and seemed irritated that I would ask that question. He did say that when he mounted a production anywhere else, he didn’t need to do outreach—he had PR people to do that for him. He made it quite clear, though, that he would never again attempt to take a production into a First Nations community. This was a turning point for me, hearing him speak this way about First Nation people and the arts. It was through the encounter with this gentleman that I started looking at the need to develop and build lasting relationships within our communities and between communities. Savannah As a sixty-seven-year-old mostly Anglo immigrant from the US whose ancestors fought on both sides of the Revolutionary, Civil, and Indian wars, I’ve seen big changes over the years in relations between non-First Nation and First Nation people. When I was born, Aboriginal/First Nations people were commonly called “Indians.” Indians in Canada were forbidden to vote, buy land, practise their cultural customs, or hire lawyers to pursue land claims. Men lost their Indian status if they joined the Canadian military. Most Indian children were taken from their families and sent to residential school. I was taught at public school—where there was usually not an Indian in sight—that Indians were a dying culture and Indian people would soon be assimilated. Today however, the old government restrictions have been lifted. According to the 2006 Canadian Census, the Aboriginal population is growing faster than the general population. Because of the amount of unfinished treaty business in B.C., treaty negotiations with First Nations are ongoing. Due to a history of broken trust between First Nations and immigrant communities, building relationships is foundational. Three Coast Salish Nations are embedded within and around the City of Vancouver where I live and work. Today’s world is a very different world than that of my childhood. As a result, just about the most important step of my training and practice as an artist has involved learning to negotiate relationships with First Nation community partners, artistic colleagues, and community participants.
Every community and every individual is unique. No single approach suits every situation.
Rose Relationship building is an ongoing process that does not happen overnight, but it is an essential key to opening doors to make a community arts project all-inclusive and to building relationships with First Nations communities. This applies to all aspects of interaction within our communities. Entering into a new community arts project is always a challenge. It takes time to build relationships and to ensure that your project is all inclusive. Building trust is so important. Take the time to go out and meet the people you want to connect with. We First Nations people have centuries of experience of our stories and ways being misappropriated—just taken and misconstrued into what non-First Nations thought they should  be. This makes for bad feelings and mistrust when others enter into our communities. Savannah I’ve made some serious blunders on creative journeys involving First Nations cultural content and collaboration: mistakes due to ignorance, inexperience, cultural misunderstanding, working too fast and not putting in the time needed to build relationships. So I’ve done a lot of learning the hard way. As a result, some projects never made it to completion. A couple of others almost foundered, but instead of giving up, we interpreted the obstacles as a signal to take more time—and that was what was needed. The most important principle I’ve learned is that respect is the foundation of relationships. Rose While working for urban ink productions a few years ago in Williams Lake on the Squaw Hall community arts project1— and after making a few mistakes there—our team realized that we needed to have people from the community to help us find our way. As we were merging deeper into the community and getting to know more people, we started to talk with them about forming an advisory committee. The idea was met with appreciation and relief: We were asking them to become more deeply involved in our project and the community would have a much stronger voice regarding the work created. The committee was such a great resource for finding how we could best serve Williams Lake and the surrounding Nations and honour the stories they were sharing with us. Our committee was made up of people from that territory, First Nation and non-First Nation peoples, and men and women from all sectors of the community—from Aboriginal educators and a chief to a First Nations liaison for the health department, a city councillor, a reporter/author/historian for the local newspaper, and local businesspeople. Savannah Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate that engaging with First Nation communities means engaging with values and ways of life that are distinct from Canada’s immigrant-based cultures. In practice this has meant occasionally reminding production stage managers that body language and everyday cultural interactions can differ. Some First Nations individuals will avoid eye contact as a sign of respect. Many non-First Nations people in strange, stressful situations learn to react with a lot of activity and conversation until they restructure the situation or extricate themselves from it. Many Indigenous people, on the other hand, when put into the same situation may remain motionless and watch until they figure out what is expected. Stage managers unfamiliar with cultural differences can interpret these responses as indicating lack of interest or trustworthiness. When looking for a stage manager for the Storyweaving project2 we kept in mind that First Nations culture has traditionally relied on an ethic of non-interference and voluntary cooperation. We looked for someone who was willing to learn about Aboriginal culture and traditional ways of demonstrating respect, and who was prepared to do their best to operate by the longhouse philosophy, relying on example and persuasion rather than authority and force. We reschedule and do “work-arounds” when we run into the kinds of situations some people call “Indian time”: unexpected delays relating to “the time things take to happen,” or “the time it takes to do things in a good way and when the time is right.” Delays also can happen when ceremonial events are happening simultaneously with the projects: the reality is that Indigenous participants and cultural leaders may have different priorities than those of the non-Indigenous artistic team, regardless of the project’s artistic interest and their commitment to it. We’ve also learned not to make assumptions about what Aboriginal culture is and what its customs may be. Every community and every individual is unique. No single approach suits every situation. Some Aboriginal people don’t know their own culture and language, which is due to the impact of residential schools and assimilation processes forced upon First Nation people. Some people are negotiating the tough challenge of “walking in two worlds simultaneously”: the world of the ancestors and the urban world of today. And some people are knowledge-carriers of their culture.
Projects can have consequences that are sometimes bad and sometimes good. By staying in contact with a community after the project is completed, you show your willingness to be accountable— and to stay in relationship.
Rose Do your research, look at the history and accomplishments, and find out some of the challenges that are faced in our indigenous communities and the existing communities around us. Look at interactions and relations between First Nation communities and neighbouring non-First Nation communities. This will tell you a lot about what you will encounter. So will listening to what a community is telling you. Don’t be afraid to do your research and find key people who can guide you to finding the right parties to speak with. Other important keys to success are being able to fully explain your project, asking permission to bring it into their communities, and finding out how they would like to be involved. Always consult with people and partners in the community regarding storyline and changes to your project. Ensuring that our ways and traditions are respected honours our communities in a healthy way. Being open and honest is so important—about where our stories will go and how they will be kept intact and brought back to a community. Savannah The following are some steps that can help in negotiating collaboration with First Nation communities. Many are eloquently described in a great web site dedicated to helping journalists tell Indigenous news stories. Reporting on Indigenous Communities (www.riic.ca) is created and curated by CBC reporter Duncan McCue who is Anishinaabe and an adjunct professor of the UBC School of Journalism:
  • If you are planning a project on First Nation traditional territory, obtain permission from the tribal council, cultural centre, or organization involved from the cultural territory you are entering;
  • Ask the person with whom you are setting up a meeting to help you—before you arrive—with the proper greetings and traditional territorial protocol;
  • Acknowledge the host community, its people, and territory at the beginning of meetings;
  • It helps if you have a trusted advisor or cultural translator to help you negotiate the local customs and help you locate people who have the authority to give permissions;
  • When you’re uncertain about the customs and don’t know what to do, ask your host—and when all else fails, follow the lead of those around you;
  • If someone pours you a cup of tea, take time to drink it, because refusing food or drink from your host may be seen as disrespectful;
  • Take time to develop respectful relationships with the elders, who are carriers of history and cultural teachings; be prepared to offer a gift that respects their time and commitment to the project and always let them finish what they are saying;
  • Take time to learn who has ownership or stewardship over the songs, dances, images, and other material, and who has the authority to give permission for their use and under what circumstances;
  • Learn the culturally appropriate ways to represent and publicly share knowledge and learn the limits of the permission;
  • It is not always easy to learn who has the authority to give permission and under what circumstances—it means investing time and patience;
  • Always request permission before filming cultural material, and if you agree not to record it, point your camera in another direction so people know it isn’t running;
  • Sometimes anger or frustration will be directed your way or you will become the recipient of five hundred years of anger: take a deep breath, listen, conduct yourself with respect, and move on your way;
  • Keep a good sense of humour—most of all about yourself.
Jo-ann Archibald has written an important book called Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body and Spirit (2008). She is from the Stó:l Nation and is an associate dean for indigenous education in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia. She talks about how the responsible use and ownership of stories can be complex and difficult to carry out, with the process influenced by considerations ranging from the personal and familial to the community and political. Each nation has its own traditions around how stories may be told for teaching or learning purposes. Some may be owned by individuals or clans, some may be in the public domain, some can only be told at certain times of the year or at certain events, some can be told only in part. Your responsibility as collaborating artists is to learn about and respect the traditional cultural ways of teaching, learning, sharing, and presenting knowledge. Proper acknowledgement of the source material is part of using knowledge responsibly. Once a story or other cultural material is shared, you incur reciprocal obligations: to do your best to make sure that what you present is balanced and truthful, that it is presented in a way that is culturally appropriate, that you will try to protect people from any negative impact that might result from public sharing, and that the people who assisted you get to see, read, or hear their story. Offer them transcripts of the interviews, opportunities to participate or give feedback, and tickets to the performances. Projects can have consequences that are sometimes bad and sometimes good. By staying in contact with a community after the project is completed, you show your willingness to be accountable—and to stay in relationship. Rose I have been doing this work for the past twelve years with Vancouver Moving Theatre3 and urban ink productions. I’ve seen first-hand the impact of building relationships in a community where First Nation people have been heard and their stories honoured—just being recognized as first peoples of that territory. It is the interaction between First Nation people and other cultures—with both parties learning new things and being heard and respected—that creates change and makes room for everyone. When the time is taken to build these relationships, you see relationships shifting between First Nation and non-First Nation communities. Savannah Vancouver Moving Theatre’s practice has been profoundly informed by the insights of friends and cultural advisors (including Joann Kealiinohomoku, Terrell Piechowski, and Alta Begay), by our years of collaboration and consultation with Aboriginal colleagues Rose Georgeson and Renae Morriseau, and by insights of many Aboriginal community participants, artistic colleagues, and cultural teachers. We are deeply in their debt. Rose When I first came into contact with Vancouver Moving Theatre just over ten years ago, they had a relationship with the Downtown Eastside built over years of being part of the community. I came on as Aboriginal outreach worker for The Downtown Eastside Community Play. It was my first time working in “outreach.” I learned so very much from that experience that I carry into all my “relationship-building gigs.” My listening skills have become much more attuned and I have learned a deeper level of patience as I have found trying to rush things does not benefit anyone or the project. I’ve also realized how much I understand from my traditions about “community” and building positive relationships with a lasting impact. Respecting and recognizing all individuals is very important in Vancouver Moving Theatre’s practice and what they bring to their community. Over the past ten years, as I have been involved in different projects with the company, I see First Nations faces I first saw ten years ago when I was sitting in the audience of the Downtown Eastside Community Play, apprehensive about the First Nations content we were sharing and how it was shared. Many of those same faces are now involved as participants and loyal followers of Vancouver Moving Theatre. When working on the Storyweaving project I was struck by seeing so many friends who were there ten years ago in the beginning, and how we have all grown over the years due to the diligence of Terry Hunter and Savannah Walling of Vancouver Moving Theatre and their passion and devotion to building and keeping relationships they have built over the years. The Storyweaving project revealed the fruits of over ten years of relationship building and its positive impact. Playing to a packed house every night, supported by not only First Nation people but by everyone who attended the show, was proof we can learn from our mistakes, from each other, through listening to needs, and, last of all, by taking time to build these relationships, honouring and respecting the people that help bring this art form to light. Rose and Savannah Like all living creatures we make mistakes, we learn from those mistakes and never know what can grow from them. That is so often the case as you enter into new territories and new communities when engaging in community arts. But it is what you learn and create from these mistakes that is the true beauty. NOTES
  1. The Squaw Hall Project (2009-2010) was a community-engaged theatre project produced by Twin Fish Theatre (Nelson) and urban ink productions (Vancouver) working with Youth and Elders from the Secwepemc, Carrier,Tsilhqot’in communities. It culminated in an original play (Damned If You Do; What If You Don’t) and short film (A Community Remembers), which presented on tour to local band communities and at the DTES Heart of theCity Festival in Vancouver, 2011.
  2. Storyweaving, an original theatrical production honouring First Nations ancestral and urban presence in Vancouver, was produced May 11-20, 2012, by Vancouver Moving Theatre/Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival in a partnership with the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre—with educational and spiritual support from the Indian Residential School Survivors Society.
  3. Vancouver Moving Theatre is a Downtown Eastside-based professional arts organization co-founded by executive director Terry Hunter and artistic director Savannah Walling

The Tree of Community Art Practice (2012)

Reflections on a Resident Art Practice in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside By Savannah Walling Published in alt.theatre Vol 9.4 (June 2012) Download a PDF of this article. Over thirty-five years ago, Terry Hunter and I planted into the creative soil of the Downtown Eastside a seed that has grown into Vancouver Moving Theatre’s tree of community art practice. Today this tree shelters and nourishes artists working with a community and a community working with artists in all kinds of collaborative relationships, giving birth to new art made with, for, and about the Downtown Eastside. The tree absorbs and sprouts from what is already in place: the neighbourhood’s diversity and accumulated wisdom. Its roots probe through multiple layers, cultural landscapes, and social systems, seeking understanding and connection. The tree’s branches weave individuals and groups into mutually beneficial relationships. Its trunk supports art-creation that celebrates, challenges, commemorates, educates, and heals. The tree grows through over-lapping phases of research and development, creation, and production before seeding legacies for the community, the next generation of artists, and other communities facing similar challenges. Here is our story of the evolution of a Downtown Eastside tree of community art practice. Looking for an affordable home in 1975, Terry and I moved into the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s founding neighbourhood situated on ancestral unceded Coast Salish territory between Burrard Inlet and the False Creek Flats. Here we discovered a diverse, largely low income community filled with people from different walks of life, circumstance, and culture. Before the Downtown Eastside was clear-cut one hundred and twenty-seven years ago, it was home to the tallest and oldest trees in Canada. Today the area is home to the largest urban Aboriginal unofficial “reserve” in Canada and the second largest historic Chinatown in North America: an entry point for immigrants and young families, a working and retirement home for resource workers, a haven for middle class professionals who value sustainability over growth, a sanctuary for artists and the marginalized, and site of major events in Vancouver’s history. The Downtown Eastside has been a gathering place of vastly differing governance systems, cultural traditions, and art practices. Like a biologically diverse forest filled with “trees” of all kinds and sizes, the community’s diversity has been the source of its health, its fiercely productive creativity, and its divisive polarities—as well as its historic struggles and capacity for survival. In the words of Nathan Edelson, “The Downtown Eastside is a community that has experienced great suffering, but it is also a community that has demonstrated incredible resilience, determination, and innovation.”(1) During our first years in the neighbourhood, Terry and I explored fusions of dance, music, and theatre within the avantgarde dance collective Terminal City Dance. By 1983 the company could no longer contain the expanding visions of its collective and it split apart into three entities: the Vancouver Dance Centre, Karen Jamieson Dance Company, and Vancouver Moving Theatre. Terry and I co-founded Vancouver Moving Theatre (VMT) to house our inter-disciplinary art form, and to fulfill our dream of bridging barriers between cultures and connecting artistic practice with community. But it took fifteen years of touring drum dances and mask dramas before we stayed at home long enough for the dormant seed to sprout into six years of small-scale Strathcona Artist at Home Festivals (1998-2004). Through this festival we uncovered a rich vein of artists, history, cultures, and great stories. The more we learned and the more we participated, the more involved, inter-connected, and committed to our community we became. We began the slow journey of transforming from artists living in the Downtown Eastside to artists nurturing and being nurtured by this community.(2) As we became connected to our community, our eyes opened to its beauty and the challenges stemming from poverty, self-reliance, and being treated as a dumping ground for the city’s problems. Over the years we’ve seen significant changes. A powerful partnership among developers, real estate investors, labour unions, and government has driven land development and rezoning, leveraging investment with mega-projects like Expo 86 and the 2010 Olympics. Insensitive development has threatened the community’s identity, human scale, and heritage, and has displaced residents. Policing actions in the 1970s that moved prostitution from indoors out onto the streets coincided with a series of murders and disappearances of sex trade workers. The traumatic legacy of Indian residential schools, the downsizing of mental hospitals, welfare rate reduction policies, privatizing and off-shoring of jobs, and the loss of affordable housing all correlated with a surge in visible poverty, survival sex trade and property crime, homelessness, and self-medicating on all levels of society. Furthermore, a new drive-by drug market spiralled out of control as Vancouver plugged into the global drug markets. During the 1990s, new grassroots initiatives rose to lobby for systemic changes. Their goals were to make the neighbourhood a healthier place to live and to contribute through arts to restoring culture and transforming community. When residents engage in their community and culture, neighbourhoods start to heal and move forward. Vancouver finally opened a supervised drug injection facility—the first in North America. Artists, activists, and organizations participated in collective actions for community-led renewal during the one hundredth anniversary of the Carnegie Community Centre building at Hastings and Main. The Carnegie Community Centre invited Vancouver Moving Theatre to co-produce a community play created for, with, and about the neighbourhood. Although the task was too big, timelines too short, and financial resources insufficient, we knew that our community, although negatively sensationalized by media across Canada, had tremendous talent. It was our turn to give back. Everyone involved hoped the project could bridge barriers of language, culture and social differences in a community experiencing serious threats to its survival. Our community partner asked us to work with the community play principle discovered by British playwright Ann Jellicoe (1977). We agreed and visited Cathy Stubington and the community of Enderby to learn more about the process.(3) In this kind of community play, a small core of experienced theatre artists work with community volunteers—as many as wish to participate—to create artistic work that expresses and celebrates their community. Jellicoe had discovered an art-making process whose guiding principles replicate nature’s principles for building healthy eco-systems: diversity, interconnectivity, and interdependence. Establishing a healthy root system is fundamental when organizing a diverse group of people to co-produce something that comes in on schedule and budget, navigates bumps, and is artistically coherent and meaningful. It took a month of negotiating with the Carnegie staff to agree upon the community play’s goals and guiding principles; expectations around social, cultural, gender diversity and bridge-building; and definitions of “Downtown Eastside,” “community member,” and “community play.” The responsibilities were overwhelming for everyone involved.(4) As resident artists we couldn’t leave after the play was finished; we would have to live with the consequences and so would our community. We learned on the job. We asked for help. We learned about community values and traditional protocols. Undertaking the massive project was an act of trust by all involved. The experience wasn’t perfect. All the challenges of producing big collaborative plays were present: from people who didn’t got along, got sick, weren’t prepared or didn’t understand English, to security issues, family emergencies, people with post-traumatic stress, robberies, computer crashes, evictions, mental health and drug issues, and aesthetic and cultural differences. But together we created an imperfect miracle. The audiences loved it. “A vibrant Downtown Eastside theatre community has been created,” said poet Sandy Cameron in the Carnegie Newsletter (1 Nov 2003). “People are getting to know each other. People connected to the play are greeting each other on the street. They know their play reflects the strength, pain and beauty of our multicultural Downtown Eastside that rises like a phoenix, from one generation to the other.” Co-producing In the Heart of a City: The Downtown Eastside Community Play (2003) turned out to be transformative for Terry, myself, and Vancouver Moving Theatre.. This was the moment when the creative seedling planted in the 1970s grew a deep and strong taproot, the foundation of our tree of community art practice. Guidelines inspired by Jellicoe’s play process and codeveloped with the Carnegie Community Centre have guided our evolving practice in the Downtown Eastside ever since. When art projects end, the abrupt loss of daily rituals, social meetings, and meaningful work is rough on people in marginalized circumstances. After the community play ended, participants were hungry for more. Terry and I owed another big debt of gratitude. We had barely scratched the surface of the community’s stories. How ethical is it, we wondered, to do big community-engaged projects without sustaining follow-up and—in the words of Ruth Howard—“continuity or attentive wind-down”? What could we give back as thanks after the project was over? Whose responsibility was it? The artists? Community partner? Funding agencies? The community? The answer: All of the above. The success of the community play stimulated new growth: an annual, massively inclusive creative opportunity. In 2004, assisted by funding from the City of Vancouver and from Friends of the Downtown Eastside,(5) the Carnegie Community Centre partnered with VMT to co-produce the first Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival: an annual twelve-day celebration of artists, art forms, cultural traditions, history, activism, people, and stories about the neighbourhood. Out of the play’s deep taproot extended the festival’s wide, spreading roots. Its programs are developed by collaborative consensus with community partners and artists, some of whom partner with additional organizations for additional support. The most recent 2011 festival involved over 40 community partners, 30 venues, 100 events, and 1000-plus artists, from novices to cultural treasures. As its roots extend, this tree of community arts practice grows taller and stronger, producing new flowers: smaller scale collaborative productions(6), mini-festivals around specific cultural communities, a national community play conference, leadership training institutes (7), creative partnerships with Runaway Moon and Jumblies Theatre, and professional co-productions incorporating job opportunities for community play participants. These projects and the funds they have drawn into the neighbourhood help us to give back to the community in the form of more creative opportunities. Some flowers disseminated wild seed that have germinated into cross participation and new growth (8). Participants have gone on to create plays, concerts, exhibits, and history walks; to get more education, and jobs onstage, backstage, or teaching; to participate in arts or activism projects; and to sit on boards of non-profit organizations. The taller the tree, the deeper the roots it requires to stand firm in the torrents of life. Vancouver Moving Theatre collaborates with art and non-arts organizations in partnerships that intertwine our individual roots for cross-support, interconnection, and sharing of resources. We negotiate to codetermine goals, guiding principles, expectations, responsibilities, and in-kind contributions: this dance balances the needs of individuals, organizations, and the community as a whole. Anyone can dig a hole and plant a seed. But as resident Bessie Lee said, “After one plants nice creative seeds in a field, they must be protected and nourished in order to provide a good harvest.” Each creative plant has its own development timeline, personality, and needs. A plant that grows too fast doesn’t develop strong roots to anchor it in place. And roots push down before leaves grow. Artists are the leaves in our tree of community art practice, absorbing nourishment from the community as they co-create new art. Terry and I look for artists who are experts in what they do, enjoy working collaboratively, care about the project’s purpose, like the neighbourhood, support its values, and are ready to learn from it. We ask them to avoid taking sides on local issues in the rehearsal hall and to steer past negativity by sticking to arts and theatre protocol. In the words of director James Fagan Tait, as professional artists in a community-engaged process, “we have to be fully prepared at each rehearsal, to support and speak with respect to the cast members at every stage of the process, [and] to work out differences with members of the artistic team at another time and place without intruding on the rehearsal process.” We ask the artists to help devise creative structures with room for community input, locally generated images, and opportunities to perform and build. We cast Anglo, Asian, Aboriginal, Latino and Black participants to honour our community’s demographics. We cast participants in roles and contexts to match talents and temperaments, and encourage them to work as a team to bypass blocks that stop the flow of expression and to move past preconceived limitations. Ordinary individuals, when challenged and provided with opportunities and support, are capable of creating the extraordinary. Well organized, smoothly running, safe, fun, and inclusive environments encourage everyone—from novice to professional—to give of their best and to respect the work of others. Small everyday courtesies help big time on big projects. So do strategies that defuse tense situations in ways that leave everyone’s dignity intact and fresh, nutritious refreshments presented in a respectful manner. As artist Rosemary Georgeson reminds us “problems diminish by sharing and feasting.” Within our limited resources, we provide fees for professional artists; honorariums for heavily involved community participants and performers; leadership training in exchange for in-kind service; mentoring, coaching, and skill-building opportunities for veteran play participants; participatory experiences for novices; limited involvement opportunities for community choirs and volunteers; refreshments, thank-you meals, and occasionally child care. When tough issues are involved, we have provided a peer counsellor with experience around these issues. We encourage social mixing; we don’t exclude people because of dress or everyday behaviour. Most events are free or by donation; we distribute complimentary or low-cost community tickets for ticketed events. We program street events during the Heart of the City Festival. Working in “alliance” is a key principle in our strategy and survival as resident artists in the Downtown Eastside. Our work with social systems already in place is non-adversarial. We meet with artists and partnering organizations to learn how we can work with each other and what each can contribute, establishing with the lead artists a collaborative process that suits the community, the project, their working style, and the resources. We attach theme-related events to existing programs, and hire outreach workers who have lived and worked in the neighbourhood and understand its concerns. The art we co-create is about stories and images of this neighbourhood—a community that isn’t represented in mainstream art—incorporating aesthetic practices and forms outside the “high art” gates. And our documentation breaks out details of the collaborative process and contexts the community and its concerns. We try to never promise more than we can deliver. Determining the scale of a project, its collaborative structure, artistic disciplines, balance of experimentation, and accessibility and community-engagement protocol is always an enormous challenge. So is nourishing artistic excellence and community process, giving value to each with funding, staffing, and resources. Too often, artists are overworked, productions need more rehearsal time and staff, and artistic visions are bigger than available resources. Not all affordable venues are wheel-chair accessible. Some places require front door security. Some people don’t like to go to certain neighbourhoods or venues. People can be on different “meds,” self-medicating, or in recovery. Some have personal hygiene or memory issues. Occasionally someone’s been too dangerous or disruptive to participate. If they’re verbally abusive, we move them out right away or others will be afraid. The challenge is to do this in a way that is respectful, does not humiliate, and leaves the person with the ability to come back at another time or in another context. Before starting new projects we take time to learn how our partners’ community functions, its parts relate, and its connections act and interact. We co-design projects that suit their situation, values, and resources in order to develop meaningful relationships and work in support of each other, taking the time to learn and observe carefully before we act. The reason so many projects have been successfully realized and had a long-lasting impact is that everyone from professionals to novices worked hard and with mutual respect most of the time, coped respectfully with inevitable bumps, gave of their best, forgave mistakes, and really, really wanted the stories to be told and the projects to succeed. The resulting aesthetic is often raw, refined, and heart-felt. The successes are rooted in relationships of trust and cross-support developed over thirty years in a community Terry and I have come to love and respect. Learning from our mistakes, we take small steps in creating art that excites us, involves and engages people from our community, acknowledges our sources, and challenges negative stereotypes about the place we live. We know that art offers no hard and fast solutions for the complexities of the human condition and its relationship to the lands and waters of this planet. Depending upon intention and context, art can empower, re-connect and heal or help displace, marginalize and scapegoat. We can’t control or stop the process of change, but we can make the best of our situations and advocate for healthier choices. In an unhealthy community, resources are used up faster than they can be replaced. Benefits are privatized and costs are born solely by the community. Loss of diversity results in vulnerability to change whether from scarcity or glut. A profoundly unequal world is profoundly out of balance—it is unsustainable. An unhealthy arts practice is also unsustainable. Artists burn out. Self-care is essential when operating under conditions of unpredictability, stress, and overload. How do I cope? I alternate big and small projects. Do my homework in advance. Pay attention to what is said and done, prepared to adjust or abandon plans. When overwhelmed, I focus on one step at a time. If I can’t solve the problem immediately, I allow myself to postpone it. I preserve time for my family (especially suppers). I journal, sing, and go for long walks, taking big steps in the open air. I reach out to friends and colleagues I trust. I remind myself to plan as if I’m going to live forever and to live each moment as if I’m going to die tomorrow. Nature’s systems teach us how to build healthy communities and a healthy community arts practice. Mature forests are resilient, healthy habitats, with aesthetic appeal and renewable resources. An old growth forest has many kinds of trees, young and old, growing together to ensure that diverse species will survive. This complexity of habitats nourishes opportunities to interact, providing a wealth of raw material to adapt to changing circumstances. Old growth forests bring energy into an area, preserve diversity, store resources to recycle into the system, reproduce without damaging or depleting the environment, and provide shelter and support for the next generation. Fallen decaying trees serve as nurse logs for new seedlings.(9) Why do some communities vanish while others stay strong, why do some preserve their unique identities while others lose them? It is about inter-connection, roots, diversity, cross pollination, succession, balancing the needs of individuals and the community as a whole, preserving relationships. In the words of Downtown Eastside poet/activist Sandy Cameron, “We work to make our community a better place, not a perfect place, but a better place. If we look for immediate results in this work, we are in danger of falling into despair. Society doesn’t change quickly and our commitment is for the long haul.”(10) Our community’s stories help us draw strength from the past, to feel proud of our history and who we are, to have the courage to keep going and to never, ever lose hope. As Terry and I enter our sixth decade of life, we think a lot about transferring information and passing on the torch. Even when a tree falls, it is only halfway through life. It continues to have the capacity to shelter, to nourish the earth with nutrients as it decays, leaving its legacy: a seedbed for new creation. Whether or not we successfully pass a sustainable festival onto a new director, we are working on written and audiovisual legacies to serve as creative seed to nourish new generations of artists. We are exploring with community partners opportunities for a more deeply rooted sustainability for Downtown Eastside arts than gambling upon gaming and the largesse of corporations. Our trees of community art practice—the culture we carry, the art we create—show how we can come together despite seeming differences to reverse collective forgetting so communities see themselves clearly reflected in their own light, rather than through the distorted images of other people’s mirrors. In rediscovering healthy aspects of our home and culture, all of us recover a sense of ownership, pride, and destiny; motivation to protect our communities; and wisdom to preserve them for future generations. You cannot leave it to other people to take care of your community. “It’s the people who make our community beautiful,” said poet Sandy Cameron, “and they do it be reaching out to each other and helping each other. Even as the giant fir is nurtured by its roots, so our community of the Downtown Eastside is nurtured by its members." (11) Guiding Principles of VMT’s Tree of Community Art Practice
  • Involve culturally diverse professional artists engaging in their art practice with a community;
  • Create art from inception through completion with, by, and for that community;
  • Partner artists and arts organizations with non-art organizations;
  • Build projects of all sizes and shapes, from performing to visual arts, media arts, processions, and community celebrations;
  • Support community members with a variety of art-making and capacity-building opportunities;
  • Integrate art making with a community’s stories and concerns, images and traditions, assets and hopes;
  • Intertwine process and product—all part of the art; Cultivate respectful, inclusive environments;
  • Encourage everybody involved—from novice to master—to give of their best;
  • Relate to the whole community, including Aboriginal, Asian, and Anglo;
  • Result in a transformative experience;
  • Leave a legacy for the future.
NOTES 1 Acceptance speech on behalf of the Honourable Jim Green by former city planner Nathan Edelson to the Planning Institute of BC, 5 November 2011. 2 See my article, “Excavating Yesterday: The Birth, Growth and Evolution of a Resident Artist in the Downtown Eastside,” alt.theatre 7.2 (2009): 24-28. 3 The community play form was brought to Ontario by Dale Hamilton (1990) who inspired Cathy Stubington to create a community play in Enderby, BC (1998), in turn inspiring the Downtown Eastside. See Ann Jellicoe, Community Plays: How to Put Them On (Methuen, 1987). 4 See my article, “The Downtown Eastside Community Play,” alt.theatre 3.4 (2005): 12-15. 5 Friends of the Downtown Eastside is a group of business leaders supportive of grass roots community-led renewal in the Downtown Eastside 6 See, for example, my article, “We’re All in This Together: Negotiating Collaborative Creation in a Play About Addiction,” alt. theatre 5.4 (2008): 14-20. 7 See my dispatch, “Reflections on a cross-country collaboration in community arts training,” alt.theatre 7.3 (2010): 31. 8 See Leath Harris, “The Magic Circle,” alt. theatre 4.1 (2006): 9-10, 15. 9 Toronto’s Jumblies Theatre acts as a giant nursing log for new trees of community art practice with its generous and visionary start-up support of resources, knowledge, mentoring, and interning. 10 Sandy Cameron, “Longing for Light,” Carnegie Newsletter, 15 July 2009. 11 Sandy Cameron, “Dear Friends, Thank You,” Carnegie Newsletter, 4 August 2010.  

Life Under the Golden Rule (2012)

Originally published in alt.theatre Vol. 10.1 (Sept. 2012) Download a PDF version of this article. By Savannah Walling Art and art making are barometers of a community’s well-being, reflecting the landscapes in which we work and the golden rules by which we’re guided—from “He who has the gold can make and change the rules” to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The inner city Downtown Eastside is highly stressed. Land development and rezoning plans are transforming Greater Vancouver into a “world class creative city” of architectural icons, glass towers, condominiums, and 24/7 mega-entertainment casinos. Global marketing has sent home prices into the stratosphere. Certain politicians encourage creative activity to attract investment capital and “improve” neighbourhoods; the pressures to transform artists into “regeneration bulldozers” are real(1). So is gentrification as a global urban “regeneration” strategy to remake areas into “whole new complexes of recreation, consumption, production and pleasure as well as residence.”(2) The recent addition of Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts and Woodwards Redevelopment brought thousands of new residents and office workers into the community virtually overnight. The neighbourhood is transforming under our feet: single room occupancy hotels become student and worker conversions at rents above welfare rates, and shops and services shift into boutiques and up-scale restaurants. Tensions within the community are increasing. Advocates for low income housing and human-scale streetscapes are pitted against advocates for affordable entry level housing or public safety or improved housing standards. Two years of cut-backs and turmoil have been super-stressing arts organizations. BC’s arts funding was always well below other provinces, but in 2009 the BC Arts Council’s funding was cut in half. BC Gaming also reduced its contribution to arts, sports, educational, environmental and social services by 50%—and eliminated funding for adult arts and sports.(3) Intensive lobbying by the BC arts community and a provincial election restored some arts funding. A one-time Olympic Sports and Arts Legacy Fund was re-directed to the BC Arts Council to temporarily maintain its grants budget at a stable level. BC Gaming recently expanded eligibility to include arts and sports for adults. But the size of the “pot” didn’t change; there’s less available for everybody. Another side-effect is the shrinking of matching funds from federal programs. Criteria and regulations narrowing eligibility are axing programs and services. Although almost every industry has some kind of subsidy, incentive, or tax break, social services and arts are targeted for cuts. Government funding is being re-directed to prizes and one-time commemorative events. Thankfully, the City of Vancouver has continued its modest but steady support of the arts despite the tough economic climate. We know that art won’t die and artists won’t stop making art. William Cleveland, director of the Centre for the Study of Art and Community, reminds us, “Even in the most desperate places, every war zone, prison—art making is pre-eminent, breaking out all over, a matter of survival.” But arts infrastructures, years in the making, have been decimated. Organizations struggle to stay afloat. Seasons are reduced, arts projects cancelled, postponed, or shrunk. Artists lose jobs. Political policies influence programming, production values, and the decisions about which artists, images and stories will be supported to represent our culture. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I remind myself of the words of my singing teacher Ralph Cole: “If you can deal with the shit in your life you can grow the perfect rose.” Surfing the tidal wave of cuts, Vancouver Moving Theatre downscaled to concerts, staged readings, and workshop productions. We managed to preserve gaming funding for the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival by framing it as a “neighbourhood-based heritage festival.” We joined forces to provide leadership training in community arts (with Toronto’s Jumblies Theatre); a Christmas fund-raiser to benefit the festival and community arts (with SFU Woodwards Cultural Programming Unit); and job opportunities for professional and DTES emerging performers (an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot with NeWorld Theatre, the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, and Theatre UBC). To build healthy communities, all of us are needed. We contribute through art because we’re artists, guided by the ethic of reciprocity as we focus on creative projects tailored for and with our community. Alongside other Downtown Eastside artists, activists, businesses, and social organizations, we’re striving to nurture local talents and community well-being as we navigate the cultural storms of life. NOTES 1. With thanks to Maggie Hutcheson, “The Community Artist in the Creative City: Engaged Citizen or Regeneration Bulldozer,” Out of Place (dispatches from artists on the loose) (Jumblies Press, 2010). 2. Neil Smith, “New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy,” at neil-smith.net. 3. The BC government now takes 90% of all gaming revenues. Treating gaming as a voluntary tax and “cash cow,” it’s shrunk the portion of gaming allotted to non-profit organizations from 45% to 10%.  

Reflections on a Cross-country Collaboration in Community Arts Training

Originally published in alt.theatre Vol. 7.3 (March 2010) Download a PDF version of this article  By Savannah Walling and Ruth Howard In November 2009, Vancouver Moving Theatre and Toronto’s Jumblies Theatre joined hands across Canada to present the Downtown Eastside Arts4All Institute—six days of learning, idea-sharing, films, panels, art-making, mutual support, and inspiration. Produced for the first time in western Canada, and specially tailored for the Downtown Eastside community, the institute provided an in-depth introduction to principles and practices of art that engage with and build community. Host director Savannah Walling and lead artist and facilitator Ruth Howard joined forces to adapt an intensive course developed by Jumblies in Toronto over the past three years as part of the Jumblies Studio. The name 4All springs from a close relationship between this initiative and Jumblies Offshoot project, Arts4All, at Davenport Perth Neighbourhood Centre. Joining Savannah and Ruth as facilitators were Canadian community play movers Terry Hunter (VMT), Varrick Grimes (Toronto/Newfoundland ), Keith McNair (Jumblies), Cathy Stubington (Runaway Moon Theatre, BC), and Lina de Guevera (Puente Theatre, BC). Panels on forming community partnerships and making room for diversity reflected a spectrum of community-engaged arts as practiced by Judy Marcuse (ICASC), Rosemary Georgeson (urban ink), Bruce Ray (gallery gachet), jil p. weaving (Vancouver Parks Board), and others. Coordinator Susan Gordon organized nourishing lunches. Community partners included Carnegie Community Centre, Community Arts Council of Vancouver, DTES Heart of the City Festival, UBC’s Humanities 101, Ukrainian Hall, and Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation. Reflecting most community art projects, the twenty-one participants represented a diversity of backgrounds, skills, interests, and purposes. Most were local, but some arrived from other neighbourhoods, from Victoria, from Kamloops. All shared an interest in gaining skills and in processes that engage with community. Participants included veterans in the field wanting to revisit basics, challenge skill-set weaknesses, learn from and share with peers; professional and emerging artists wanting to engage more effectively with communities and learn how this differs from mainstream arts presentations; and others who’ve participated in a variety of arts-related community activities wanting to learn how to go about becoming professionals in the field. Some wanted to put Downtown Eastside-created projects onto the road to share with friends and relatives, to shed light on realities of city life, and to inspire other communities to put on their own plays. Most had big or small projects in mind and were ready for tips and tools on project start-ups; on facilitation, communication, conflict-resolution, delegation; on preparing (and maintaining) budgets, business plans, and funding proposals; on forming partnerships; on assembling collaborative creative relationships; and on documentation, evaluation, and legacies. Big questions were addressed. What do artists need to know to work successfully with community members on arts projects? How do we create projects accessible to diverse levels of experience, age, cultural and social backgrounds, and openness? How do we ensure that community-engaged artists focus on a community’s real issues and understand that when we risk opening up old wounds with tough themes, we must ensure that these communities and individuals will be okay after we leave? The energy and enthusiasm during the institute were contagious. Collaborations were great fun. Participants appreciated the diversity and willingness of people to be themselves, the respect and humour displayed throughout, and the shared wealth of resources and breadth of life and artistic experience. Everyone learned.   BIOS Savannah Walling is Artistic Director of Vancouver Moving Theatre, and interdisciplinary company producing community-engaged art and the DTES Heart of the City Festival. Ruth Howard is a theatre designer and creator and founding Artisitic Director of Jumblies Theatre, a company that makes art with, for, and about people and places of Toronto. Contact: Info@Jumbliestheatre.org   www.jumbliestheatre.org  

Excavating Yesterday: The Birth, Growth, and Evolution of a Resident Artist in the Downtown Eastside

By Savannah Walling with contributions by Terry Hunter Published in alt.theatre Vol. 7.2, December 2009 (download a PDF of this article)

All things however they flourish Turn and go home to the root From which they sprang – TAO TE CHING

Sifting through shifting landscapes of memory, I unearth evidence of our journey—shards of creation, ancestral and artistic trace-lines, social and political forces…Terry’s farm-instructing, music theatre-loving grandparents who worked alongside residents of the Saskatchewan Red Pheasant Reserve….My Oklahoma grandparents who farmed next door to Comanche neighbours…Whispers of civil wars, massacres, family feuds, addiction, and interracial marriage. Growing up under a nuclear cloud on a continent shaped and influenced by Aboriginal ideas and a host of cultural influences, we inherited from our ancestors a profound belief in the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The narrative of our history emerges out of all of these intersections with the community in which we’ve been planted for thirty years—a spit of land on Burrard Inlet known as the Downtown Eastside. The tipping point of this history was our 1973 move into this, Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood—and most misunderstood. Its historic borders were the waters of Burrard Inlet on the north, tidal streams flowing through gullies east and west (today’s Campbell and Carrall streets), and the tidal flats of False Creek on the south. Overlapping mini-communities of Gastown, Main and Hastings corridors, Chinatown, North of Hastings (Japantown), and Strathcona rest on unceded Coast Salish territory. This is the place that gave birth to our company, Vancouver Moving Theatre, and its interdisciplinary and community-engaged art practice. Shift forward thirty years to the critical tipping point that moved us onto an entirely new level of engagement with the Downtown Eastside. In 2002, all of our experiences of the previous thirty years—and our history of living and working in this place—led to an invitation from the Carnegie Community Centre to partner to produce a community play for, with, and about the Downtown Eastside: one that would celebrate its struggles and triumphs in a process that built bridges between groups within the community. As artists within our community, we would become truly artists of the community. So how did we get from there to here? When Terry and I arrived in the Downtown Eastside back in the early 1970s, we encountered a very different world than it is today. Back then we saw a residential community with a dynamic retail strip centered around Woodward’s retail and grocery store, lots of mom and pop stores serving the mostly low-income locals, and long-standing cultural centres. No visible homeless were evident, nor were illegal drugs used openly on the streets—in fact, locals were concerned about bars over-serving beer to their patrons. Our arrival coincided with a whole slew of local victories, in particular, the defeat of a plan to wipe out the neighbourhood with an eight-lane freeway. This victory changed national housing policy, turned around years of civic neglect, and resulted in innovative social and cooperative housing and new, revitalized community and cultural centres. But we didn’t know any of these stories when we arrived. We only knew we had found an affordable home and rehearsal space, a community that welcomed and respected diversity, and a steaming stew of cultural aromas. Ancestors of today’s Coast Salish people have used this spit of land for thousands of years. There’s still a strong First Nations presence here; the Downtown Eastside is called the largest urban reserve in Canada. It’s also home to North America’s second largest historical Chinatown. Almost half of the area’s population is a visible minority, and it’s been home to cultural festivals, feasts, celebrations, and ceremonies—Chinese New Year’s Parades, Japanese Bon dances, taiko drumming, rhythm and blues, gospel, and Coast Salish, pan-Indian, and Ukrainian cultural events. The seeds of our artistic practice were planted in this stew: our fascination with interdisciplinary creation; our commitment to bridging barriers between cultures; our desire to connect artistic practice with community. Our home community in turn shaped our practice and who we are. Witnessing the annual return of Chinese Lion Dancers on the streets of Chinatown, for instance—who arrived to bring blessings to the community and frighten away evil forces—inspired us to take our work into the streets. When Terry and I began our lifelong partnership, our shared love of music and dancing set in motion a long line of collaborative interdisciplinary explorations in companies we co-founded: two years of the Mime Caravan (with Doug Vernon); seven years of Terminal City Dance (with Karen Jamieson and others) and over twenty-five years of Vancouver Moving Theatre. From day one, we strove to break down boundaries between music, dance and theatre; bridge artistic disciplines and cultural traditions; create accessible art; step through imaginary fourth walls to interact directly with spectators and communities; take theatre out of the studio and into the streets and community; participate in places of celebration where people gather in a spirit of peace and hope for the future. Blown north to Vancouver’s inner city by the winds of the Vietnam War, I blended personal passions with local inspiration. I researched Asian practices of combining dance, live music, and mask with European popular theatre practices (from masques, mumming, and Commedia Dell’Arte to seventeenth-century fool literature). Inspired by Korean and taiko drum dancing and studies in Afro-Caribbean percussion, Terry developed his own style of drumming and moving at the same time. Out of these fusions emerged productions we toured around the world. “Drum Mother,” an audience-interactive character who danced and played music on large drums built into her red hoop-skirt, was launched at the Chinatown New Year’s Parade. She then led 30,000 people in the 1984 Vancouver Peace March, before touring across Canada with the Festival Characters. Samarambi: Pounding of the Heart, a non-verbal street drama that enacted a ceremony of conflict and resolution between forces dangerously out of balance, premiered during a six-month residency at Expo 86 on the fringes of Chinatown. We incorporated space for audience-interactive improvisations into the tightly composed structure performed by masked archetypal characters—two danced on stilts, one utilized extra vocal techniques on a portable sound-system built into her costume, and all performed live music. Three blocks from our home—in tandem with drum dance training we provided for dance students in the Main Dance performance training program—we created “Blood Music.” The choreography of this drum dance, which premiered in Korea, was inspired by the very simple rhythms of life without which we would all die: our hearts beating and pumping waves of blood, our lungs breathing, and the ebb and flow of the sea. Combining research on the physics of sound with long-standing interest in Asian performance forms, we developed an introduction to drum dancing—a global approach to performer training in which physical, musical, mental, and spiritual exercises cultivate total presence, impelling participants beyond their preconceived limitations. In these workshops for young and old, we applied equal attention to process and product to create warm, supportive atmospheres—an important building block for the community-engaged projects in our future. All these creations grew out of the soil of the Downtown Eastside, were shaped by its cultural winds, and shared locally before taking off around the world. For fifteen years, we continuously departed from this neigbourhood to tour Canada and the world. Along the way—earning a living by the skin of our teeth—we learned our craft as artist-producer-performers and worked with a series of ensembles. Our work was originally funded as a dance company, but as it began to develop, Canada Council dance juries could not see enough of the dance component and cut us off (1984). We supported ourselves touring BC schools and international festivals. For a brief renaissance, we—and a few other companies who didn’t fit the disciplinary corrals—were jointly funded in a special initiative supported by the Dance and Theatre Offices of the Canada Council (1989-1991). This enabled us to develop The House of Memory for the small city of Nelson, our first community residency prototype combining performance, teaching, and community feeling. We brought an original script to the community with “baskets” for local participation and provided two weeks of skill-building workshops for fifty community members, young and old, who were integrated into a production featuring archetypal characters, stilt and drum dancing, and clowning. By the early 1990s, we’d been off on tours for so long that we’d fallen “off the radar.” Most of our Vancouver peers and home community didn’t know what we did. The funding scene was changing. As interdisciplinary artists, we were never easy to assess—dancers called us actors and actors considered us dancers. Arts funding was shrinking as the federal government’s debt load soared, so disciplinary camps were “circling their wagons.” We didn’t fit established categories. By 1991, Canada Council’s Dance and Theatre Section’s joint support for interdisciplinary companies was drying up (and soon discontinued); so did support for national touring ensembles of physical theatre, dance, and mime. The City of Vancouver discontinued support towards the touring activities of local companies. We could no longer afford to maintain and train a year-round ensemble. Like peers across Canada, we developed new survival strategies, turning to one-man shows and projects. Partnerships allowed us to pursue cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural, and inter-provincial collaborations, such as The Good Person of Setzuan (staged in parks with Ruby Slippers and Touchstone Theatre), Tales from the Ramayana (with Mandala Arts), and Luigi’s Kitchen (with Alberta’s Trickster Theatre)—all rehearsed and/or performed in Vancouver’s East End. Over the course of our art-making journeys on the margins, we encountered criticism from a variety of directions. Some of it made sense; we agreed with it. But sometimes we were mystified. Slowly we realized that redefining the arts is a political act: we can measure the strength of our visions by the strength of the resistance we arouse. We stumbled into high art taboos against popular entertainment; assumptions that accessible art is second class fare for second class minds; biases that expensive concert venues determine artistic worth; fears that collaborative script development dilutes artistic standards. We encountered distrust of the human capacity to think and create in images; devaluation of ancient art forms in favour of fast, new, disposable art; bias against non-linear narrative structures. The act of naming forces that devalued us and our practice was empowering. Because we didn’t fit into other categories, we’ve carved out our own identity, located artistic ancestors, and educated bookers and audiences. Like other artists on the margins, we’ve wrestled with “soft” censorship imposed by governmental, marketing, and corporate forces who decide which images, stories, and ideas deserve support. Labelling, censoring, dismissing, dividing, and erasing—these are deadly techniques to silence our voices and paralyze our courage. During these challenging transition years, our home community was transforming. During the 1980s, over a thousand SRO hotel rooms were converted as landlords geared up for Expo 86. In Expo’s aftermath, our community gained a reputation as Canada’s poorest urban postal code. During the 1990s, Woodwards—the main social and shopping area—closed. Globalization of the illegal and legal drug trades, downsizing of the mental hospitals, the loss of resource industry jobs, cuts in corporate taxes, off-shoring work to third world countries, welfare reduction policies, loss of affordable housing—all of these correlated with the emergence of visible and extreme poverty, a swelling survival sex trade, addiction and property crime, and a new open-air drive-by drug market. Our Downtown Eastside home continues to be a vital, functioning, culturally and socially diverse, stable neighbourhood. Unlike the media portrayal, most of its 16,000 residents are hardworking and honest, struggling to survive with dignity. But we face the same huge problems faced by inner city and rural communities all over the world. Residents are displaced as the gap increases between rich and poor; globalization moves jobs and resources from our home communities and fractures local connections; rapid gentrification and externally imposed development threaten the distinctive heritage, character and scale of communities. As our six-year-old son’s passion for history led to homeschooling, a new “apprenticeship” began: learning to listen, to be life-long learners, to guide while being led.  During our years of raising Montana Blu in this neighbourhood, we looked for opportunities to nourish local connections and plant deeper roots. Terry started a percussion ensemble for local kids and a community marimba ensemble. We taught drum dancing every season at Main Dance school down the street. We volunteered to perform in local events. Finally, in 1999, we initiated the Strathcona Artist at Home Festival. This festival opened a huge and very rich vein: the history, culture, struggles, and story of the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s original townsite. The more we learned, the more we participated in local events, the more involved, connected, and committed we became. The Downtown Eastside is our home. We live here because we like our neighbours’ compassion, courage, and diversity and the neighbourhood’s values, history, art forms, and cultures; its human scale and character; the physical beauty of its buildings and bits of green space. To build healthy communities, we’re all needed. Over the last ten years, Terry and I have taken small steps we know how to take—creating art that excites us, involves and engages people from our community, and challenges negative stereotypes. We learn about the neighborhood and share what we learn. In contrast to community-engaged artists who view themselves as social engineers working to create a more perfect society, I see myself as joining other Downtown Eastside gardeners to cultivate a healthy garden that grows a variety of healthy plants. I do it through art because I’m an artist. Because of my family’s history of civil war and internal feuds, my childhood exposure to racist and Communist-phobic values, my dislike of coercive child-rearing techniques, I distrust goals to manipulate or change other people for “their own good”—no matter how praiseworthy the intentions. I believe the roots of hatred, poisonous pedagogy, and totalitarianism are firmly planted in the soil of coercion. For me, it’s a big enough task to respect, take seriously, listen to, and do my best to support those with whom I live and work, regardless of their background and skill level. And so in 2002 came the invitation to celebrate our community—in partnership with Carnegie Community Centre—through a Downtown Eastside community play. This was a project on a scale far larger than any we had ever undertaken. Although we’d produced many interdisciplinary shows, a neighbourhood mini-festival, and small scale educational and community residencies, this would be our first experience of creating a play with community input from start to finish, and which would be performed by as many people as cared to participate. We knew we had experience organizing complex, multilayered collaborations with co-producing partners. We knew our home community has tremendous talent. We knew the community’s challenges have been sensationalized in the media and its great gifts ignored. We also knew the task was too big, the timeline too short, the resources in place insufficient and we would have to “learn on the job.” But the wealth of our shared history within and with the community overcame these doubts. As Downtown Eastside gardeners of the arts, we stepped forward to embrace the opportunity to cultivate and nourish, to give back to our community. Our decision to accept this invitation came down to this: we owed the Downtown Eastside community a huge debt of gratitude. It was our turn to serve to the best of our ability.