University of Alberta: People from under-represented communities take centre stage in theatre project

In an all-too familiar tense scene, a fraudulent immigration officer demands money from a Filipino immigrant intent on starting a new life in Canada. Empowered by the audience, the immigrant pushes back, refusing to comply.

It’s a scene that hits home with everyone in the room — all of them migrant workers in Edmonton turning to theatre to help develop practical strategies to cope with their new conditions.

“It causes everyone to respond with a new strategy, to try something new,” said Jason Chinn, a University of Alberta master’s graduate in theatre practice, specializing in community theatre.

“We can pause at any time and say, ‘OK, we’re stuck here, what should we do?’ It’s an excellent way to combine our resources and think of strategies we can apply in the real world, because these situations aren’t easy and having a supportive, safe environment is so important.”

The practice is called community-based theatre, which aims to “use theatre as a tool to affect positive change,” said Chinn. Rather than imparting skills or a creative vision top-down, facilitators reach out to under-represented communities — whether BIPOC, seniors, labour groups or people experiencing disability — to learn how they would like to benefit from the dramatic process.

Earlier this year Chinn and his research partner, U of A drama instructor Amanda Bergen, were awarded a two-month residency at Edmonton’s Yorath House Artist Studio — a partnership between the Edmonton Arts Council, the City of Edmonton and the City Arts Centre — to learn more about what under-represented communities want in terms of inclusion and cultural appreciation.

“As a director, I’m used to being the person leading the charge, putting my perspective on things and coming in with a vision,” said Bergen.

“But this is about switching that and lifting up their voices in whatever way I can. It’s really about making relationships with people first, so we’re not going in saying, ‘You need us to help you do something.’”

It’s really about making relationships with people first, so we’re not going in saying, ‘You need us to help you do something.’

Amanda Bergen

Amanda Bergen
One revelation, said Chinn, was the importance of foregrounding the purely social in breaking the ice.

“I needed to learn that we have to share food, prioritize relationship building over saying, ‘You’re going to leave with these skills and this technique,’ because that’s not what it’s about.”

The end goal isn’t necessarily performance, said Chinn and Bergen, since the value of community theatre is largely in process. During their residency, that process was forced online because of pandemic restrictions.

“We had proposed a four-week project where we would devise workshop ideas and then connect with a community to do something together.”

That all changed with the pandemic, as the two instead spent their residency researching other groups doing similar work.

Jason Chinn
I’d say we left with a much broader base of knowledge and some practical approaches to how we can work with communities.

Jason Chinn

They emerged with a document that categorized exercises for future use, said Chinn — “things we can use in workshops, warm-ups as well as improvisation and movement exercises.”

“I’d say we left with a much broader base of knowledge and some practical approaches to how we can work with communities.”

That community-informed approach will also come in handy teaching drama students at the U of A, said Bergen.

“We teach in a very Eurocentric style, so I think realizing how storytelling differs so vastly across the world — bringing in different cultural influences — shows there’s more than one way to work and be creative.”

Comments are closed.