ISSUE 12.4

From the Heart of a City: Community-Engaged Theatre and Music Productions from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside 2002-2012

Book Review

From the Heart of a City: Community-Engaged Theatre and Music Productions from VAncouver’s Downtown Eastside, 2002–2012. edited by Savannah Walling and Terry Hunter. Designed By John Endo Greenaway. Vancouver: Vancouver Moving Theatre, 2015

Written by Annie Smith

From the Heart of a City was published to coincide with the launching of three initiatives. The first two-— TRACKS, the 7th Canadian Community Play & Art Symposium,(1) and the preceding Big House Community Gatherings and Cultural Feasts, co-produced by Vancouver Moving Theatre (VMT)-—provided the foundational goals and protocols for the third initiative, Train of Thought, a seven-week, cross-Canada, west-to-east coast community arts journey.(2) The hope of all the contributing writers and the editors, Terry Hunter and Savannah Walling, is that the book will serve as a resource for their community of the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, British Columbia, and for other communities and organizations that are already, or desire to be, committed to community-engaged arts.

The collection takes its name from the first large-scale community-engaged collaborative play produced by VMT, in partnership with the Carnegie Community Centre, in 2003. In the Heart of a City: The Downtown Eastside Community Play was my first encounter with VMT’s work in the Downtown Eastside and my first opportunity to see a community play, a relatively new form of theatre at the time that had been developed in the UK by the Colway Theatre Trust and Ann Jellico. During the years I lived in Vancouver as a graduate student, I was able to take in more of VMT’s work, which has had a great impact on my own journey as a community-engaged artist and researcher. Indeed,
VMT has fostered connections between theatre artists across Canada who have produced community plays. Their long involvement in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has allowed them to develop a modus operandi that is shared in this book.

The prefacing material is particularly useful in understanding what the book is about. Edward little, in the foreword, asserts, “it’s an essential read for students of community arts, for emerging and established artists in the field and for potential community partners and funders” (p. xi). I can attest to this as I was able to use an earlier, unpublished draft of the book as a resource for my own community play project in Grande Prairie, Alberta, in 2013-14. on embarking on this monumental project, I was encouraged by the experiences of Walling and Hunter as trail blazers in this form. They were working in an urban environment with many of the same issues that informed my desire to produce a community play: racial discrimination, new immigrants, unequal economic opportunity, lack of
education. They were able to show how community arts projects could bridge ethnic groups and celebrate diverse abilities. In particular, the protocols to engage the Indigenous community were extremely useful.

Little notes some elements that are useful in understanding the stance of VMT as community-engaged artists. First, he flips the term “artists in residence” to “resident artists.” This is crucial to VMT’s artistic work in the Downtown Eastside. They live there—-they are not artists from away, disconnected from the community. Their community is their inspiration, their venue, their palette. A second element of their work is inclusivity and “shared authority.” The text is rich with stories and creative input from many Downtown Eastside-involved artists, community partners, and project participants, whose perspectives are integral to the larger work of the company and the neighbourhood. Little also notes elements of the text that make it a comprehensive resource: its attention to his- historical context, the creative expressions of many contributors, and the reflective analysis of the editors and contributors. It is rich with strategies for community arts engagement and offers convincing testimony to the transformative power of art-in-community.

In his preface, Michael Clague, director of the Carnegie Centre when it commissioned VMT to create and take the lead in producing In The Heart of a City in 2003, outlines some principles of the community play movement, of which this play is a part:

_ work respectfully with people and their communities;
_ build local ownership of the enterprise;
_ meticulously research [workshop and verify local material to ensure] authenticity;
_ don’t gloss over the darker side in personal and community life […];
_ challenge people to be their best […];
_ professional and community artists are a powerful partnership. (p. xiii

Clague further delineates the purpose of community arts to “create sustainability for the people and the organizations involved” (p. xiii). This mandate is clearly realized in the work of VMT, and chronicled in the book’s descriptions of the different theatre and music productions from 2002–2012 and the testimonies of artists, co-producers, and participants. The phenomenal growth of the annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival is an example of how community-engaged arts can create sustainability in a community.

From the Heart of a City is an exceptionally well-organized book, designed with accessibility as a major incentive to readers. The book’s layout reflects the three driving needs that inspired its production: to educate newcomers to the Downtown Eastside, to provide a resource for teachers of community-engaged arts creation in Canada, and to be a legacy for the next generation of artists. Section one, “Welcome,” introduces the reader to VMT and the community of the Downtown Eastside. Section Two, “The Productions,” provides in-depth accounts of ten productions, beginning in 2002, in which VMT has had a pivotal or supportive role. Section Three, “Practicing Community Engagement,” extends the work of VMT into provincial, national, and international collaborations and contexts, with articles by artists, residents, and senior community arts practitioners from across Canada. Section Four, “The Art of Engagement,” contains “how-to” articles from practitioners as well as a summary article by Savannah Walling about VMT’s “tree of community art practice” in the Downtown Eastside.

Section one is a thorough introduction to VMT and the Downtown Eastside. It is Chapter Three, “Drawing Strength From our Roots,” that I found to be a most eloquent welcome to the text. Here, the book’s designer, John Endo Greenaway, and editors Savannah Walling and Terry Hunter tell their personal stories of where they come from and who they have become because of their heritage and life experiences. This choice brings authority to the book and invites the readers to also reflect on who they are and their own heritage. As Hunter says: “It is within stories that we recognize ourselves” (p. 30). This invitation is an extension of the inclusivity of community-engaged arts to the reader to witness the experiences unfolded by participants, artists, and practitioners.

Part Two details the ten projects chosen by the editors to share the story of the development of community-engaged music and theatre productions in the Downtown Eastside through media quotes, directors’ overviews, artist and participant reflections, poetry and song lyrics, posters and evocative photos. The chapter contributes to the visual feast with coloured themes in red, blue, gold, and black, a theatrically artistic production in itself. The colour and movement conveyed in the design of the book mirrors the colour and movement of the productions. The artistic scope of VMT’s work and the community productions described cannot be conveyed by written text alone.

The first production by Savage God Theatre, i love The Downtown Eastside, in 2002 was the culmination of D.E.M.o.C.R.A.C.E.(3) This project brought together professional artists and community members to celebrate the beauty and worth of the Downtown Eastside in a cabaret-style show. Both Hunter and Walling were members of the artistic and production team that helped develop the show, and this experience planted the seed that nourished VMT’s future work.

The second production is truly the foundation of the all the succeeding projects detailed in Part Two. In the Heart of a City: The Downtown Eastside Community Play, commissioned by the Carnegie Community Centre
to celebrate its 100th Anniversary, was a grueling and exhilarating project produced by VMT that involved over 80 performers, 2000 volunteers, and 60 full or part-time employees (including 25 professional artists). The year-long project was supported by over 50 organizations and included 11 story-gathering events, 43 workshops, 3 parades, 4 public readings, and 9 weeks for bringing together the production for 8 performances. The aftermath of this mammoth project led VMT and the Carnegie Community Centre to consider what they could do that would provide an on-going legacy that would sustain the continuing development of community artists and arts in the Downtown Eastside. The result is the annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, which began in 2004, the year following the community play. This festival has been the seed bed, home, and testing ground for many of the succeeding projects detailed in Part Two. These include Condemned: The Carnegie opera (2006); East End blues and all That Jazz (2006); We’re all in This Together: The shadows Project: addiction and recovery (2007); The returning Journey (2007); a Downtown Eastside Romeo and Juliet (2008); bruce: The Musical (2008); storyweaving (2012); and bread and salt (2013). These productions are notable in that many of them were workshopped at the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festivals prior to full production. The productions often incorporated artistic forms that brought them to the atten- tion of the wider theatre and music communities in Vancouver (opera, shadow theatre, clown), and involved professional and non-professional community artists working side by side. They celebrated different ethnic communities and people in the Downtown Eastside, elevating the people of the community through their art.

Section Three focuses on ripples that have spread from the Downtown Eastside community play. There is a more detailed history of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival and of three literary adaptation co productions: Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, The idiot, and bah! Humbug! (a retelling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol). This section then moves to highlight community-based arts projects by Cathy Stubington and Runaway Moon Theatre in Enderby, British Columbia, and their co-production with VMT, The Minotaur Dreams: The Downtown Eastside Labyrinth Project. The section also explores the relationship between Jumblies Theatre in Toronto and the mentorship and involvement of Ruth Howard in the Arts for All and Artfare Institutes (2009-2014), leading to a discussion of the Community Play Movement across Canada and internationally. Six Canadian Community Play Exchange Symposiums are also discussed. As the book was launched at TRACKS, the 7th Community Play and Arts Symposium, it contributes to a growing lineage of community-based arts projects in Canada and demonstrates connections to international practices in community-based arts.

Part Four of the book addresses the nuts and bolts of putting community arts into practice in the Downtown Eastside. Practitioners present articles that offer specific advice for artists and community organizations who want to take on community arts projects, particularly when diverse communities are involved. A most valuable addition to this section is the conversation between Rosemary Georgeson and Savannah Walling, “Learning from our Mistakes: Building Relationships through the Arts with First Nations Communities.” One becomes aware, throughout the text,
that VMT is always mindful of the First People’s territory, unceded Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Watuth lands, upon which they live and work. The list of credits for each project highlights the Aboriginal person or group responsible for territorial acknowledgment. This follows the protocol of the Coast Salish First Peoples and is a common protocol across North America. Walling lists steps that can be followed in building relationships with Aboriginal communities,(4) including permissions, limits, and protocols. Taking time is a key requisite that is often not appreciated by non-Aboriginal artists and practitioners. I find this section of the text to be extremely useful. In reading Georgeson and Walling’s conversation I am reminded of the many mistakes I have made in building relationships with Indigenous people through my own ignorance and misguided sense of superiority. As Georgeson attests,

“The Storyweaving project revealed the fruits of over ten years of relationship building and its positive impact. […] [It] was proof that we can learn from our mistakes, from each other, through listening to needs, and last of all, by taking time to build these relationships, honoring and respecting the people that help bring this art form to light.” (p. 190)

A final reflection on this text, which lives up to all its promises, is the firm guidance of Savannah Walling as editor and lead writer. Her care-filled treatment of all the contributors and in framing the triumphs and struggles of community-engaged art shows a deep wealth of knowledge, respect, and compassion for the people she and Terry Hunter have worked within Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The field of community-engaged theatre has lacked adequate representation in theatre studies in Canada, possibly because of the dearth of published records or analyses of the work in the Canadian context. Despite international conferences and books published, particularly in the UK, discussion of community-engaged arts projects has remained local and colloquial. From the Heart of a City makes available valuable insights and is a welcome resource and inspiration to continue the work.

1 TRACKS: the 7th Canadian Community Play & Art Symposium, hosted in Vancouver/Coast Salish Territories and Enderby BC/Secwepemul’ecw Territories, May 10 to 15, 2015, was co-produced by Vancouver Moving Theatre, the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre, and the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, in collaboration with Runaway Moon Theatre (BC) and Jumblies Theatre (ON).

2 Train of Thought was led by Ontario’s Jumblies Theatre in collaboration with over 90 partners across Canada. The initiative grew out of discussions between community-engaged artists who are featured in the book, particularly Ted Little, Cathy Stubington, Ruth Howard, Dale Hamilton, Rachel van Fossen, Terry Hunter, and Savannah Walling.

3 D.E.M.o.C.R.A.C.E. stands for Downtown Eastside Moves on Capacity Raising through Arts and Cultural Experience.

4 These steps are identified by Duncan McCue, who is Anishnaabe and an adjunct professor at the UBC School of Journalism. They can be found at the website:

is a theatre practitioner, researcher, and educator. Her research and practice interests include Aboriginal theatre, community plays, new play development, and audience- involved spectatorship. Annie was the artistic director of Chasing the Dream: The grand Prairie Century Play, an outdoor processional theatre event to celebrate Grande Prairie’s 100th Anniversary in June 2014. She was a participant in the Train of Thought journey in 2015. Nations people, but all people.

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