Since the electoral defeat of the Conservative party, less has changed than many on the left might like. On the symbolic level, however, Canada’s mood has lifted considerably, a fact that’s not lost on Theatre for Living’s artistic director, David Diamond.
“It’s like the country took a big breath,” the activist and forum-theatre pioneer observes, on the line from his company’s Vancouver headquarters. For Diamond, though, that breath was also accompanied by a sigh. It’s not that he misses Stephen Harper, but he had been working on a project that was “grounded in Harperism”, and the loss of its villain also meant the end of its relevance.
“We were calling it Freedom,” he explains, “and it was about the rise of economic freedom—the corporate sector’s ability to do anything to make money, and how that has really permeated the culture.
“We couldn’t raise money for it, ironically,” he adds with a laugh. “And around the same time the election happened, so that coupled with the fact that we couldn’t raise the money meant that we had to rethink how to do this. We let go of the big project and focused on an aspect of the big project, which was how we’re being asked to be afraid, in lots of different ways.”
The resulting work, Reclaiming Hope… from a culture of fear, explores the negative voices that have colonized our heads. In it, three audience members will be asked to volunteer stories about how they’ve had to make choices that have involved confronting fear. The audience will vote on the most compelling, which will then be developed, using the techniques of forum theatre, into an interactive parable of hope.
“We use the theatre to identify those voices of fear that permeate the culture, and then change our relationship to them,” Diamond says, “i.e., we reclaim hope, not as a noun but as a verb. Hope isn’t sitting in your living room wishing things were different; it’s an action, somehow.”
It’s not hard to find evidence that fear is actively being used to transform society for the worse.
“Look what’s happening south of the border,” Diamond says. “It’s jaw-dropping.”
But if the director is genuinely worried about the rise of American fascism, he’s also convinced that it can be defeated by imagining a more just society. “As an activist, I got really tired of fighting against the world I didn’t want, and a decision got made to work towards the world that I do want, and that other people I know want,” he says. “And in order to do that, you’ve got to find ways to put up events where all of the characters are honoured for all of their complexity.
“It’s not about having sympathy for people who are doing terrible things, but if we want to create real transformation in the world we have to have the courage to get inside why those things are happening,” he continues. “Donald Trump isn’t the monster. Trump is the manifestation of something terrible. And the only solution for that is to dig into why that’s happening.”
Making the political personal through the use of audience memories is one strategy. Taking theatre into community centres is another. During its Vancouver run, Reclaiming Hope… from a culture of fear will play nine different venues, from cafés to community centres to churches, with performances often sponsored by seemingly incompatible groups. Jews and Muslims host one, Christians and LGBT activists another. An interesting side effect of this is that Theatre for Living has somehow achieved what most other local theatre groups have struggled to do: represent real diversity on-stage.
Diamond allows that he has to take a deep breath before addressing this hot-button topic.
“All of our work has that built in, and it has had it built in for decades,” he says, after a significant pause. “I don’t understand what the problem is for people. We live in a very diverse city.…It isn’t rocket science to make the work that theatre companies do reflect that diversity.
“At the heart of it is ‘Whose stories are being told?’ ” he continues. “And ‘Who’s getting to tell those stories?’ So we’re partnering with really diverse organizations in the hope that they have the ability to mobilize their own constituencies, because in the end it’s about bringing a really diverse group of people into the room.”
Theatre for Living presents Reclaiming Hope… from a culture of fear at various Vancouver venues from Thursday (March 10) to April 2.