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Theatre of the Homeless

In Defense of Non-Profit Arts

by Matt Hanson

First Snowfall Over Memorial Park (Calgary)
First Snowfall Over Memorial Park (Calgary)

“Theatre is a language and so it can be used to speak about all human concerns, not to be limited to theatre itself.”

Augusto Boal, Rio de Janeiro 2004, founder of “Theatre of the Oppressed”

This season at the theatre, the homeless are giving to one professional artist more than any had dreamed. “Requiem for a Lost Girl” is a theatre project not merely inspired by, but created out of Calgary’s largest homeless shelter. The play confronts the living reality of homelessness. Homeless writers, actors and composers from both New York City and Calgary homeless shelters will perform this musical alongside internationally renowned theatre artists in the New York Musical Theatre Festival this July.  

With a 650% increase in homelessness in the past decade, Calgary is experiencing an epidemic, regardless of employment. “Half of the clients living at the DI have jobs,” writes Onalea Gilbertson, in her author’s notes for her upcoming project, “Requiem for a Lost Girl.” Her new project brings her activism at The DI (Calgary Drop-In Centre) to New York City, to perform her second all-original theatre work, commissioned by Land’s End Ensemble. Although never homeless herself Gilbertson shares, “Homelessness is close to my heart. I grew up in Calgary. When I was a kid, homelessness wasn’t visible. I knew a girl who became homeless. Her story provides the basis for my piece, “Requiem for a Lost Girl” (formally titled Two Bit Oper Eh? Shun) which premiered at the High Performance Rodeo in January of 2012 with the Land’s End Chamber Ensemble, Soloists, Revv52 Community Choir and the Drop-In Centre Singers.

David Rhoads, a member of the Drop-In Centre Singers group, turned his life around after his involvement. David’s first show was at the Drop-In Centre for a play entitled, “DI Wedding”. Prior to this show, he had been homeless for two years, from age 18-20. “On my first day homeless I was sprayed by a skunk, bitten by bugs, weak with hunger, it was terrible.” Eventually, while hitchhiking, a kind stranger led him to the DI Centre. Now, Rhoads continues to be active in the greater arts scene in Calgary as a spoken word artist, poet, actor and playwright. He is also at the top of his class at SAIT (and the only person from his class from the DI).

In January 2011, when DI Wedding was performed at the Drop-In Centre, two professional artist peers of Onalea were in attendance, David Rhymer and Vi An Diep. Diep reminisces, “it was a superb and heartfelt collaboration…they [the homeless] exemplify great human potential when given the opportunity to be creative and constructive, while under the leadership of a very well-established artist as Onalea.”

What’s in it for the artists? For Michael Frisby, a volunteer manager and arts programming coordinator at The Drop-In Centre in Calgary, the largest homeless shelter in Canada, it’s not about what the artist’s get. As he strongly states, “…all I know is that the musicians who come and play for my program [ArtBeat]…that is artists just coming to give. They’re not trying to be entrepreneurial. I don’t get involved with artists that are trying to further themselves with that. It’s good for them in a different way.”

Does charitable art engender sustainable growth in our disadvantaged communities? Frisby continues, “…artists get the same type of nourishment from coming down and giving as the clients there get from receiving.” In Onalea Gilbertson’s words, “The experience there changed my life. Going there to the DI and seeing people experiencing homelessness, sharing my story, hearing their stories – we were all there in the group because we love music.” For Vi An Diep, “When I give myself to not-for-profits it’s more about giving myself completely because there’s an initiative, continuing the vitality of an arts community and a real essential human need for culture as opposed to being a commodity. I can earn money anywhere but I know my role when approached by a not-for-profit arts company.”

The down-and-out have always been a major theme in the arts. This year, many of the artist’s traditional human subjects reclaim their voice. Michael Frisby, recently began a new weekly arts program at The DI. “…We provide it [community] through the art forms that provided it thousands of years ago to the origins of every human community on planet Earth,” Frisby determines.

                                                                            

                                     Please Visit Onalea Gilbertson's Website for more details. 


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