Year-long initiative involving homeless in the arts comes to a close

Sherry Love and fellow performer Hani both worked on a musical theatre performance that takes the story of Little Red Riding Hood and places it in the context of real-life experiences of homelessness in Calgary.

Both Love and Hani (who doesn’t want her full name used) have been involved with the drama club at the Mustard Seed for over a year led by Aviva Zimmerman as the drama coach. Hani came to Calgary in 2000 from Ontario but it has only been the last couple of years since she became homeless and got involved with the Mustard Seed. Before that she didn’t have any experience with acting and theatre. After coming to Calgary she has worked at different jobs but has not been able to afford a place to live.

“At the end of the day we have something to say and she [Zimmerman] puts it into the script” says Hani. “It makes us feel confident that it is not only from what she sees but it is our vision too. It makes us feel we are equally important.”

Also homeless Love is slim with a weathered face and matted greying hair. During rehearsals she wears has a pink wig glasses a black outfit and tights. She had a little experience with acting in the past once getting the chance to audition for Disney as a kid. While taking part in other programs offered by the Mustard Seed she heard about the opportunity to get involved in the drama club.

“I was taking an effective speaking course and someone said to me that I missed my calling so I thought acting was more inbred into me. So when I found out there was a drama club here I got excited about it because I have always wanted to be able to act” she says.

For more than a year artists from a wide range of disciplines have put in many long hours to engage Calgary’s homeless in art-making.

Jody Williams who works in the city’s art and culture division helped bring together all the various initiatives under the This is My City banner. Officially launched in January 2009 as part of the High Performance Rodeo Williams says that a lot of effort went into providing Calgary’s homeless with a range of experiences and opportunities in painting writing poetry and personal narratives singing and theatre. The wrap-up takes place with the This is My City This is Your City symposium on Sunday January 24 followed by a discussion on the role of the arts in social justice hosted by Jean-Daniel Lafond and Governor General of Canada Michaëlle Jean.

“We tried to work very hard in exhibiting the work in the public realm so the work can be celebrated and acknowledged” says Williams. “And to promote the dialogue and conversation around the topic of homelessness and maybe between people who haven’t been engaged in the conversation.”

For many who are homeless the experiences are very personal and difficult to explain to a society that appears not willing to listen or pay attention. There are plenty of stories about people escaping from abusive situations and of older people who don’t have the funds to support themselves. Others have medical conditions disabilities and mental illnesses that have made sustaining a career and finding affordable places to live an uphill battle.

Over the next while Williams says the city will take time to evaluate the program and see if any aspect can continue with support from community partners.

“The best outcome is that we can leave behind the tools and ideas for individuals and community members to continue on their own” says Williams.

Artists who have been involved are already thinking of ways to continue to work with the homeless community and to keep the energy and creativity sparked by This Is My City alive.

“I am working with Aviva in this drama club” Love says. “I am in a situation and I have a story to tell and I believe I can act it out.”