WHERE POLICE AND COMMUNITY MEET
By Lina de Guevara
(Published in ALT Theatre Volume 14 No.1 2017)
“I feel fortunate and moved to participate in this event. As a mother of five brown young men, I live in fear of what could happen to them, if they have an encounter with the police. The police have a lot of power, and we as parents can only hope that they exercise that power with responsibility”
(Sandra Angus-Vincent, immigrant from Haiti)
In this article I describe two related community arts projects, “Police and Community: A Theatre Exploration” and “Police and Diverse Communities: Anti-Bias Training”, which took place in Victoria in 2013 and 2016 respectively. They were a collaboration between the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria (ICA); the Saanich and the Victoria Police Departments; two theatre and community engagement specialists, Victor Porter and myself; and the Greater Victoria Police Diversity Advisory Committee (GVPDAC). Both projects included research workshops with police officers and immigrant refugee communities to gather information and stories, which provided material for the dramatic scenes that we developed and rehearsed together with participants. The projects culminated in separate theatre presentations for police officers and community members, and other presentations where both groups were brought together.
The overall purpose of these projects was to improve relationships and create dialogue between immigrant and refugee communities with their local police departments, and to look at the critical issues that affect those relationships. For instance, cultural differences, negative experiences with police in their home countries, racism, profiling, and ignorance on both sides.
Over the years, similar undertakings had been proposed but didn’t happen. The obstacles were many. Using methods based in theatre and the arts to achieve results of any kind was unusual in these environments. They were deemed inappropriate because theatre and the arts are usually considered entertainment. The police had more urgent preoccupations and it seemed impossible for them to include these activities in their busy, complicated schedules. As PUENTE Theatre’s artistic director, I had been involved in failed attempts to launch some of these projects in Victoria, BC. My co-facilitator Victor Porter had the same experience in Vancouver, where he resides and works as an Applied Theatre practitioner. It was not uncommon for theatre practitioners to encounter distrust when trying to work with the police.
Our success in these most recent attempts can be partly attributed to our community partners. The participation of ICA was essential. It is the lead agency of the Community Partnership Network (CPN), a network of businesses and organizations created in 2009 with the goal of building an inclusive, diverse and welcoming community in our regions. Since its founding, the CPN has grown to include more than 200 institutional partners, including the Greater Victoria region’s five police departments. Over the years, needs have been explored in depth, trust and knowledge have developed and personal relationships established with the CPN’s police members. CPN strongly supports and encourages initiatives that address discrimination, welcome newcomer immigrants, and improve relationships across diverse communities.
The cooperation of the police in both the 2013 and 2016 projects was essential. The “Police and Community: A Theatre Exploration” project with the Saanich PD was lucky to find a champion in Staff Sergeant Douglas Newman. He provided a positive model for his colleagues by his energetic support for the project and became one of our actors in our final presentations. Newman was also instrumental in including the Saanich 911 dispatchers in our work, who brought to the project their unique perspective: that of first line emergency responders who seldom got to find out the outcome of the call. The first project made it easier to succeed in organizing the second one, “Police and Diverse Communities: Anti-Bias Training”, which involved the Victoria Police Department. Many Victoria Police officers had attended presentations of the Saanich Project, intervened in the forum and image theatre activities, participated in the discussions, and experienced first-hand the positive effect of our work.
Besides having contacts with the police force through CPN, ICA has a strong Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada program (LINC) with over 500 immigrant newcomers coming for English classes every day, so the participation of a large number of recent immigrants was assured. Three evening classes joined us for the Diverse Communities Research Workshop and over one hundred students from the LINC classes attended each theatre presentation. ICA also promoted the events on their website, social media, and Tapestry Newsletter, all of which have a strong ethno-cultural reach/readership.
A final and significant factor in our success was our personal connection to the immigrant and refugee communities in BC and our intimate knowledge of the challenges of adapting to a new culture. Victor and I came to Canada escaping from corrupt, oppressive regimes, in Argentina and Chile respectively, where the police served as instruments of abuse, torture, and murder. We have a visceral knowledge of the fear and mistrust that many immigrants feel at the prospect of interacting with the police. We were professional theatre artists in our countries of origin and familiar with the work of Augusto Boal, renowned Brazilian theatre director and creator of Theatre of the Oppressed. Boal developed an extensive body of work that uses theatre to discuss social issues and search for solutions to problems such as exploitation, racism, family violence, and bullying. Together with Paulina Grainger, the coordinator of ICA’s Arts and Outreach Program and the projects’ producer, we have worked on this type of endeavour for many years.
At the end of the 1980s, Victor and I trained with Boal, attending several of his workshops in Canada and the USA (New York, Manitoulin Island, Ontario and Seattle). My company, PUENTE Theatre, was invited to participate in the 1991 Theatre of the Oppressed Festival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and the 1997 Festival in Toronto. Boal was interested in our work in Canada and asked us to keep him informed about its development. He remained a great mentor and friend until his death in 2009.
Over the years, Victor and I have used many Theatre of the Oppressed techniques in our separate careers. Following the principle of flexibility suggested by Boal himself we adapted and changed some of the techniques to suit local realities and the character of the people we worked with. Our workshops use a range of innovative theatre-based learning tools—image theatre, forum theatre, playback and non-blocking improvisation techniques—to identify and explore cross-cultural interactions leading to inequitable treatment, conflict, and misunderstanding. Our projects encourage community dialogue and initiative to come up with strategies that reflect cultural sensitivity. We are aware of the systemic causes of many of the problems we discuss, still this type of theatre is strong and effective and can help find some of the paths to change.
Methodology of the Project
The research workshops
The research has to be conducted in an open, easy and relaxed way, and not conducted by people who think they have all the answers. Participants have to be motivated to tell their stories in their own way, and be provided with a clear “how-to” guide that helps them to tell their stories, and to listen in a considered way to the stories of others.
Activities such as games and creation of images are valuable not only as warm up exercises, but also as a way of collecting information, helping people to recall moments of discovery in their working lives, establishing new ways of relating to co-workers; and breaking behavioural routines, i.e. the idea that “learning happens in a class which always consists of a teacher who stands up and imparts knowledge, and students who sit and take notes”. Most of our workshops start with taking out the tables from the room, leaving free space for movement, and conveying right away the message that this experience will be different. Soon participants realize theatre exercises are an effective way of learning and that they can use theatrical tools to express something about themselves, the trials they have gone through, and their significance. They begin to comprehend the purpose of the workshop and how it relates to them personally, which leads to understanding and sharing.
Providing an environment of freedom and trust helps us to gather stories, considerations, and feelings that will constitute the core of the scenes we will show to an audience. It is a basic principle of our work that we must get our material from the participants, and that the scenes we develop and present must represent their truths. We do not make assumptions or impose our own opinions. We get stories directly from the community about what they have personally experienced. We check with them frequently about the situations we describe, to make sure that they are correct in every detail.
The objective of our research in both projects was to find out how the police and the immigrants related to each other in the wider community. We conducted research workshops with each of these groups, separately, to prevent fear and intimidation of any sort. The structure of the workshops was the same. Our team included a scribe and a photographer, and every aspect of the process was carefully recorded.[i] Confidentiality was assured: no stories were used or pictures taken without permission.
The workshop started with an exercise called The Timeline, where we ask participants to line up according to how long they have been in Canada. Those born in Canada are asked where their parents were born, their grandparents, their great grandparents, until we get to First Nations people, whose ancestors have been here since time immemorial. Once the line is completed participants are asked to state where they came from and how long they and their ancestors have been here.
The Timeline is an effective ice breaker and an image of Canada’s diversity. It shows how in this country most people relate to the immigrant experience. It makes audience members stand up, go on stage, and share something about themselves. This serves as preparation for the participatory activities that follow. After The Timeline, we propose simple Image Theatre exercises, and lead participants towards appreciating the expressiveness and power of images, the fun of making them, and also, how images can relate to our own experiences, sometimes humorous, others dramatic and always meaningful. For example, participants create frozen images of what it means to be an immigrant, of confrontations between immigrants and the police; or of immigrants trying to explain something but not being able to because of the language barrier.
The next activity is Storytelling. As a warm up we ask participants to choose a partner and share the story of their name: who gave it to them, what does it mean, how they relate to it, etc. Soon everybody is sharing a simple story and realizing they can do it and enjoy it. We discuss the importance of this oldest art form and how we can use it, and propose a clear and simple storytelling protocol:
—Stories will be short
—Stories will be personal
—The teller will not be interrupted
—Stories will end with the line “And this is my story”,
—The only accepted comment at the end of each story will be: “Thank you!”
This protocol is important and helpful. All participants tell us how relieved they are to have a structure to conform to and by not being forced to judge or be judged.
We are then ready to ask our participants to share, in small groups, personal stories of a moment when their interactions with the police (or, in the case of police, with immigrants or diverse minorities) have not turned out well—moments when they have felt uncomfortable, disillusioned, scared or oppressed. We explain that, of course, there are many successes, but our intention is to focus on problems that must be recognized and addressed. We ask that each small group choose a story to be shared with the group at large. Afterwards we open the floor to anybody who wants to share a story. All stories are given names, and our scribe takes note of them. General comments and evaluations are kept to a minimum. The point of this exercise is to gather as much information as possible, not to evaluate the quality, or the drama of the story. People must feel free to share what they want. In this way we collect numerous stories. The topics and actions referred to in them will be the core of the scenes we create later on in our Theatre Forum events. Some examples of these kinds of stories include a case where loud mourning rituals alarmed neighbours who then called police. In another instance, immigrants believed the police would extort bribes.
The next step is selecting the content, and writing the scenes to be staged. They must have a powerful, deep content that provides material for the examination of important issues. Though it is a consideration, they should not be chosen just for their theatrical quality, i.e. selecting a scene because it’s funny, and will please the audience. They must be chosen for their relevance to the issues at hand. Scenes must lead, not only to the exposition of a problem, but also provide opportunities for the audience to show solutions. One of Boal’s teachings was that scenes for forum should denounce unjust events, but at a moment in them where there’s still the possibility of a change of direction. As facilitators, we have to deal with difficult situations, but not create hopelessness and despair.
The scenes we wrote covered many moments of conflict between the police and immigrants and visible minorities, such as moments of conflict because of ignorance and misunderstanding of religious and cultural practices; intervention in cases of family violence; profiling and prejudgment because of ethnicity and appearance; the challenges of intervening when children need to be protected; misunderstandings when dealing with traditional family structures; and winning the trust of people scared by the presence of the police.
We hired professional actors for both projects, four for the first one and six for the second. They were from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and connected with the immigrant experience. One police officer and a reservist participated from the Saanich PD, and two police officers and a reserve constable participated from the Victoria PD. Their presence was essential to give authenticity to our performances, and to demonstrate to the audience the police’s commitment to open discussion of complex issues such as discrimination, cultural understanding, and crime prevention.
Not every actor can be a positive performer in a theatre forum event. Personal biases might interfere, and inexperience, insensitivity, and lack of clarity about the purpose of the process can greatly affect the quality of the presentation and its objective. All our actors received special training to allow them to understand the demands of this kind of theatre. During the interventions by the audience, the actor in Forum Theatre must always be aware of his/her character’s feelings, whether the crisis situation has worsened or improved with the intervention, and when the interaction with the audience must become more or less demanding, according to the objectives of the presentation.
We rehearsed many possible interventions, until the actors felt at ease and demonstrated a firm understanding of the purpose of the event. The members of the PD participated courageously in this process. Going from being police to being an actor is a big challenge, one they accomplished with great enthusiasm and generosity. They kept us on track about police procedure happening out in the field. They gave many hours of their own time to attend all rehearsals, and collaborated without reservations whenever it was necessary. They expressed their belief in the value of the project and became true members of the ensemble. I believe their rigorous training as members of the police gave them a solid base to conform to the demands of theatre.
Facilitation in Forum Theatre is a role that requires experience and knowledge. Complex and challenging, it has very strict ethical requirements. Boal describes in detail the conduct of the facilitator, called Joker in the Theatre of the Oppressed texts. For me, one of the most important rules is number one: “Jokers must avoid all actions which could manipulate or influence the audience” (Games for Actors and Non-actors, Boal, page 232). This principle guides all of the Joker’s actions.
After the scenes had been rehearsed we started giving shape to the presentation: it needed to be a whole comprising many parts and coherently organized. The purpose is to prepare the audience to participate whole-heartedly in the discussion and search for solutions to problems that affect their life, happiness, and security. We were addressing very complicated topics that could become controversial or emotional, or lead to dissension, accusations, and misunderstandings. Being asked to perform in front of an audience is a great challenge for most people, so careful and gradual preparation was required. The presentation had to be paced so that the level of risk is gradually increased and the audience starts to act almost without noticing it.
We realized that the forum scenes did not cover all facets of the topics that participants had proposed, so we added other ways of expressing more completely what we had discovered during our research: Image Theatre showing in still poses essential aspects of the problem; Discussion Theatre which analysed in depth a conflict’s solution; Immigrant Voices and Police Voices where a variety of aspects about their complex relationship could be shared, and Thank You Postcards, which expressed immigrants’ appreciation of the police work.
The format of the presentation for the Diversity Advisory Committee DAC & Community Partnership Network (CPN) audience, which was held in June 2016, is included as an example. Similar plans were used in all presentations, with small changes introduced according to time, place, and audience requirements.
1 – GREETINGS (participating organizations, acknowledgment of First Nations territory)
2 – PROJECT INTRODUCTION (Objectives and description of the presentation.)
3 – SELECTED TIMELINE
4 – IMAGES PERFORMED BY ACTORS
- World of the Immigrant (audience suggest descriptive words)
- Immigrants and police relationship (audience members go on stage try to physically move the characters to change their attitude in order to achieve positive change)
5 – DISCUSSION THEATRE The “Teaching our children” scene (a father has beaten his daughter for going out with a boy) is presented, and then the audience is divided in groups of four/five to discuss solutions to its conflicts for 10/15 min. One person from each group goes on stage to propose one solution to the rest of the audience. Comments.
6 – FORUM SCENES (Facilitators explain Theatre Forum method, introduce each scene and comment on interventions).
- Immigrant family (family violence prevention)
- Obstruction (profiling and discrimination because of ethnicity)
- Crossing a busy street (prejudice)
- Don’t call the Police (fear and mistrust of Police)
7 – IMMIGRANT VOICES
Immigrant actors make a statement about their challenges in relating with the police. Audience is asked to respond. Actors just thank them: it’s not a discussion but a listening.
8 – POLICE VOICES Audience respond and comment. Actors thank them.
9 – THANK YOU POSTCARDS
Actors present a selection of positive comments made by immigrants and diverse population about the police.
10 – CLOSING WORDS AND CAST ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
- “Dialogue (took place) that I never imagined to see police engaged in. Very brave of all participants, especially the police. Much respect.”
“It was a treat to be involved – ICA continues to be a hub for progressive and groundbreaking community action. It would be a privilege to continue working alongside these inspiring projects & the staff team in the months & years ahead J ““I think it has been especially powerful for members of the newcomer community to see the police in a non-crisis setting up on stage as actors, and there were many comments from the crowd to that effect. I think it has been very valuable to bring the two groups together to have a conversation that would not likely have occurred in daily life – in particular, through Forum Theatre and through having them share messages they have for each other through Police and Immigrant Voices.”
- “I truly believe a lot of growth, respect, and trust have been created between the two groups. Even in myself, I now find myself wanting to say hello to police officers on the street. I think a conversation has been started, one that will hopefully spread throughout the community.
- “While I was unclear on what would happen, I was challenged by thought provoking scenarios which encouraged discussion and the opportunity to make a difference. Well presented, well facilitated.”
- “I was so surprised to see police acting and challenging their status quo. Bravo! They are reaching out to the community. The seminar addressed very sensitive issues in a very safe way. Everyone could feel included, acknowledged and respected. I love the initial image of Canada made out of immigrants. That was touching and grounding!”
- “Theatre Forum is an incredible tool! I loved witnessing the creativity and engagement of the audience. You could see how empowered everyone felt to act”
- “I especially appreciated the points in the enactments where participants, who were very confident that they could solve the situation quickly realized that it is not that simple. The actors and facilitators were able to demonstrate different perspectives well and were very supportive in acknowledging that the processes and challenges faced by both newcomers and police are not easily solved.”
Our projects generated some practical approaches to the issues mentioned in the presentations. For example, more presentations of our performances have been requested and are in preparation; the Saanich dispatchers shared with ICA a protocol about their services (for example: when is it appropriate to phone 911 and what information needs to be conveyed); the Victoria Police Department and ICA’s Training Coordinator set up a schedule starting this fall whereby police officers will give talks to newcomers and ESL students on topics including traffic rules, procedures when stopped by the police, freedom of Information and Privacy Act, the use of force, and safety issues.
These initiatives are very useful, of course, but I believe now that inspiring active participation is the most important achievement of our events. To encourage as many people as possible to engage in the search for solutions, to discuss issues, and to listen to those who have different perspectives is a positive process of learning, a truly democratic approach. There are no specialists telling other people what to think and how to behave. The ground is richly prepared for each individual to think for himself or herself. Through active participation in proposing solutions, mistakes, impracticalities or impossible suggestions become evident and participants themselves see the need to find other avenues.
In this type of event, the audience becomes respected, its contributions are considered, and it is empowered. Dialogue will contribute to finding practical solutions, and resentment, anger, and other negative emotions will not be nurtured
Actors and facilitators in a theatre forum event are appreciated by the audiences, who realize the dedication, vulnerability, and openness this work requires. They respond in kind by allowing themselves to be put in difficult situations, trying out something they’ve never done before.
The introduction of “Discussion theatre” in the last project was a positive innovation. It allowed the audience to discuss in depth a complex situation, and afterwards listen with respect to a series of opinions and experiences that were not necessarily accepted by all, but had to be considered as part of the diversity of our society.
The fact that our event ended with a “Thank you postcards” scene directed towards the Victoria Police, corresponded to a reality we found in our research. New immigrants did not only want to talk about the negative aspects of their encounters with the police, but also the positive encounters. They wanted to make quite clear that they were grateful to them for a variety of reasons. We had to listen, remain open and include our participants’ point of view, not ignore it, even if it didn’t exactly correspond to the format of a forum event, which focuses on the negative aspects of an issue so that solutions can be found. To remain flexible and responsive towards the community is a necessary skill for facilitators and performers of this type of theatre.
I continue to reflect on these projects, trying to assess their significance and their scope. We hear so many negative news about interactions between police and the community, and yet we need the police and call on them when we’re in danger of any sort. I believe it is very important to find means of relating in a positive, open way, as human beings with weaknesses and errors that need to be continually revised, on all sides, so that we can achieve constructive relations. This can only be accomplished by trying new ways, because the authoritarian, hierarchical methods are not working anymore, if they ever did.
Three elements emerged for me as interesting and valuable outcomes of these two projects:
1 -The workshops, rehearsals, and presentations provided ample opportunity for the participants to take a moment to reflect on their stories, to reflect on their assumptions and ways in which they understood their reality and the reality of the other – the other being the unknown immigrant or refugee, or the all-powerful police officer in uniform. Working together on a project demystified each other’s experiences and created a familiarity that could not have been created in any other way. The presentations of the scenes and the event as a whole, although focused on serious and painful experiences, created an environment of laughter, solidarity, and humanization of the protagonists.
2 – Immigrants and refugees participating in the presentations left with a clear understanding of their rights as residents of Canada, the notion that the police is a public service in place to support them in living safely, not an ominous enforcer of tyrannical rules.
3 – Police officers participating as actors and those attending the presentations got–perhaps for the first time in their careers–an opportunity to dig deeper and understand the why of the fear of police amongst immigrant and refugees populations, some of the stories of persecution and oppression by police in foreign countries, the challenges that newcomers face during their first years in Canada, alone and away from their extended families, and other factors. Police left this experience with a renewed understanding of the communities they serve, and a sense of pride for daring to engage beyond their comfort zone and divested of all authority, in the unpredictable realm of a Forum Theatre event.
Boal, Augusto. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. Routledge, 1992.
Chilean-born Lina de Guevara is a director, actor, and specialist in Transformational Theatre, Theatre of the Oppressed and Commedia dell’Arte. In 1988 Lina founded PUENTE Theatre in Victoria BC and was its artistic director until retiring in June 2011. PUENTE‘s mandate was to create and produce plays about diversity and the immigrant experience. Her director’s credits include “Sisters/Strangers”, “Storytelling Our Lives”, “I wasn’t born here”, “Crossing Borders”, “The House of Bernarda Alba”, “Mother Courage”, “Uthe/Athe”, “Chile con carne”, “Emergence”, “Canadian Tango”, “Scene and Heard ”,and “Pilgrimage of the Concepción. Nuns”. Her most recent director’s credit is “River of Time” presented at the Uno Festival in Victoria, May 2016. Her most recent acting credit is Alice in “Alice’s Gift” (Elisabeth Wagner), 2017.
Currently Lina freelances as director, facilitator and storyteller. www.linadeguevara.ca
Victor Porter, Program and Research Analyst, Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, is a Vancouver, BC resident. An Applied Theatre practitioner with over 35 years of experience, Victor came to Canada as a government assisted refugee after being released from prison where he was kept by the Argentinian military dictatorship for four years for his activities against the dictatorship. Victor has worked with a wide variety of communities using theatre to explore issues and organize/strategize to affect change, including unions, youth, immigrants, refugees, street people, homeless and other marginalized communities.
*These projects were funded respectively by the Province of British Colombia’s Welcoming Communities Program, and the Province of BC through the Ministry of International Trade.
[i] Scribes were Valeria Cortés and Jaimie Summer, Photographers: Ilya Stavinsky and Marius Langeland.
Theatre Research in Canada. TRIC FALL 2015 (Published by the Centre for Drama, University of Toronto)
FORUM SECTION: Impact of the Immigrant Experience in my Theatre Career by Lina de Guevara
Cultures WEST, Vol 32, No 1-Spring 2014 (AMSSA Publication)
“Journey to Mapu”, a play, published in the Anthology “Fronteras vivientes”edited by Natalie Alvarez, 2013 Playwright’s Canada Press, Toronto
From the Heart of the City (Theatre and Music Productions 2002 to 2012)- Vancouver Moving Theatre
Alt.Theatre Review, Montreal (teesriduniya.com):
- “PUENTE Theatre: In the beginning there was the interview”. A collaborative approach to reflecting immigrants’ reality on stage. December 2011
- “Reflections on making art in a small city”: Lina de Guevara on being an artist in Victoria, BC. March 2009
- “From Here to There: Collaboration and Voice” January 2006
- “The 7th Mexican Pastorela Festival” June 2002
- “WorldPlay: Creating Connections through Play Readings” June 2001
- “It takes one to know one” October 2000
Humanities Centre, University of Victoria
- “Telling Stories: Puente Theatre and the Immigrant Experience” Appeared in “Untold Stories of British Columbia” edited by Paul Wood. (2003)
2005 Lesley University Series in Arts an Education:
- “Putting the chairs in place” (Lina de Guevara interviewed by Cam Culham) published in “The Arts, education, and social change”.
Ruptures, Continuities and Re-Learning. ( Latin American’s political participation in Canada) Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. OISE:
- Civic Participation through Theatre (2006)
- Canadian Tango (a play, published by OISE/UT, produced and performed by PUENTE in 1992/93).
Canadian Theatre Review 90
Universal Mosaic of Drama and Theatre: The IDEA 2004 Dialogues. Eds. Laura McCammon, Gail Campbell, and Debra McLauchlan. Welland, Ont: Éditions Soleil Pub, 2006. 321-324. Print.