Monday, January 6, 2014

The Question... Playwright Joel Bernbaum on Home Is a Beautiful Word

Talk to Me About "Home"
by Estelle Rosen

Joel Bernbaum is an actor, playwright, journalist and the co-artistic director of Sum Theatre. He is a graduate of Carleton University, where he did his Master's Thesis on Verbatim Theatre's Relationship to Journalism. Later this year Dancing Sky Theatre will produce his play Operation Big Rock and Sum Theatre will tour My Rabbi (co-written with Kayvon Kelly) to the Edinburgh Festival. Both of these plays have also received workshops at the Belfry Theatre.

CHARPO: Clearly verbatim theatre has long been of interest considering it was an element in your thesis. What was the process for this play particularly the follow-up interviews asking participants to pose questions as well as answer, and your holistic look at homelessness.

BERNBAUM: Verbatim theatre is thriving. When I was writing my thesis on verbatim theatre's relationship to journalism, there were several examples on the Canadian theatre scene alone of powerful and popular verbatim theatre productions. Oonagh Duncan's Talk Thirty To Me - about aging. Annabel Soutar's Seeds - about a Saskatchewan farmer's fight against big business. Andew Kushnir and Project:Humanity's The Middle Place - about shelter youth. Among others, these examples show the appeal of the real. The theatre is a place where we come to imagine, and to believe in lies. But it can also be a place where we come together to hear real people speak their truths.

I was curious how we could innovate on the art form. How could the world of journalism help grow this very journalistic theatre practice? When the Belfry Theatre's Michael Shamata contacted me about the possibility of applying my research, I was immediately interested in the subject matter. Homelessness. As a theatre school student in Victoria I remember walking home from downtown and being shocked by the number of people sleeping on the streets. Michael said he wanted to address this pertinent issue on stage. We quickly agreed that verbatim theatre would be a perfect vehicle for this dialogue, and that our project would take a holistic look at homelessness in Victoria. Instead of focusing only on homeless people (who of course would be a crucial part of the story), we would interview the entire community. Homeless people, housed people, children, teenagers, senior citizens, lawyers, doctors, police officers and others. After all, homelessness is an issue involving and affecting the entire city.

This was no simple task. The secret ingredient was time. For over two years, I spent time with the community. I visited schools, shopping malls, shelters, churches, jails and offices. I helped deliver early morning coffee to people sleeping outside, played pool with youth at shelters, stood on street corners and knocked on doors in random neighbourhoods. Almost every person I talked to had something to say about the issue of homelessness. I was consistently humbled by how open all of these strangers were with their stories. Interviews ranged from five minutes to five hours. The words were all spoken so differently, but what was said was always fascinating. It was a life changing experience. Over and over again my assumptions about this issue where shattered. There is no use trying to predict what is happening inside someone's head. It is crucial that we have conversations.

After over 500 interviews, we were left with a fantastic problem: way too much material for a play. A faithful team of transcribers turned hundreds of hours of recordings into thousands of pages of transcripts. We worked tirelessly to accurately record the stories, with all their pauses, laughs and inflections. Interview transcripts were read aloud by actors, and carefully edited for brevity, without altering meaning. A citizen of Victoria speaks every word in Home Is a Beautiful Word. I made every effort to reconnect with the original interview sources so they could approve the way their interview was being presented. I did follow up interviews, asking people to pose questions as well as answer them. I then took those questions, and posed them, verbatim, to members of our community, empowering sources to ask questions and creating a dialogue between people that may not ever otherwise meet, except for their exchanges on stage.

Home Is A Beautiful Word runs Jan. 7 - 19

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