photo by aviva armour ostroff
In 2007 Toronto-based actor and playwright Andrew Kushnir was approached by Project Humanity, an incorporated not for profit organization that raises awareness of social issues through the arts with a strong emphasis on community service, to help them facilitate a drama workshop at a Youth Shelter in Rexdale, one of Toronto’s roughest neighbourhoods, and to perhaps write a play to be performed there at Christmastime. Kushnir’s hesitance to write for this particular demographic, given his middle class experience, along with a newfound awareness of his own preconceived notions and prejudices surrounding youth and homelessness propelled him instead to take the opportunity to interact with and to get to know the youth who lived in this shelter. It was out of this desire that The Middle Place, a verbatim theatre piece, made from 450 pages worth of typed transcripts from interviews conducted by Kushnir with twenty-five youth and four caseworkers at Youth Without Shelter in Rexdale, found its way to Canadian Stage where it plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre until March 12, 2011.
The result is a riveting piece of theatre built on words and language. According to director Alan Dilworth’s programme notes neither he nor the actors (excluding Kushnir, of course) listened to or watched any of the interview footage. In this way, he and the four actors portraying the residents and caseworks of the shelter built their intricate characterizations themselves, with only the speaker’s choice of words and punctuation to provide an insight into vocal rhythm, accent, personality, attitude and physicality. In this way, the actors inhabit these characters, shaping and imagining them, rather than relying on mimicry, which has the potential to slip into parody and can seem patronizing. The language is immediately striking in its raw authenticity. Often playwrights are praised for scripting dialogue that we recognize as being “realistic,” but truly, when you hear verbatim theatre you realize how eloquent even the most “realistic” of plays truly are. In The Middle Place it is often in one’s inability to express him or herself perfectly that becomes truly resonate.
Kushnir plays, at least a theatrical version of, himself, sitting in the balcony, engaged with a video camera, facing the other actors. His broad, warm, grin is frequent, his questions are kind and curious and never asked in judgement or with arrogance. At times he rushes in on damage control, when he is afraid he’s accidentally offended someone, or realizes he has asked the wrong question. He always seems acutely aware that he is young, he is white, he is male and he is middle class, and, in classic Canadian fashion, he seems meekly apologetic about all of it. At times he has to milk the story out of people, as with young Aiden, who has a tendency to respond with concise yes or no answers. Andrew asks the questions that the audience is likely thinking as we watch the play unfold, but that most of us don’t have the opportunity to ask directly. His journey through the interviews likely mirrors our own and therefore the more interested and invested Andrew becomes in this conversation, the more the audience is engaged and connected as well.
The four actors portraying the residents and caseworkers at the shelter are Antonio Cayonne, Jessica Greenberg, Akosua Amo-Adem and Kevin Walker, who each give strong performances rooted in specificity, commitment and urgency. Cayonne captures a sad sense of quiet despair. Greenberg is heartbreaking a Nevaeh, a pregnant Bulgarian refugee who found herself homeless after reporting her abusive father to the authorities. She has such a delicate sense of hope, a fragility of spirit that makes you want to give her something of real substance to latch onto. Greenberg also plays Brussels Sprout, a highly intelligent girl with big dreams, who seems to have difficulty communicating her complex ideas. She gives a perplexing monologue about astronomy and education that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around, but it all sounded fascinating and incredibly detailed and well thought out. Walker plays a series of very troubled young men, including one who seems to suffer from some sort of mental illness who hates being labelled. Walker’s beautiful, nuanced performance is utterly compelling. Amo-Adem is commanding as the head caseworker, serious, realistic, yet kind and filled with unbridled compassion, care and love for her “kids.” She shines especially bright as Kaliah, a sassy, judgemental, hard-as-nails resident who is suave in her ability to evade questions she doesn’t want to answer, but also is the most eloquent and forthwith about the reality of this “middle place” of existence, that is not a home, but not the street, a place that drains you, and wears you down, where life comes to a halt and where people become bums in a cycle that is difficult to break free from. There are lighter moments as well, especially in the interactions between Kaliah and her friend (played by Greenberg), who laughs often and maniacally, as they terrorize the other residents and each other with their witty and colourful insults.
Alan Dilworth’s direction is crisp and clear on set and costume designer Jung-Hye Kim’s white floating oval, where the youth are both isolated and bound together. Dilworth makes the transitions between the characters utterly seamless and, along with choreographer Monica Dottor, has created an array of sharp, simple gestures and movements that are repeated effectively to bind the piece together.
Paul Thompson once said of The Farm Show (1972), and I am paraphrasing, that by creating theatre about real people and subjects that were relevant to them, he was going out and finding and fostering a new audience for the theatre. I am so glad that Project Humanity has brought this play back to the shelter of its origin, and I think that it would be wonderful for other youth in other shelters across the city (and indeed the country) to have the opportunity to access this play and to build a dialogue between the creators and these youth, if that proves to be something that they are interested in doing. I do think that it is important for these voices to be heard, by the audiences who frequent the Theatre Passe Muraille and by the audiences who frequent Canadian Stage (and I am proud and pleased as punch to see these two companies working so nicely in cooperation and co-production with one another on this project), but I also think that, especially for a play like this one, we cannot forget about the people who do not (or especially those who cannot) attend the theatre, for I think this is one piece that we can all benefit from seeing and for vividly different reasons.
Project Humanity’s The Middle Place plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street) of Canadian Stage until March 12, 2011. For more information, or to book your tickets please visit www.canadianstage.com or call 416.368.3110. If you would like to help homeless youth right now you can text the word TOKENS on your cell phone to 45678 to donate $5.00 towards the Tokens4Change cause. The one-time charge will appear on your next cell phone statement and goes toward providing a round trip on the TTC to a shelter youth looking to get to a doctor’s appointment, a job interview or classes.