I’m the artistic director of Vancouver Moving Theatre, a company I co-founded over 25 years ago in the Downtown Eastside with my husband and colleague Terry Hunter. We collaborate with artists of many genres and traditions to create interdisciplinary repertoire and festivals influenced by Vancouver’s Pacific Rim culture and our inner city neighbourhood.
After touring internationally for 15 years, we now focus on community building arts projects tailored for and with our home community to give voice to the people of the Downtown Eastside. This includes:
- The Strathcona Artist at Home Festival (for six years)
- The annual DTES Heart of the City Festival with a host of community partners (for seven years).
- Big and small productions created with, for and about our community.
- Capacity building workshops, leadership training in the community arts, and a national community play symposium.
- Sometimes we also co-produce professional productions that incorporate job opportunities for DTES community members.
We love our neighbourhood – its people and art forms, its cultural traditions, diversity and rich heritage, its beautiful buildings, green places and human scale. We owe this community a huge debt of gratitude – it’s the place that gave birth to our company, our art form, our repertoire. And it’s the place that provided us with social housing so we could afford to practice our art and raise and educate our son.
This has been a very difficult year in B.C. Communities are facing big challenges right now for many, many reasons. Our neighbourhood has been hard hit by a whole slew of changes since the 1970s. But it has a history of community members joining forces when health, survival, and identity are threatened.
To build healthy communities, we’re all needed. So Terry and I join with other Downtown Eastside community “gardeners” to cultivate a healthy garden that grows a variety of healthy plants. We do it through art because we’re artists. We take the small steps we know how to take – creating art that excites us, involves and engages people from our community, and challenges negative stereotypes about the place we live. We do our best to create working environments that are inclusive, that nourish BOTH artistic excellence and community process, and encourage people to give of their best. We strive to deliver professional service with an attitude of partnership, cooperation and respect for community needs.
For me, community art is about artists working with communities and communities working with artists in a variety of shared collaborative experiences. Community art is about valuing and building upon what’s already in place in the community, its diversity and the wisdom it has accumulated. It’s about engaging respectfully and patiently with the many layers of its residents, landscape and social systems. It’s about supporting arts creation that celebrates, commemorates, educates, and heals.
Downtown Eastside community art projects and partnerships (and their spin-offs and ripple effects in the community) are contributing to the creation of new art, new jobs, capacity building, and volunteer opportunities. Our projects, alongside the work of other artists, historians and activists, are contributing to the neighbourhood’s collective memory by documenting and celebrating its history, art and great stories – a legacy for our youth, the next generation of artists and for other communities facing similar challenges.
When its culture is lost, a community loses identity, dignity, self-respect, and hope. Community art projects help create new mirrors through which a community sees itself clearly reflected in its own light – rather than through the distorted images of other people’s mirrors. In re-discovering positive aspects of their community and culture, people recover a sense of ownership, pride and destiny – and the wisdom they need to protect their community and preserve it for future generations. This has been our experience as community members, as artists, and as human beings living in the Downtown Eastside.