STEPHEN’S TALK – COMMUNITY ARTS COUNCIL AGM
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 25, 2010
(to follow Aboriginal greeting and acknowledgement of territory)
I would like to tell you a little about my involvement in the arts, how it has affected me, and how I believe the arts can affect a community such as the Downtown Eastside.
I grew up in Lytton, British Columbia,and moved to Vancouver in 1978, while in my early 20s. In 1992, I moved to the Downtown Eastside. I found some aspects of life in this area frightening at first, but soon made friends and became comfortable here.
In 2003, the building that houses the Carnegie Centre reached 100 years of age and the Carnegie Centre, headed at that time by Michael Clague, decided to celebrate that milestone anniversary throughout the year. The first big event was a parade, held in April of 2003. Friends of mine encouraged me to participate, which I did, along with many community members who became involved in preparing for this event. The parade took place over a four block stretch of Hastings Street and the celebration included everything from horse-drawn carriages, a pipe band and stilt walkers to a mummy float, bubble blowing, poetry reading and drum troupes.
Later that year, our community, with the support of the Carnegie Centre, the expertise of Terry Hunter and Savannah Walling of Vancouver Moving Theatre Company, and the assistance and efforts of many other organizations and individuals, came together to stage “In the Heart of a City, the Downtown Eastside Community Play” at the Japanese Hall. I had the privilege of portraying the character called “The Old One”, a First Nations man with memories of the Downtown Eastside, its stories and its residents, both past and present.
Putting on the community play was a huge undertaking. Most of the participants, like myself, were community members without prior experience as actors, singers, makers of costumes and props,etc. There were many challenges, and putting together a production of such magnitude was a risk, there was a lot at stake for our community. However, with a great deal of work and the support and expertise of a number of professionals, we did it!
My experience in the community play has led to other acting opportunities in the years since. I have been involved in such productions as The Shadows Project,Crime and Punishment and MinotaurDreams. I have also been inspired by our community to write poetry discussing the issues facing us in this part of Vancouver that is so often described as a place of poverty and despair but is truly a community of great warmth, acceptance and strength, despite its problems. Currently, I am a member of a community choir and a traditional drum group.
I became involved in the community play for several reasons, including wanting to change the attitudes of people who discriminate against Aboriginal people, to learn from the community, and to change the “fear factor” of those outside the community. I am a board member of an organization of Aboriginal people that is based in Victoria. The other board members feared coming here for a conference and only came after a lot of persuasion. I believe that kind of attitude can be changed by our community building bridges through the arts.
Taking part in the community play and the other projects and plays since then has increased my connections within, and knowledge of, the Downtown Eastside community and has also enabled me to meet people from other communities in Vancouver who are in the arts, or interested in the arts. I am proud to represent Aboriginal and disabled people and feel I have gained a voice to speak about the issues we face both within our community and in the larger community.
I think that the opportunity to take part in arts initiatives in our community gives people a voice to express their views, pride in their cultures and an opportunity to reach out and connect with others within and outside our area. The discipline and commitment required to take on a role in a theatre project helps to build dignity, self-confidence and pride and, with most residents on limited incomes, any monetary compensation is important and appreciated.
My involvement in Downtown Eastside arts projects has provided me with an opportunity for personal growth and skills development, has developed my understanding of people and issues in our community and has allowed me to meet and work with professional artists. I believe the Community Arts Council initiative for the Downtown Eastside will play a vital role in bringing together and strengthening our multi-ethnic, multi-talented community.