When volunteers at First Unitarian Universalist Church first got the idea to partner with a local artist through the Winnipeg Arts Council’s WITH ART program, they had a vision of the end result.
“We were thinking a sculpture or something for the grounds,” says Brian Klowak, a member of the River Heights area church and long-time volunteer with its food bank. “But we wanted to do something that was socially aware and socially conscious. It made sense for us, as a food bank, to do something that would have an impact on a person-to-person level.”
WITH ART matches local professional artists with Winnipeg-based community groups to work collaboratively on an art project.
When the First Unitarian volunteers met local playwright Hope McIntyre, and heard her ideas for developing a play about food bank use based on input from clients, they saw an opportunity to create a dynamic piece of art with potential to create social change.
“When we saw the theatre aspect, we thought it would be interesting because you could expand on it, take it out to the community,” says Margaret, another volunteer with the Church’s food bank. “This is something that could have a ripple effect.”
The outcome is Empty, a play that takes a human and humorous look at poverty and hunger, weaving together a wide range of experiences.
The process began two years ago, explains McIntyre.
“I started going to the food bank, first volunteering to get a sense of how it worked,” she says. “The idea of community was very clear, there wasn’t a distinction between volunteer and participant.”
The food bank at First Unitarian was established in 1991 to distribute food provided by Winnipeg Harvest. (It’s one of Harvest’s 320 community sites and part of a network that distributed almost 11 million pounds of food last year.) Every Thursday morning, it serves up to 70 clients, many of whom begin lining up well in advance of its 6am opening and stay on to share a coffee and socialize, read the newspaper or have space to reflect.
“It has become a haven from the rest of their lives, some peace and quiet,” says Klowak. He adds that many clients help out by setting up tables and chairs and assisting in the kitchen. “They do everything we do as volunteers,” he says.
As McIntyre got to know the clients and volunteers, and introduced them to her project, she found many eager participants.
“So many people were so willing to share their stories,” she says. “Sometimes I would sit down with someone for an hour. They wanted to share their stories, but also their perspectives on food banks. I felt honoured.”
Out of those interviews, she began crafting the script, compiling real life experiences to create fictional characters. She held drama sessions at the food bank, encouraging clients and volunteers to take part and offer feedback. After all, she says, when it comes to food banks, “they’re really the experts.”
“There was something very empowering and magical because it was so genuine,” says McIntyre of the sessions. As the play neared completion, clients and volunteers also participated in a staged reading for an audience that included church members and the arts community.
“It was an interesting process to have them involved in the reading because they’re not trained actors. Some were very nervous, but it was very rewarding,” she says. For some participants, the experience has sparked a deeper interest in theatre.
While the consultation, research and writing were undertaken through WITH ART, a recent grant from The Winnipeg Foundation is helping support public performances of the play. It debuted in September at Fem Fest and additional community and school shows are in the works. An important component of each performance is the dialogue it sparks among the audience. (A discussion guide will also be developed for classroom use.)
“The whole idea is to dispel myths about why people come to a food bank,” says Margaret.
McIntyre has first-hand experience in seeing those stereotypes quashed.
“I was amazed at the diversity of the participants and their stories, the reasons they’re there. It’s just so wide-ranging, the issues. It all comes back to poverty, but the cause of that poverty isn’t black and white, there’s no quick fix,” she says.
No quick fix, but there is opportunity to raise awareness and build empathy through innovative projects like this one. McIntyre hopes Empty will be performed in other communities and used as an educational tool.
Already, the play has had positive impact on the food bank clients and has been personally and professionally significant to McIntyre.
“As an artist, it was a great experience to do the kind of work I want to do: community-based art for social change,” she says. “I continue to volunteer [at the food bank] because I feel part of that community now, even though the writing process is complete.”
This article was originally published in Working Together — A Magazine of The Winnipeg Foundation. To download the Fall 2012 edition, click on http://cms.tng-secure.com/file_download.php?fFile_id=23061