January 7 – 19, 2014
collected and edited by Joel Bernbaum
Home Is A Beautiful Word is sold out but we do have 50 pay-what-you-can tickets available for each performance. We release them 1 hour prior to the performance. Please line up early.
A kaleidoscopic view of a subject about which everyone has an opinion and almost no one has an answer. This very special project was commissioned by the Belfry Theatre, and playwright/journalist Joel Bernbaum spent over a year interviewing hundreds of people in Victoria about homelessness. Conversations in grade four classrooms, senior citizens homes, businesses, homeless shelters and on doorsteps have been transcribed and edited into a fascinating play: a portrait of homelessness in our community, in the words of our community. Moving, enlightening, funny and surprising.
ASL Performance – January 12 at 2pm
An American Sign Language (ASL) interpreted performance for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Certified interpreters, standing to the left side of the stage, interpret the script and language used by the actors at the same time it is being performed.
VocalEye Performance – January 19 at 2 pm
Audio describers provide descriptions of the visual elements of the show, allowing people with low vision to enjoy the theatrical experience without missing any of the details. Following the performance there is a touch tour of the set.
Times Colonist (Victoria) – Saturday, January 14, 2012
Homelessness verbatim; Joel Bernbaum is writing a play. The dialogue will come exclusively from taped interviews
BY ADRIAN CHAMBERLAIN
It’s a safe bet most playwrights are fast asleep at the crack of dawn.
Not Joel Bernbaum.
On Friday mornings for two months, Bernbaum woke up at 4 a. m.
He’d gulp down an apple or a banana. By 5: 30 a. m. he’d have joined Rev. Al Tysick, the city’s best‐known street worker, on his daily rounds visiting Victoria’s homeless.
Tysick, working with the Dandelion Society, would rouse people living on the street, some sleeping in doorways. He’d make sure they were all right, offering a ciggie, a coffee or a donut. And then he’d introduce Bernbaum, a lanky, fresh‐faced 30‐year‐old.
Bernbaum is in the midst of a project never before attempted in Victoria. It may be unique to Canada.
Commissioned by the Belfry Theatre, he’s creating a play about homelessness, using only taped interviews as dialogue. It’s called verbatim theatre. Every single word in the yet‐to‐ be‐completed play will have been, at some point, uttered by a real person.
He’s casting a wide net. Over the past year, Bernbaum has interviewed not only people living on the streets, but policemen, business owners and social workers. He’s also talked to students and teachers in elementary and high schools. And he’s done “streeters,” that is, quizzed passersby on street corners.
He may knock on your door, too. Bernbaum is now visiting various Greater Victoria neighbourhoods, sitting down with homeowners and chatting about homelessness.
He has, amazingly, completed about 500 interviews. Bernbaum estimates he has 3,000 pages of transcripts. It’s a huge task. A team of students from the University of Victoria’s department of Applied Theatre is helping with transcriptions.
Some Victoria residents ‐ perhaps wondering if Bernbaum will ask about their relationship with God or sell them carpet‐cleaning ‐ have closed the door in his face. Yet, overall, he’s found a surprising number of people will talk about homelessness with a complete stranger.
“Overwhelmingly,” Bernbaum said, “people just want to share their story.”
The play is to be titled Home is a Beautiful Word. An in‐progress version will be performed as part of the Belfry Theatre’s Spark Festival in March. Artistic director Michael Shamata said the finished version of Home is a Beautiful Word will be included in the Belfry’s 2013‐ 14 season.
Bernbaum, a Saskatoon native, uses the phrase “verbatim theatre journalism” to describe his project. He seems well placed to create it. He holds both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in journalism from Carleton University. His MA thesis was What They Said: Verbatim Theatre’s Relationship to Journalism. Bernbaum is also an emerging playwright who completed a theatre program at the Canadian College of Performing Arts.
Verbatim theatre is an interesting form, with origins dating back to the wide availability of portable tape recorders in the 1960s. Of late, we’ve seen a fair bit of this style of theatre in Victoria. A year ago, the Victoria Theatre Guild staged a powerful version of The Laramie Project.
One of the most famous examples of verbatim theatre, this drama was based on interviews conducted after the 1998 hate killing of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming.
In 2011, the Belfry hosted The Middle Place, a verbatim theatre piece about young people living in homeless shelters. Last year the company also hosted the verbatim play Kismet: One to One Hundred, based on interviews with 100 Canadians. In 2009, Victoria’s Uno Fest offered another well‐known play in this style, My Name is Rachel Corrie, which used the diaries and emails of the late Rachel Corrie, an American student and protester.
When it comes to verbatim theatre, there are varying levels of “purity.” The Laramie Project is arguably less pure, as it’s based on the interviewers’ own journal entries and news reports as well as interviews. Bernbaum says his process is about as pure as it gets. He vows to use only words uttered by the people he’s interviewed.
“I wanted to use real voices from the community. What better way is there to address the issue?”
Tysick says it was Bernbaum’s integrity and genuine interest in helping that convinced him to introduce the playwright to the homeless. Tysick often gets approached in this manner, sometimes by graduate students writing a paper. He doesn’t always say yes. He’ll allow outsiders into the street world only if they truly want to help the homeless (as opposed to scoring a good mark).
“People on the street are not just animals to be looked at,” Tysick said.
In person, Bernbaum comes across as moral and earnest, fired up about the possibility of theatre as a vehicle for social change. It’s unsurprising to learn he’s a past volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. He once helped build a house in Malaysia.
With Home is a Beautiful Word, he’s keen to step aside and let others have their say. More than once, Bernbaum downplayed his role in the project, making it appear he’s merely the catalyst for his play.
“This is a lot bigger than me; we’re facilitating voices that have not been heard,” he said. “This piece is really by the citizens of Victoria.”
Of course, there’s no way an artist ‐ whether it be a writer, a playwright or a documentary maker ‐ can avoid leaving his fingerprints on any given creation. With documentary‐style theatre, the results may not be as unbiased as one might think. Someone is doing the editing; someone is selecting what’s to stay in and what’s to be left out.
There’s another limitation, too. Bernbaum suggested to me his door‐knocking interviews provide an accurate reflection of what Victorians think about homeless. I countered by saying it provides a good reflection of what those willing to talk to him think about homelessness.
Still, the immediacy and vast scope of Bernbaum’s unorthodox project will no doubt give us insight into our city’s homelessness problem like nothing else.
Anxious to protect the anonymity of his sources, Bernbaum didn’t want to speak specifically about their stories, or let the Times Colonist photograph or interview these people.
When I asked Bernbaum what he’d learned since embarking on this project, he didn’t hesitate.
He’s learned to be less judgmental about others. Not just those living on the street ‐ everybody.
“I realized how silly it is to judge,” Bernbaum said. “It’s kind of pointless. You have to stay open… You can’t really predict what’s inside someone’s head, whether they’re on the street or not.”
Our thanks to the Times Colonist for permission to reprint this article.