Calgary, home to The Invisible Project:
What would it be like to exist in a community thousand’s strong and have no one even notice? The Invisible Project director, David van Belle, a self proclaimed “all over Canada boy”, has been based out of Calgary the last 10 years and is challenging Calgarians to look beyond their hedged communities with his latest performance piece.
Completing his MFA in directing at the University of Calgary in 2001, he went on to be a part of One Yellow Rabbit theatre ensemble for seven years which, in his words “changed my life, changes my aesthetics, made me the artist that I am today.” Coming out of a traditional theatre base, One Yellow Rabbit had stretched and bounced this artist’s performance boundaries. The ensemble based concept of OYR is unlike most theatre companies in that it isn’t the search for the perfect script that they are looking for, but the search for the perfect whatever. Be it space, script, quote, music, thought, dance, artist, be it anything at all. It only takes that one thing to start the rabbit hole dive into a creation physicality and celebrated in any sort of space. Jump to the High Performance Rodeo, David van Belle’s piece is all about our city and the space we create within it. A quick survey yields sky scrapers and wide city blocks, prosperous business people walking in and out of Starbucks, but there is much more to Calgary than just these steel structures.
Belle was invited to work on a performance based project by Dawn Ford who works with the city of Calgary and is in the process of a large project entitled “This is My City”. A 12 month long project that incorporates The Arts into Calgary’s homeless population to expand information and views about what it is to be homeless in Calgary and what determining factors there are to achieving any real success in changing the way thousands of people live.
Working with a team of performers and rehearsing in the Calgary Drop-in Centre, Belle’s performance piece, The Invisible Project was a ground up experience. Working from September, Belle started by sitting in the mask making workshops run by Douglas Wit, a mask maker and former homeless community member in Toronto, at the Mustard Seed and the Calgary Drop in Center (the two largest shelters in Calgary). Belle took the work that Witt had been doing and transferred it into a performance, to bridge the gap between the performance and the audience. As Belle describes “Performance creation work is always sort of a, a process where you go from not knowing a whole lot to knowing least a little bit more.” It was through these workshops that Belle was able to meet and interact with members of the homeless community and record their stories which became what he described as “the spine of the piece”. Created, rehearsed and tested at the Calgary Drop-in center, Belle and his actors immersed themselves into this community the most effective way possible.
“Every morning we would come in and we would move beds out of the way and stack them up and we would rehearse in the space and then at the end of our day we would put the beds back and then women would sleep in there at night.” Belle called this an interesting environment to work in, an interesting environment to live in as well. Belle explained that as a company of artists with the intent to reflect this community, they tried to engage the community as much as possible. Serving lunch, sorting clothes and doing video interviews with the clients of the Calgary drop-in center offered a unique perspective into the lives of a people who are rarely looked at too closely. “We would bring that information back into the room and let it shape the work we were doing.” The movement pieces reflected the patterns seen in the center, the sound cues was recordings done of the clients at the Center playing music and singing, “basically put it together like a collage”. Belle didn’t believe it was authentic to just tell a story about “Bob the homeless guy” and rightfully so, the people within that community seem to have even less patience with feel good, sentimental stories. The script and performance was based on direct transcripts of the interviews done, with every “ah” and “um” kept in to ensure that the impression on the performance was nothing short of he truth and that every inflection in every single word was transformed into a single voice.
“The reason why I called it The Invisible Project was because I felt like with the homeless community there is a big problem with invisibility in that the general population doesn’t want to look at the homeless community, and homeless community in itself wants to stay invisible as a survival strategy.” However, this lends itself to the consequence of not seeing the problem for what it really is. Belle found that by working through performance to give this community a voice, instead of trying to make a political stand, he could present to Calgarians what it was truly like to be homeless. Belle wanted to give the audience the opportunity to figure out what to do with it. To take what they heard, felt and smelled away with them and choose what they wanted to do about it. Aptly, Belle described to me that he encouraged his actors to be “theatrical scientists”.
To him acting is to be a communicator, and this project allowed him to communicate what the experience of being homeless was like. Unlike large and loud political stands and self aware performance pieces, The Invisible Project was merely a mirror reflecting Calgarians back onto themselves, regardless of whether they liked what they saw or not.
Belle described some of the most uncomfortable parts of the show were in the times when the characters go through their backgrounds. Often hitting close to home, where in a city of a million plus people and over one thousand clients at the Calgary Drop-in center alone the stories heard are diverse but all too many clients have similar backgrounds. Past home owners, men and women with stable jobs and a steady income, people who lost it all too quickly and then had to reach out for something, anything to keep them afloat. As one performer describes walking past the center from Bridgeland on his way to work and at this point in the performance, Belle says you can see a visible chill go through the audience and a collective thought bubble rises where at once everyone realizes it really could be them.
The Invisible city is running currently through the High Performance Rodeo, January 21st and 28th at Calgary city hall. Show times vary but phone to One Yellow Rabbits box office at 403 264 3224 to get more information. The Calgary Drop-in center and The Mustard Seed are always looking for volunteers and by giving something to another community; you are only enhancing your own.
(This article is one written to University of Lethbridge paper The Meliorist, look for it in print in the up coming issue)