Andrew Kushnir has a confession to make. He can’t stay away from performance art that puts him in touch with his own ignorance, fears, and frustrations.
And when the self-professed physical, metaphorical, and imagistic theatre junkie got the itch to pick up a camera and exchange dialogue with a youth shelter in the city’s North East corner, the playwright was certain the material would give him one hell of a story.
The end result is a docu-drama entitled The Middle Pool
which makes return to stage at the Berkeley Street Theatre. It’s been described as a reflecting pool in which the verbatim text takes audiences to different places.
Socio-political theatre may not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, Andrew Kushnir avoids the preachy pitfalls and extends a warm invitation to examine the misunderstood and marginalized.
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What was your research objective when you set out to visit a Rexdale youth shelter to speak to people about their lives and experiences?
I felt compelled to reach out to the residents because I was dissatisfied with my own apprehensions about engaging with this community.
I was intimidated by them—by the challenges they were facing, by what I had heard of their neighbourhood. I thought they’d be tough. I thought they’d be fragile. And I felt that all these pre-conceptions were unacceptable. They could be all those things but not because I simply decided they were.
I needed to meet these young people. And I felt that through a theatrical experience, other people could (and should) meet them too.
During talkbacks, the company routinely addresses the meaning of the show’s title which you insist has ‘multiple perfect responses.’ What is this ‘middle place?’
It can be interpreted as the physical shelter – the place between homes. It can be the psychological reality of these youth – they’re at a crossroad, or in a kind of limbo. It can be about hope – when asked about hope in the battle against youth homelessness, one caseworker told me “I’m in the middle on that one.”
I really appreciate the possibility that the “middle place” is the theatrical experience itself. When the play is unfolding the venue becomes a “middle place.” It isn’t the shelter and it isn’t quite the world outside–-it’s somewhere in between.
This creation which features 16 homeless young people and 4 social workers is the result of extensive video interviews. It’s been said you walked away a different person than you were when you arrived.
The playwright is one of the characters in the piece so we experience the effect on the outsider-artist as the play unfolds.
Without giving too much away, I’d say the experience both haunted me and forced me to change. As an artist, it confirmed for me that art can and should address issues of justice in our communities.
450 pages of transcripts were abstracted from those interviews which resulted in The Middle Place’s 50 page script. Is it true you knew exactly what you were looking for?
Yes, there may be 450 pages but the play largely revealed itself prior to transcribing a single word from any given interview.
The playwriting truly began in the interview room when I was sitting across from my subject in conversation. There is a hyper-attentiveness that comes with engaging with a perfect stranger (think of a blind date) and that state of vulnerability and tension makes you very susceptible to moments of being punctured or surprised.
They were moments where what I believed about that young person was altered or deconstructed. The crafting of the script was telling the story of those moments.
There must have been one interview in particular from this experience that became a standout symbol in The Middle Place?
In a play that has no superfluous voices – every one of the play’s characters seized me in some way.
I can say that Nevaeh and Kaaliyah (pseudonyms given to them for the play) became two notable residents. They were important to me in that they most potently represented the forces of order and chaos, hope and hopelessness in this shelter world.
I vividly remember on both occasions of finishing my interviews with those young women, thinking “This is why I’m here.”
In August 2009, you performed the play for staff and residents in the Rexdale youth shelter. What do you remember about that special event?
It was the defining moment for the piece—to experience their response, their catharsis with some of this material.
One of the tougher young men from the shelter (not interviewed for the play) had watched the piece very quietly, arms-crossed, and ball cap sitting low. It was hard to tell if he was engaging with it, so we approached him afterwards.
We asked him what he thought and he said: “It shows that we feel. People don’t think we do.”
Upwards of 10,000 homeless youth wander the streets of Toronto in any given year. Half of which have never finished high school, the other half suffering from mental health or addictions. What do you want playgoers take away after seeing this show?
The response I hope for is that people have a personal experience. This is not voyeurism. We are not detached from the lives depicted on stage.
As director Alan Dilworth pointed out, the play holds up a mirror to us all. So, I’d be very happy if people walked away asking themselves “What is my relationship to those youth in the streets?”
THE MIDDLE PLACE by Andrew Kushnir * Feb. 14 – Mar. 19, 2011 * Berkley Street Theatre 26 Berkley Street, Toronto, ON * Tickets $22.00 – $49.00 416-368-3110 www.canadianstage.com * CAST Akosua Amo Adem, Antonio Cayonne, Jessica Greenberg, Andrew Kushnir, Kevin Walker DIRECTOR Alan Dilworth SET & COSTUMES Jung-Hye Kim LIGHTING Kimberley Purtell SOUND DESIGN Thomas Ryder Payne CHOREOGRAPHER Monica Dotter STAGE MANAGER Kinnon Elliott