This is a story of stories. And like all classic tales, each has an inciting incident followed by a turning point at which the hero steps onto a new path. They sidle or charge or struggle forward to a point from which there’s no turning back—they’re committed to the new path. Through, around and over obstacles, they continue toward their goal: safety, a grail, a job, a reunion. Maybe a home. A script.
And then, it seems, all is lost. The hero is, apparently, insurmountably far from their goal.
But lovers of story know—or hope—that that’s not the end.
In one story, Yasmine Kandil, associate professor of Theatre at UVic, has reached the point of no return. With co-principal investigator Catherine Costigan, professor of psychology, she is launching into a three-year applied-theatre project with almost $200,000 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
In the arts-based world, such large pockets of money are rare, but indicate the high value of such work, especially in community-based settings.
Of course this didn’t come out of a blue sky. Kandil began to develop a new applied-theatre method while at Brock University before she joined UVic. Collecting real stories of immigrants and refugees about their lived experiences, Kandil created short plays to be performed by students, even anticipating the future and writing in happy endings for each of the participants. That, she says, has been transformative for the group of newcomers.
“People don’t want to be seen as pitiful or needing help,” she says. “They want others to see their rich culture, what they bring to the community, that they are resilient, productive citizens, worthy of an equal share in society.”
Building a community partnership
The imagined finales also brought welcome resolutions for people whose paths are still uncertain. A Sudanese man, for example, who desperately missed the Nile had a (theatrical) opportunity to return to his river and say farewell.
Kandil partnered with the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria (ICA) on Homecoming, a similar project with LGBTQ2S+ immigrants and refugees that aimed to educate and build empathy towards this group by the settlement workers who serve them, and who mainly come from conservative backgrounds.
“Many of the staff come from traditional cultures,” she explains. “By having theatre students perform the real stories of some of the LGBTQ2S+ clients, we hoped to help the staff become more comfortable and accepting, and to give the clients a sense of belonging.”
It worked. As one employee reported afterward, “It was like a window opened [for me].”
Research/creative project grant
Later that year, Kandil successfully applied for UVic’s internal Research/Creative Project Grant, seed funding to help scholars prepare to get larger external funding. That’s when Kandil and Costigan put their heads together to develop a theatre project with data collection that would allow them to evaluate the outcomes. The funds allowed them to pay participants in a two-day workshop and assess whether the project succeeded in helping them to achieve a sense of belonging and the audience to see immigrants and refugees in a new light.
The data collection is important for more than their own satisfaction. ICA is one of very few immigrant- and refugee-support agencies in Canada that has an arts program. Data will give them evidence to support applications for sustained government funding.
For the new project, Costigan is applying intergroup contact theory and social cohesion theory to design the data-collection and impact-assessment portions of the research. To evaluate whether the project has an effect on the storytellers’ sense of belonging and of self-worth, the researchers will use focus groups and questionnaires before the workshops begin, after they’re over and one year later.
Kandil and Costigan hope that the 16 weekly workshops will help 12 ICA and Vancouver Island Counselling Centre for Immigrants and Refugees clients develop a stronger sense of belonging within the group, to the Greater Victoria community and in Canada.
Then Kandil will write plays based on those stories, adding “embellished” conclusions that provide a vision for the people whose stories they are and for the broader audiences who will see the plays performed by UVic theatre students next summer.
That’s the definition of “celebratory theatre,” Kandil explains. “The participants benefit and the audience learns.”
The customized resolutions wrap up each individual’s journey with a vision of what their life might become here in Canada, Kandil says. Whether it’s a job, saying goodbye to a beloved homeland, feeling like a member of the workshop team or Victoria or Canada . . . .
“We give them,” Kandil says, “a happy ending.”
—Story by Rachel Goldsworthy, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation