Don’t believe everything you read. Particularly what you read about Condemned: A work in progress, musical theatre about tenants evicted from a rooming house slated for demolition, which had a three day run at Carnegie Hall last weekend. Whether you’re reading the CBC website, the Vancouver Courier newspaper, the glossy catalogue for the Heart of the City Festival of which Condemned was a part, or even the Program you were handed as you walked into the performance, be skeptical.
Ethel Whitty, Director of Carnegie Centre at Main & Hastings, wrote in Condemned program notes: "The presentation of Condemned - a work in progress is the first time that community members actually took it upon themselves to create their own opera." A reader is left with the impression that most of the participants in the opera are Downtown Eastside residents.
Prominent roles, even lead roles, in the opera were played by actors who don’t live in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. One woman owns a condo in Kitsilano. Another lives with her physician husband and two kids at an address nowhere near Main & Hastings. Another woman, along with her steady stable husband, is a homeowner in Burnaby; she’s the one who played the panhandler. For these people and others in the opera, the Downtown Eastside is Poverty Playland.
In discussing the opera with the Vancouver Courier, Whitty said, "There's a lot of talent in the area just itching to get out...." And just itching to get in. Look at the numbers. Forty-five percent of the actors-singers who performed in the opera this weekend live in other more affluent neighbourhoods. None of the seven opera band members live in the neighbourhood, and neither does the Music Director whom Whitty identified in both the festival catalogue and opera program as a “community member”. And despite Whitty’s claim in both these publications that the opera was written by "dedicated community writers", only two of the five listed, which included a writer/mentor, have DTES addresses.
Despite this reality, the CBC made the following statement in the article, “Opera tells tales of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside”, on their website:
"The cast of Condemned is mainly homeless and low-income people . . . "
There is only one performer in the cast who is homeless and he is homeless by choice. He is a man who reportedly has a Bachelor of Science degree and has held down decent jobs. But he’s now on a sort of spiritual quest and has detached himself from material things, including money. DTES residents talk about him as though he's one of the wonders of the world: “He doesn’t get welfare. He lives without money.” He eats at free places. He sleeps in shelters.
The CBC is accurate in claiming that many in the cast are low income. Certainly the DTES residents who acted and sang in the opera are low income, with the exception of one who works as a welfare advocate for a church. But they are the upper crust of the welfare poor, what an organizer at End Legislated Poverty referred to as "the high-functioning poor" -- the better educated poor with the social skills to negotiate their way through bureaucracy to get the highest welfare rates and to network themselves into social housing. In fact, all of these actors, with the exception of the welfare-free man, are securely ensconced in social housing apartments.
The CBC, in the sentence immediately following their announcement that the cast consisted primarily of homeless and low income people, introduced Debbie Gosselin -- the implication being that she fell into this category:
Debbie Gosselin is making her stage debut as a panhandler in the opera. "The
things that happen in this play happen every day in this community and I
just want people to know that what I'm acting is reality for people," she
Who is Debbie Gosselin? She is the homeowner in Burnaby.
Next the CBC introduced their website readers to opera performer Bharbara Gudmundson:
Poor and disabled herself, Gudmundson has seen her once-affordable
neighbourhood squeezed by condo development until she fears there is nothing
left for people like her. "As far as I've seen here, if you follow that path
just a little bit further, there is no room for us," she said.
Us? Gudmundson does not live on the Downtown Eastside. Gudmundson confirmed that fact this week to a Carnegie member who asked her point blank. But this has never been a secret: in October 2005, Gudmundson told the Vancouver Courier newspaper during an interview about federal election voting, that she no longer lived in the Downtown Eastside. She did at one time live in a social housing building across from Oppenheimer Park but now lives in the more fashionable Grandview Woodlands area, reportedly in social housing.
The portrayal of Gudmundson as poor and disabled to CBC website readers may have been an attempt to elicit a Dickens Tiny Tim image from their collective liberal unconscious, but it made Downtown Eastside residents roll our eyes. Whatever Gudmundson’s disability is, it was well hidden when she was prancing onto the opera stage. And it is well hidden when she occasionally shows up at Carnegie cabaret night to perform her Janis Joplin knock off. Gudmundson attended Simon Fraser University and is rich with intellectual capital. She has earned a reputation as an effective activist. Please adjust your set.
In addition to the above performers, the CBC reporter interviewed Patrick Foley. If the CBC – which appears to stand for Couldn’t Bother Checking – had asked Foley if he was a DTES resident, he would have told them that he lives in the Grandview Woodlands area.
Foley deserves credit though. He is the only outsider who has publicly acknowledged tensions about people from other neighbourhoods collapsing themselves into the DTES “community". At a recent Downtown Eastside Poets night at Carnegie, he read a piece he had written entitled, “What makes somebody a Downtown Eastsider?"
So it was not surprising too see Foley tread carefully when speaking to the CBC, presenting himself as an observer: “I can imagine some people who sleep on streets or viaducts ….[italics added]” Even when Foley mentioned his own experience, he avoided exaggerating to turn himself into a stand-in for the down and out; he accurately described himself as having been “semi-homeless – couch surfing and stuff….” It was the CBC that rounded his experience up to full blown homelessness: “Patrick Foley, one of the writers, has been homeless himself.”
One can hardly blame the CBC for assuming that the opera was teaming with homeless people. The opera’s organizers did little to discourage that impression. The opera's Director, Susanna Uchatius, wrote the following in the program:
At the first full cast rehearsal I read a piece by playwright Howard Baker
concerning "a woman from the street" attempting the work of theatre. It ends
with her stating, "this is art, it is hard work (and) because I found it hard I
felt honoured." More than anything this is what I witnessed again and
There was not one street person in the Carnegie opera.
One might call the guy who has detached himself from material things a street person, but it would be a stretch. He sits for hours practicing music on the third floor at Carnegie and volunteers in the Carnegie kitchen in exchange for food vouchers. He doesn't live his life on the streets.
Not only the CBC but the Vancouver Courier provided the public with information about the opera that left DTES residents rolling our eyes. According to the Courier, Music Director Earl Peach stated, "There are people who are participating in the production who are perennially sleep deprived. Some of what they go through is absolutely unimaginable.” In social housing?
Let’s get one thing straight. The social housing in which these performers live is some of the best and newest Canada has to offer. It is not American-style ghetto housing, not at all dangerous -- it is the new Lori Krill Housing Co-operative, Solheim Place, or the Four Sisters Housing Co-operative which once got a United Nations housing award. The only person who may have been sleep deprived is the guy who sleeps in shelters.
Peach claimed, according to the Courier, that he had the utmost respect “for artists in the Downtown Eastside" because they do their art while struggling with not only lack of adequate housing, but drug addiction and mental illness. Now there's a script that was written long before the opera. There isn’t a person working in the poverty industry who doesn’t know these lines; they better know them or they won't get hired again in the heart of the poverty industry, which is first and foremost about attracting funds.
For the record, there were no drug addicts performing in the opera. There is one middle-aged actor who "may have had a problems in that area when he was younger", according to another actor. And there is only one participant in the opera known to have a mental illness, an actor from the Grandview-Woodlands area who claims to be bi-polar, a diagnosis so commonly issued that it is becoming meaningless.
At the Carnegie Learning Centre this week, Brian, a retired Edmonton businessman who now lives on the DTES, listened to comments about the skewed portrayal of opera participants that had found its way into the media. He offered a simple explanation: “Politics is a blood sport.”
human being said...
Petty and bitter. Ill informed bias not worth the effort to read.
human being said...
I dont suppose this will reach posting but I must comment that your bitter fingerpointing is anything but constructive and less than worthwhile reading. Pity.
reliable sources said...
You’re speaking the language of a poverty pimp.
Your dismissal of concerns expressed in the article “CBC duped....” as “petty” and “not worth the effort to read” is one which is all too familiar to Downtown Eastside residents. Consistently, when DTES residents speak up, they are told to put their concerns in writing; then what they write is treated like it is not worth reading.
The recent experience at Carnegie of an Edmonton businessman who now lives on the DTES is typical. He drops into Carnegie to use the internet and buy a coffee and was twice told by the administration to put in writing his experiences of abuse at the hands of a coffee seller. This is the same coffee seller against whom the Carnegie has received countless previous complaints of misconduct ranging from verbal abuse, threats, and asking women to go home with him to watch pornography. Nothing is done. Finally somebody, took the situation into their own hands and punched the bully in the nose.
Anyone who attempts to seriously pursue issues of concern elicits hostility – not unlike that displayed in your comment.
Your claim that the article was "ill informed" is unsupportable though. Unlike the Carnegie 'agit-prop' opera, the article entitled "CBC duped...." relied exclusively on the voices of Downtown Eastside residents, some of whom have roots in the neighbourhood going back decades. Documented evidence also exists to support claims made in the article. The article was well researched, with even individuals inside the opera supplying information, when it was solicited.
There may be some accuracy to your claim that the article has a "bitter" tone. Downtown Eastside residents are definitely becoming bitter about the -- I'll steal your phrase here -- "ill informed bias" fed to the media on our behalf.
There is one area of bitterness that was not touched upon in the "CBC duped...." article, though. That is the bitterness about the fact that the ideological arm of the Carnegie Centre is always in full swing while basic services are allowed to crumble. You should hear the bitterness expressed by Downtown Eastside residents when they arrive at Carnegie to use the Computer lab or the Learning Centre and find the doors locked. (People are desperate for computer services and put their names on long waiting lists to get access to a computer for an hour.)
The Learning Centre alone was closed two Mondays and two Saturdays last month. The roughly $750,000 worth of staff which sits across the hall from the Learning Centre do little to prevent such semi-regular closures of services. They simply walk around low income people who sit, stand, or lie in the hall outside closed doors in the hope that the door might be opened eventually. (Once a Carnegie Board member, Bob, unlocked the Learning Centre door in front of people who had been waiting in the hall for an hour; he walked in to get himself a prop for 'agit-prop' theatre in which he was performing, then he left and closed the door again in the faces of DTES residents in the hall.) The taxpayer has already paid for these services. I suspect the taxpayer would be a little bitter if he or she knew how often people were locked out.
reliable sources said...
At the time the response to your comment was written, I was not aware that you worked for a major federal government funder of arts projects. This was brought to my attention later.
I didn’t realize that your comment that the “CBC duped” article was “not worth the effort to read” was a response to an e-mail you had received just minutes earlier from an individual on the Downtown Eastside who had specifically requested that you read the CBC article.
The fact that a major government funder would consider an article about duping of the public via a publicly funded project to be “not worth the effort to read”, leads to an obvious conclusion: voters got rid of the Liberals, but we did not get rid of their bureaucrats.
Leona Shapeshifter said...
I am curious to know how the anonymous "Reliable Sources" managed to get so much personal information (incorrect though it may be in some cases) about my friends and neighbours and our work in the community.
Leona Shapeshifter said...
I am curious to know how the anonymous "Reliable Sources" managed to get so much personal information about my friends and neighbours without revealing him/herself.
I think it's the big guy in the Learning Centre every day, obviously, now that timetender.ca is defunct.
Your assumptions about mental illness point to the fact that you know very little on the matter. Your critque is weak and that is being generous. It seems to me that any good that is done often becomes the target for armchair critics. Grinch
Seymour Butts said...
reliable source I would be interested in discussing the opera over lunch at Carnegie my treat. I would be interested in finding out the answer to leona shapeshifter's question. I hope you are free on Tuesday because I really enjoy Hamburger day. I'm not kidding about meeting you. Let's do lunch.
Terri Williams said...
Robin, the only reason you diss the opera is because no one asked you to help write it. You are wrong. ALL the cast, musicians, director of music, writers & the writer/mentor, ARE members of this community and part of our extended family. Can you tell me of anyone from Shaughnessy who would dare to enter the doors of the Carnegie Community Centre, let alone be MEMBERS?
Everything in the opera HAS happened down here, from hotel closures, to police brutality, to the crooked landlords, to the poor & disabled being ousted from their only homes. The only thing not mentioned is the fact that 75 people have gone missing from this (Canada's deadliest) neighbourhood since Willy Pickton was arrested. Police still don't care and have a long list of crooked reasons why they will not take a report from anyone with real information about the abductions that continue to happen every welfare week. It is the police who are 'delusional'.
Don't you live in the West End?
reliable sources said...
TO: leona shapeshifter
You write that some of the personal information in the article was "incorrect". Not one claim made in that article has ever been refuted.
Your question about methods used to collect information can't be answered too directly. Suffice to say that all of the information in the article was provided by longterm Downtown Eastside residents with intimate knowledge of the Carnegie Centre and the agit-prop opera. (A couple of them have come forward with leona shapeshifter's real name.) Facts were double checked.
reliable sources said...
There are more comments from Downtown Eastsiders about the article, "CBC duped...." on the news site NowPublic.com, in the Vancouver section.
I'm still waiting for you to respond to my invitation for lunch. Come on be real stop hiding behind you blog. Lunch is still my treat. Leave a message for Seymour B with the Carnegie information desk with a number where I can reach you so we can arrange a time to meet. I'm looking forward to meeting you.
though some of your facts are wrong, i can agree there has been some hype created that leans to a false impression. anyone who knows the DTES, or bothers to try, can see that the Carnegie is the country club of the neighborhood, and that those who are homeless to the most desperate degree and not allowed through the doors, but can be found at other agencies that provide services for these individuals. now, i'd really like to see the shaunessey types in those places.
reliable sources said...
You mention, "i can agree there has been some hype created that leans to a false impression." Thanks. That's what the article was intended to demonstrate.
You qualify the above statement with, "though some of your facts are wrong." The facts are not wrong. Witnesses who were directly involved in the opera as well as some who are familiar with the Carnegie scene and the Downtown Eastside community have confirmed the accuracy of all facts. Certainly, the fact that there was just one homeless person in the opera -- a man who is homeless by choice -- has been repeatedly confirmed.
Just one minor fact in the article was demonstrated to be inaccurate: the identification of the opera's director, Susanna Uchatius, was a member of Vancouver Moving Theatre. She wasn't. While directing the opera she did have a working relationship with Vancouver Moving Theatre's Terry Hunter and Savannah Walling though. Vancouver Moving Theatre's Hunter was the Artistic Director of this year's Heart of the City Festival of which the opera was part -- he stood up in front of the audience during at least one of the performances of the opera at Carnegie and introduced it. This led to the misidentification of Uchatius as being a part of Vancouver Moving Theatre.
In the introduction in the opera program written by Carnegie Director Ethel Whitty -- just above the introduction written by Susanna Uchatius -- Vancouver Moving Theatre was identified as having not only co-produced the first community play but carried out subsequent "evaluations" that had lead to such collaborative efforts as this year's opera. Hence, the confusion.
The misidentification of Susanna Uchatius as a member of Vancouver Moving Theatre did not in any way undermine the argument made in the article. It was a rather insignificant inaccuracy. But the inaccuracy was immediately corrected. And any other fact that could have been demonstrated to be inaccurate would also have been corrected -- but none have been demonstrated to be inaccurate.
funny, the inaccuracy i did point out, you chose not to post, which was the one pointing out that mike does not volunteer in the carnegie kitchen, but that people often bring him food for being who he is. maybe i didn't post it correctly.
reliable sources said...
You mention that I may have not gotten your original posting of the above comment, that you may not have posted it correctly. I didn't get it.
I agree with your comment that people often bring food to the guy I referred to in the article as "homeless by choice". People regularly see him eating his free food on the third floor at Carnegie. You 'out' this guy as Mike, which indicates that my account of his life was accurate enough that you could identify him.
But your claim that "mike does not volunteer in the carnegie kitchen" is simply not accurate. He does occasionally volunteer in the kitchen. Actually, on the weekend the opera was playing, Mike was doing some volunteer work in the kitchen with a long white apron on.
In the sentence you're referring to, I also mentioned that this homeless-by-choice guy "sits for hours practicing music on the third floor at Carnegie". The point I was using this info to support was that: "He doesn't live his life on the streets."
We can fine tune every detail, but the basic point I was making does not change.