Jan 15

HPR - This is My City - Interview with Aviva Zimmerman

by Wil Knoll · 2 comments

I’m unsure how to approach a few of the questions that I want to ask Aviva Zimmerman. They all surround her experience working on theatre with the homeless. But the issues seem to be hidden to me. I’m not sure how to start.

Zimmerman breaks the ice by letting me know I’m not alone in that feeling. She herself was not really exposed to it until moving to Toronto to pursue Acting at Ryerson. “It was very visible. Especially where I lived in the east end. I almost became desensitized to it because there was much so much of it.”

You would be hard pressed to describe her as desensitized now. Zimmerman is one of the Artist Mentors of This is Our City, a 12 month municipally funded outreach putting the tools of the theatre into the hands of our homeless population. The goal is to assist them in expressing identity, and creating discussion and awareness of their situation.

The literature that the project circulates is refreshing in it’s honesty. “This is My City does not pretend to be a solution to the homeless crisis. Rather, the project intends to enable homeless citizens the chance to speak on their own behalf.”

For the past year, Zimmerman has been participating in one capacity or another with This is My City. At last year’s High Performance Rodeo, she Assistant Directed under David Van Bell on “The Invisible Project”, which she describes as an intense process. The team did a number of mask workshops in homeless shelters, and interviewed a number of the population. This material became the foundation for a collective piece that was well recieved and the source of much discussion.

I wanted to know more about her experiences with This is My City, and the people and environment that it put her in. I wanted to know more about a side of the theatre I’ve never experienced. “Through my time in theatre school and beyond I’ve become engaged in theatre for social justice, creating theatre with a message. Sometimes guerrilla theatre. When I heard about it [This is My City] I jumped right on, this is the type of thing that I love to do.”

Zimmerman spends her time leading weekly drama workshops at The Mustard Seed. Beyond a break in the summer, it’s been almost every week since the beginning of 2009. The workshops have been varied, ranging from work on monologues, collective creation, to studying the Greeks. Workshops started downstairs, right in the mess-hall, where people walking in could eat or watch or participate. There was even a monthly open mic night for a while. Zimmerman’s group would perform and lead the rest of the shelter’s residents through improv.

Zimmerman has always been drawn to marginalized communities. After theatre school she wanted to know if her skills could help, if there was any benefit in what she could offer. She approached a shelter in Toronto and they were thrilled at the idea. “It’s where I learned people’s stories. Now, I don’t give money to every single person that I come across. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge, look someone in the eye, ask them how they are doing. Acknowledge them as a person.”

The main difference between working with professional theatre performers and her creative team now would be transience and commitment. Over the course of her year, individuals who are completely committed to the work would at times disappear. Caused by family issues, a lapse back out to the streets, or other issues Zimmerman could never be completely sure. “People that were very involved would get arrested. People that I would never expect, because they seem so calm and normal and everything is fine in drama class… I don’t know what else is going on with their lives.”

Zimmerman has never felt unsafe, but does note that it can be trying at times. “Challenges arise in any sort of collaborative environment.” I smile an insider’s smile, but she grounds me in the luxury of my life. “Some of these people are really in crisis, so sometimes their priority is not to maintain decorum in rehearsal. I got evicted, or I got laid off, or I missed this opportunity to get funding, or I got kicked out of where I was living.” Suddenly, having a bad morning has it’s baseline re-evaluated.

Most enlightening for me is the strengths that she speaks of in her group. She talks about how fearless they can be, how committed to the work and process. Zimmerman finds that professional theatre performers and the homeless population she has been working with both share the same joy at their core. Driven by the chance to create, communicate, and illustrate personal thoughts and feelings empowers. And it all comes together with a performance, that earns a sense of accomplishment for the performer.

On January 20th This is My City will be showcasing work, a celebration of the year long program. Zimmerman’s group with be performing as part of the Showcase Cabaret, in the W.R Castell Central Library at 6.30pm. I’ve committed myself to go. Listening to Zimmerman talk about her group seems to energize me somehow. “Because you have to remember” she tells me “theatre is fun. If it’s not fun you shouldn’t be doing it. You’re not doing it for the money.”

This is My City
All events are free and open to the public.

This is My City: Art Exhibition
January 18-24
The Municipal Atrium, the EPCOR CENTRE for the Performing Arts and the Glenbow Museum

This is My City: Showcase Cabaret
January 20, 6:30 pm
W.R. Castell Library, Lower Floor

This is My City: Open Art Workshops
January 23, 2:00-4:00 pm
Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre and The Mustard Seed Street Ministry
Call 403.604.3476 to register
[email protected]

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