Theatre in times of homelessness

6 April 2020
By Susan Wyndham, SSSHARC Journalist in Residence
Milk Crate Theatre has worked with homeless people in Sydney for 20 years, enabling them to tell their stories while gaining confidence, social skills and community. But while the number and needs of the homeless grow and funds for the arts shrink, how does a small non-profit group measure its value and develop a business model to support its work?

Margot Politis, Milk Crate Theatre’s artistic director, put the conundrum bluntly: “Why would someone experiencing homelessness give a crap about theatre? We get that their first needs are food and shelter. But what if self-actualisation through writing, movement and performance gives them more confidence for going to Centrelink, and gives them a bit of space in their lives?”

These were the questions at the heart of a Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC) Huddle, “Re-storying homelessness through the Arts”, in November 2019. Organised by Robyn Ewing, co-director of the new CREATE Centre at the University of Sydney and professor emerita of Teacher Education and the Arts, the one-day intensive group discussion was attended by arts researchers and educators, performing arts practitioners and potential philanthropists.

Homelessness is an Australian problem

Politis and Milk Crate’s CEO, Jodie Wainwright, explained their challenge: The 2016 Australian census recorded 116,000 homeless people or 50 for every 10,000 of population (27 per cent more than in 2011). Only 6 per cent of those people sleep rough, but half the 200-300 participants in their four annual workshops have multiple problems such as unstable housing, addiction, disability and mental health support needs.

“We believe we can assist in reducing pressure on mental health services and hospitals, and mitigation of mental health episodes,” said Wainwright. “Our social worker may pick up an issue and people can have a meal while they’re there for art. People come to us for an enjoyable experience and we can link them into other services.”

Margot Politis (left), Artistic Director of Milk Crate Theatre and Jodie Wainwright, CEO of Milk Crate Theatre speaking at the SSSHARC Huddle

Margot Politis (left), Artistic Director of Milk Crate Theatre and Jodie Wainwright, CEO of Milk Crate Theatre speaking at the SSSHARC Huddle

However, when it comes to government funding, she said, “We fall between two portfolios”. Create NSW contributes to Milk Crate’s $650,000 annual budget but the company missed out on four-year funding from the Australia Council for the Arts and also fails to qualify for welfare and community funding, which mostly provides food, beds and other crisis support.

Pressure on both the arts and welfare sectors is escalating in 2020 as the coronavirus affects health and incomes, forcing cancellation of events that would bring groups of people together. In the longer term, the need for arts experiences will intensify. Sydney Theatre Company expressed this well in a statement in March: “One thing we can be sure of, however, is that theatre is a necessary and vital space where communities are built, nurtured and maintained." 

In 2019 Milk Crate produced a multi-artform major work about natural order, hierarchy and social systems that drew on the participants’ common frustrations with Centrelink. In a short, funny film, they clearly enjoyed playing bureaucrats with lines such as “If you draw the long straw we will help you. [But] all straws are the same length.”

One man who took part was caring full-time for his mother and soon after the performance she had a fall and went to hospital. Such a setback would once have caused him to break down and drop out of the theatre group. But this time he kept attending, communicated with people who could provide medical and aged-care services for his mother, and “finally” applied to the National Disability Insurance Scheme. He said he had worked through some of his emotional problems.

Lessons from Skid Row

There was inspiration for Milk Crate Theatre in the presentation by Professor Peter O’Connor, an expert in applied theatre and drama education at the University of Auckland, who said “homelessness has exploded internationally by government choice”.

O’Connor has worked in psychiatric hospitals, disaster zones and with the Hobson Street Theatre Company attached to Auckland City Mission. He came to Sydney energised by a stint as artist in residence with 25 people who live on Skid Row, an area in central Los Angeles where 5000 people sleep in the streets.

Seven hundred of them belong to an arts collective, he said. “They’re deeply involved, not waiting for us to bring the arts to them.”

Peter O’Connor, Professor in Critical Studies in Education, Faculty Education and Social Work, University Auckland

Peter O’Connor, Professor in Critical Studies in Education, Faculty Education and Social Work, University Auckland

He agreed with the Milk Crate team that creative workshops should not make people retell the stories of trauma that they tell to social workers and other officials. That is “poverty porn”, he said. “We focus on what people know, not what they’ve suffered.”

Funded by his university and working with welfare and arts groups in Los Angeles, he co-ordinated two joyful performances of song and dance in the Museum of Contemporary Art. The audience brought together homeless people, a film producer and representatives of Netflix, who expressed interest in filming O’Connor’s next Skid Row projects.

The group also created visual and sound installations that told personal stories such as a baby being born on Skid Row, a mother who had to leave her child, men playing basketball, a father talking to his son about being a champion.

A man whose face was swollen from being beaten up showed his photos with a looping recorded poem about “what it meant to have wings to fly again”. He’d had minor surgery that day and chose to have a local rather than general anaesthetic so he could perform.

“He saw himself as an artist, not a homeless person,” said O’Connor. “Arts are a way of survival and also resistance to the kind of voices that keep these people in their place.”

In a short film on the project, a young man said: “I went to college and majored in theatre and language but I wasn’t doing any of that until I became homeless. Through homelessness I found my art.” A woman said, “Singing has been a large part of my healing.”

Possibilities in practical partnerships

While both O’Connor and Milk Crate report benefits for many participants, the results are largely observational and based on pre- and post-workshop surveys. But measuring “social impact” is a complex and expensive process.

“Government wants you to say that if you spend this much here you’ll save that much there,” said Wainwright. “How can any of us answer that while we’re trying to make art?”

The SSSHARC Huddle raised possible approaches to these needs, including a partnership between Milk Crate Theatre and one or more universities. They could provide academic researchers to do case studies and analyse data to support funding applications; help with publicity for the 20th anniversary; organise a global symposium and publish papers; make links with other arts centres, and offer rehearsal space and a performance.

O’Connor has already agreed to spend time as artist in residence at Milk Crate Theatre and Politis may work on his projects in New Zealand or Los Angeles.

“We feel honoured to be sitting at the front of the room and have our problems solved,” said Politis. “It opened doors to opportunities we might not have thought of,” said Wainwright. Others agreed the interdisciplinary network and shared ideas would enrich their work.

Ewing concluded: “We as a group got a much better handle on what some of the challenges are, and what theatre and the arts might do to re-story homelessness. I hope we’re able to move quickly and get some people together again.”

Participants at the ‘Restorying Homelessness through the Arts’ SSSHARC huddle including, from left, huddle organisers Michael Anderson, professor of Education (Arts and Creativity), and Robyn Ewing, professor emerita of Teacher Education and the Arts, who are co-directors of the CREATE Centre, University of Sydney.

Michael Anderson, co-director of the CREATE Centre and professor of Education (Arts and Creativity) at the University of Sydney, judged this the most interesting of four Huddles he had attended and would follow up with philanthropists.

“We’re not going to crack homelessness by giving people some arts experience,” he said. “But this gave anyone thinking of supporting that kind of work the real story. We can connect them to something tangible in our research and make sure nascent relationships happen.”

The SSSHARC Huddle on Re-storying homelessness through the Arts: Can creative, arts-based intervention transform the way we frame homelessness? was held on November 18, 2019 at the RD Watt Building, University of Sydney.

This article is part of the 2020 SSSHARC series on how the humanities and social sciences can help us see the world in new ways.

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham. Credit: Nicola Bailey.
Inaugural SSSHARC Journalist in Residence

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