Naomi Tessler is a theatre artist and founder of the applied theatre company Branch Out Theatre. In her second residency with Art Place, Naomi is building off her 2014-2015 Art Place project with Immigrant Women’s Services Ottawa (IWSO). In 2017, Naomi will continue working with IWSO and expanding her workshops to include both immigrant women and the perspectives of new Canadian girls.
In her approach to theatre co-creation, Naomi uses a form known as forum theatre based on the work of Augusto Boal. “Through forum theatre, I invite members of the community to use theatre as a tool to create collective change, and to address issues and personal struggles. In forum theatre the audience isn’t just there to watch, the audience is always involved. In our performance we present the worst case scenario of a situation to inspire the audience to step in and create change.”
Through this process, Naomi finds that the actors benefit by having the opportunity to speak up and express themselves. “The women I worked with said they felt so much confidence from working on this project. They said things like ‘If I can do this then I can do anything.’ The play touched on issues about how isolated the women felt when they came to Canada. Having our weekly time together and doing the show helped them feel supported as a community,” Naomi explains.
These weekly workshops, and the performances, also helped the women break through the isolation they felt as new Canadians, by bonding with each other and members of the audience. “They were all from different walks of life, different countries, spoke different languages, and they felt support for each other,” says Naomi. “For our audiences, it really drove home the struggles that new comers are having here in Ottawa, and the new comers in the audience felt empowered to step into the play to find solutions. After the play, some of the people in the audience were able to provide resources to each other and it created more connections within the community and support to talk about these issues.”
For Naomi, this form of artistic co-creation is the perfect balance of her passion for theatre and social work. “During my undergraduate degree I debated between theatre and social work. Then I found forum theatre and other forms, like play back theatre, and I saw there was a marriage between theatre and social work through social practice. I saw that theatre could be more than a form of entertainment it could be a means of raising critical questions and exploring new ways to address social issues. Through this work I have found a way to be someone who is of service to the community.”
Through Art Place Naomi has been able to bring a new service to IWSO’s offerings. While the organisation offers programs like visual art, yoga and language services, it did not offer any performing arts program. This project will also help support a wider demographic. “When I met with Mercy Lawluvi, Executive Director IWSO, she mentioned that there was a gap in work with youth and new comer girls,” Naomi says. “The problem they are seeing is that there is a huge dissonance between parents and children, and other family members, when they come to Canada. For example youth sometimes have to take on more responsibility because their parents don’t speak English or French and they have to act as interpreters. This invited an expansion of the previous project in terms of being able to serve a larger population and building connections between two generations of women.”
This approach to working with youth will be new for Naomi as well. “When I have done other intergenerational work it has been in one-off workshops not a full project. I haven’t created a show like this before where the actors reach out to another group to inform the show. My hope is that the women I work with are excited that we can create the show and engage youth. I hope they will be eager to take part in the conversation and to create new bonds with the new comer girls in their community.”