Saturday, June 13, 2009
Screaming Monkeys Theatre, Toronto
THEATRE GIVES HOMELESS A VOICE
By Mags Storey
Christian Week, May 22 2009
TORONTO, ON—Richard Bechard was sitting down to share a communal meal at Sanctuary Street Mission three years ago when Lyf Stolte, actor in residence, tapped him on the shoulder and told him he'd won the lead role in a Screaming Monkeys theatre production.
Bechard's excitement is palpable as he retells the story. It was a moment that changed his life.
Like many who find their way to Sanctuary, Bechard has been periodically homeless. He currently lives in one of Sanctuary's community houses. A regular member of the Screaming Monkeys for the past three years, Bechard played the title role in this year's production, The Drawer Boy.
"We wanted the poor and excluded to have a voice," says Stolte, a professionally trained actor who formed The Screaming Monkeys in 2004. "It gives them hope. It gives them something they can look at and say, 'I did that! I was involved with that! I had fun! And I was heard!'
"After a couple of productions, one of Richard's friends came up to me and said, 'I've known that guy for a dozen years—I didn't know he could do that! He made me laugh!'
"The great thing with theatre is that you have immediate response. You hear people say with their hands, 'I have heard you. I have heard what you have to say. You are valuable to me.' It's good to get that response—especially for people who have not been heard before."
The Drawer Boy director Shannon Blake told the audience at a recent production that their goal is to put on plays that are both "excellent and inclusive." Blake also wrote last year's production, The Passages of Everett Manning, which was inspired by the true-life stories of people at Sanctuary.
Stolte explains: "With many people in our community, there are certain events or types of events that are standard, and so you can write some kind of generalised event and give voice to a hundred people.
"There was one man—who had inspired one of the characters—who came to see the play twice. [The] first time he came he was stone cold sober. The second time he came he was not sober. Not even remotely sober. I could smell him from across the stage. But he came because he had seen himself in the play. And he saw the hope at the end. And he saw that other people were seeing him, and responding to that."
The troupe gets its name from their first production back in 2004 entitled Words, Words, Words about a group of caged monkeys who have been instructed to write Hamlet. The troupe has included the homeless and those in temporary accommodation, people on welfare, students and professional actors volunteering their time.
"My job is to invest in relationships with people and to be there for them," Stolte says. "One of the ways I best invest in relationships is through theatre. Theatre gives you a chance to get to know yourself better in the safety of community, where everyone is working together for a common goal."
Tony Mednis plays Morgan in The Drawer Boy and has starred in almost every Monkey's production.
"I enjoy acting," Mednis says. "It's something I always wanted to do but never had the chance. [I] got too involved in alcohol. You never feel alone when you're on the stage. We help each other."
Stolte adds, "We care for each other. We look out for each other in those moments when the lines fly out of our heads and out over the audience!
"The Drawer Boy is a play about hope. It's a play about how theatre can be a revealer of truths and a restorer of relationships. Theatre gives people an opportunity to right a wrong and to heal from past hurts, so people can start fresh again."