Tiffany Barton looks into homelessness with ‘Do You Know Me?’

2020 sees a new festival commence in Perth, Guerrilla Fest runs at the same time as the popular Fringe World festival, but organisers say their independent festival is more focused towards the needs of artists.

One of the shows on offer is a site-specific, promenade performance which takes the audience on an exploration of the city’s streets, providing a unique insight into the lives of Perth’s homeless.

Do you Know Me invites audiences to shed their preconceptions and open their minds and hearts to the plight of the homeless. It reveals indigenous stories, youth stories, women’s stories and the powerful story of a war veteran experiencing PTSD – just a few of the many from those homeless on our streets. Based on interviews with homeless people from the Perth CBD, Do You Know Me explores the hope and despair of Perth’s homeless, how they became homeless and what they do to cope.

The model for the production was developed in 2018 during Melbourne Fringe when playwright Tiffany Barton interviewed homeless people on Melbourne’s streets. For this new iteration of the show she’s teamed up with dramaturg and director Phil Thomson (pictured). Actors Ian Bolgia, Summer Williams, Declan Brown, CJ Hampspon and Natalie Louise all appear in the production as it roams the street of Northbridge.

OUTinPerth spoke to Tiffany Barton about creating the verbatim theatrical experience.

How did you go about writing Do You Know Me?

I interviewed about twenty homeless and ex-homeless people who were referred to me through the Perth Homeless Support Group. They’re an awesome non-religious affiliated group run by gay couple Ron Reid and Michael Edwards who referred me to some really lovely human beings who operate in stark contrast to the stereotypical notions we have of the homeless.

I created mostly monologues and some scenes based on their interviews. In some cases the monologues were verbatim (where I wrote down everything they said as it literally came out of their mouths.) In other cases I crafted what they said into monologues and scenes, trying to remain as truthful as possible to their voice and their stories.

Then I had two creative development sessions with director/dramaturge Phil Thomson and my cast, and we cut several pieces, either because they were poor or problematic representations of homeless people or it was crap writing on my part! I’ve found that some stories translate well to theatre and others not so much.

What surprised you most about people’s stories?

I’ve been so surprised by how many decent people are out there sleeping rough. People who are educated and have led good, productive lives and then have fallen on hard times. I met a lot of people who don’t conform to the stereo types we hold of the homeless, (ie crazy, antisocial addicts).

People who have been fathers and mothers and nurses and carers, people who were once homeless who now have good jobs and stable relationships and are giving back to their community, well educated people from privileged backgrounds, who have chosen homelessness over bankruptcy, and I’ve met many people who have chosen to be homeless because they’re too proud to ask for help from their friends and family.

The biggest surprise is the generosity I’ve encountered on the streets. People who have nothing but would give me the shirt off their back if I needed it. In my experience, the people with the most empathy are usually that way because they’ve suffered so much themselves.

I met two homeless men in the Melbourne CBD who would invite people to come sit on milk crates and play UNO with them. They were best buddies and they really looked out for each other. They were so warm and kind and inclusive and funny;- I felt more at home with them on those milk crates than I have in the richest of houses.

How does the show directly help people experiencing homelessness?

In Melbourne we raised about six grand and everyone worked for free, so we were able to give all that money directly to our homeless participants. Two of them moved into share houses with the money we gave them. We also formed friendships with them – many of the actors tell me they see those guys regularly and always stop for a chat or offer them a meal now.

Once you know someone’s story it becomes difficult to ignore them. Audience members offered accommodation, food and jobs to the homeless participants who were willing to be identified. It was an amazing thing to see how the show brought out a sense of inclusivity, generosity and community spirit in everyone who became involved in it.

In Perth my champion producer Aden Date got some funding to pay our creative team. (Big ups to the Department of Sport, Local Government and Cultural Industries.) We’ll donate profits from ticket sales to Perth Homeless Support Group and pay each of our interviewees $100. Down the track I’ll have a debrief with Aden about which option is preferable.

I have to say, it was a beautiful thing in Melbourne that everyone worked for free and nobody complained about it. I felt so grateful and proud of my cast and director for their selflessness. But I also believe strongly that artists need to be paid as well. Fifty percent of us live in poverty and aren’t that far from homelessness ourselves! So it’s a bit of a balancing act working out the finances for this show.

How does this show work as a site specific work?

The urban streets and alleyways become the backdrop and setting for the play. So audiences will see scenes and monologues played out at Yagan Square, then the back streets and alleyways of Northbridge. It brings an immediacy and edginess to the play that would be impossible to replicate in a theatre.

There were so many exciting moments in the Melbourne production, when the city came alive and added extra drama to the show – like when the Hare Krishna’s intersected with one of our characters at a traffic light, police tried to intervene with a character having a schizophrenic melt down at Fed Square, and football yobbos taunted one of our characters who was showing distress.

The line between fact and fiction becomes blurred out there, and there’s a lot of room for random stuff to happen which our actors have to deal with. It’s challenging for them, but it creates an incredible intensity and authenticity in the work.

You previously performed this show in Melbourne, is the version being presented in Perth a new version or the same production?

The Perth version is a new production based on interviews with Perth’s homeless, however I did include the strongest two stories from the Melbourne production. One of them is the story of a war veteran with PTSD. It was a stand out story in the Melbourne production (brilliantly performed by David Meadows) and my Perth actor Ian Bolgia is playing the character with the same passion and intensity. If this story doesn’t move our audience members I don’t know what will!

The Perth production is also informed by some of the disruption we met on the street in the Melbourne production, and where the Melbourne production was a series of disconnected monologues, the Perth production has a stronger narrative running through it.

Is it challenging to use people’s real life stories and shape them into a dramatic presentation? How do you make sure you give their stories a suitable level of respect?

Yes it’s very challenging. Some stories (Like the war veteran) were so powerful they were easy to craft into dramatic monologues. Others were not so easy and at times I’ve felt frustrated that I have not done the character’s stories’ justice in my representation of them.

I’m very grateful to Phil Thomson who’s a terrific dramaturg as well as a great director, and my wonderful cast who helped me to workshop the script, and bring life, character and humour to some of the stories that did not roll as easily off the page.

In terms of respect, I used what’s known as an empathetic interview technique. So I took care to be sensitive with my interview style, pay close attention to their body language and not ask questions that could trigger my interviewees into trauma. I mainly focused on their resilience and asked questions about how they survive on the streets, what kind of alliances and relationships they form and what was their experience of social services and the general public.

Some of my interviewees were very open and told me their stories unguarded and uncensored. Others did not want to focus on their homelessness at all but instead wanted to tell me funny stories from their life or share their knowledge as cultural elders. I welcomed whatever they wanted to share, wrote it all down and in the workshop process we discussed what would work best in the play and what needed to go.

My process also involves checking in regularly with my interviewees and showing them what I’ve written to make sure they’re ok with the content and ok with me performing their stories.

Do You Know Me is performed as part of Guerrilla Fest from 24 Jan to 2 Feb at 6.30pm  beginning at Yagan Square and ending at 8.00pm at the Brass Monkey, William St & James St, Northbridge. All profits from the season will be donated to the Perth Homeless Support Group. Book tickets now

Graeme Watson, Images by Tony Gajewski

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