University of Washington Tacoma Senior Lecturer Tyler Budge presented his class with a challenge. They had roughly four weeks to create 10 masks for a series of performances centered on homelessness. “To my knowledge none of the students had taken an art class at UW Tacoma before this one,” said Budge. “I didn’t have a lot of experience with mask making either, so we were all kind of going into this blind.”
Last year the City of Tacoma allocated $100,000 to fund two artists in residence who would create public art that addresses homelessness. “The goal was to create community dialogue around the causes of homelessness,” said City of Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride.
The city organized a hiring committee and ended up choosing Roni Chelben and Susan Robb. The Israeli-born Chelben lives in Austin, Texas. She uses theater and video to advocate for changes to policy, specifically around issues that impact homeless communities. “This project is different because I’m working with the city,” said Chelben. “This was more about raising awareness and breaking down the social barriers between people.”
Chelben used different approaches to achieve this objective. She organized a series of conversations between people experiencing homelessness and other members of the community. “They just talked to each other about different issues and about their personal experience but they also explored the bigger issues like what is equality or what they thought were the reasons for homelessness,” said Chelben.
The second part of the project included performances at different venues throughout Tacoma. For these Chelben used the Israeli children’s book “Room for Rent” as inspiration. The story revolves around an apartment building. It should be noted that the characters in the book are animals. One of the animals moves out and the neighbors in the building place an ad for a new tenant. Prospective tenants tour the apartment but decide against renting. “The story is really about stereotype and judgement,” said Chelben. “The ant doesn’t want to live in the same building as a “lazy,” “fat” hen. In the end a dove rents the space, not because she likes the apartment, but because she enjoys the neighbors.”
For the performances Chelben enlisted the help of different groups like Nativity House and The Tacoma Rescue Mission. “There was a core group of about 10 people who committed themselves to this work,” said Chelben. Chelben spent several weeks meeting with Tacoma residents. She and Budge got to talking and he offered to create masks for the play. “I was teaching a reconstructing self through art [T ARTS 391] class this summer and I thought the theme fit with Roni’s work which is about helping others reconstruct themselves,” said Budge.
During a hectic month Budge and his students worked to build 10 masks from scratch. “We met with Roni and the actors on a couple different occasions,” said Budge. “We got feedback from them and found out what their needs were.”
Each mask measured between one-and-a-half to two feet wide by one-to-two feet tall. “I was really pleased with the end result,” said Budge. “I think this was a unique opportunity for our students to create something for a client and they excelled.” As for Chelben she felt the masks were “amazing and brought a powerful element to the experience.”
The final performance took place in Tollefson Plaza near the northern edge of campus. A group of about 60 people turned out to see the show and participate in a conversation afterward. “We wanted this to be a participatory event and for everyone to be engaged and active,” said Chelben. Attendees were encouraged to take action and work toward finding solutions to ending homelessness.
Each of the actors involved with “In Our Backyard” have either experienced homelessness in the past or are currently homeless. The title of the project is a response to the phrase “not in our backyard.” “We wanted to give a sense that we are all in this together,” said McBride. “We can hold public meetings but we can also create another kind of space where people feel more comfortable sharing their lived experiences.”
Chelben and the performances used the existing ”Room for Rent” story but added their own lines. One of them goes: “In this city that is not too big or too small, where the ocean meets the mountains, not far away from the mall. But who lives in this city? And where do they live? In a well-kept condo or under the bridge?” When those lines ends, the actors remove their masks one by one and tell their stories. “It was important to me that we empower those who traditionally don’t have power,” said Chelben. “It’s their backyard, as well as everyone else's."
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org