Telling stories of poverty through community theatre

A slate of shows this June showcasing stories loosely based on the real lived experiences of community members

Local community members are using theatre to tell stories about poverty. The theatrical venture, titled Living Below the Line, consists of twelve vignettes that are loosely based on the show creators’ own experiences with living with poverty.

The show got its start through a partnership between Basic Income Waterloo Region and Guelph-based playwright Catherine Frid of Watercourse Theatre. Frid often co-created plays with community members who don’t usually get their stories told.

“I’ve done that working with older adults in Wellington County… since 2014,” she said. “And I have done this with a play about older adults and suicide, which is a much-overlooked issue.”  The groups conducted outreach through a number of local NGOs and organizations to find people who wanted to tell their stories. They ended up with a group of 14 people ranging from their early 20s to their late 70s.

The stories in Living Below the Line, while based on personal experiences with poverty, aren’t just serious dramas. They run the gamut of human experiences, from tragic to joyous and realistic to the fantastical. Some are in the form of monologues while others are full-on scenes. Frid teased a scene that involved superheroes and another that was musical. She also noted that local community musician Mary Abdel-Malek Neil would be providing music for the play.

“This is a project that I’m hoping is going to dispel a lot of stereotypes,” she said. Though she tries to go into projects with an open mind, Frid also found that her own preconceptions of poverty were challenged as well. 

“The major difference between people living in poverty and the rest of us is that when we, or somebody who we’re very close to, has a crisis [there is] somebody who steps up to help us.” Frid said that she learned that the downward spiral to poverty happens when there isn’t that kind of support available.

(Superheroes! From left: Carol Kennedy, Wayne Sorely, Benita Sissing, Rebekah Haynes. Photo by Barbara Bryce)

Advocacy for better support systems

For Andrea Kauppinen, who has been a member of Basic Income Waterloo Region since its inception in 2014, the play is not just about giving voice to the voiceless but also to bring attention to the inadequate nature of our support systems. . 

In the early days of the pandemic, many disability advocates noted that the financial support people received through the Canadian Emergency Recovery Benefit ($2000/month) was more equitable, more accessible, and better administered than the  limited funding available through the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). ODSP, which offers just $1,169 per month for single adults without dependents, comes with a number of strings attached that make it difficult for people to enjoy a standard of living above the poverty line. 

“Often a lot of the so-called social work that gets done as part of those programs is not really social work,” said Beatrice Henry, another Basic Income Waterloo Region member. “It’s actually monitoring people and ensuring that they’re meeting all of the conditions of those programs and helping them reapply year after year because you’re never secure with those programs either. You always have to prove that yes, you still have a disability or yes, you still have a special need.”

As evident by their namesake, the group is pushing for a universal basic income (UBI) for Canadians. UBI is an idea that dates back a couple of centuries. Thomas More, a 16th century English philosopher has made mention of it in his work. The African-American civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. also proposed a basic income in his 1967 book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? The growing wealth inequality, the rising cost of living and the push by companies for automation, has brought UBI to the forefront of the conversation in recent years. 

(Quiz Show. From left: Jeffrey Beckner, Glenna Bradley, Louise Murray, Sandee Lovas. Photo by Catherine Frid)

“Many people have more than about three weeks worth of ability to pay their bills,” Henry said. “After one month, they’re tapped out and they’re going into debt and they’re at risk of losing their home or at risk of going hungry.” Basic Income Waterloo Region and other proponents of UBI have argued that it would uplift millions out of poverty, as well as help everyday Canadians with their finances. The Basic Income Canada Network has even gone as far as modelling how the country could fund the program through a number of changes to the tax system, such as fewer tax breaks for large companies, fewer subsidies for the wealthiest and contributions from our financial sector.

Two pilot programs have been run in Canada so far. Once in the 1970s in Dauphin, Manitoba which saw some promise, but was never followed up on. A three-year Ontario pilot was established in 2018 by the then Liberal government, which saw positive response from participants. It was canceled the following year by the incoming Progressive Conservative government. Currently, Prince Edward Island has been pushing the federal government to support a basic income pilot. 

Living Below the Line is scheduled to play four shows throughout June. The play is free to attend, no reservations required. Frid and the rest of the acting troupe are very excited to showcase their stories.

“Normally, there’s issues around people going on stage,” Frid said of the group recruited for the play. “People are very nervous about that, [but] with this group, it was totally different. Everybody was like, ‘Yes, I want to get on stage and I want to tell my story.’”

“These are stories of people who have a lot of resilience and hope,” she said.

Saturday, June 18, 2 p.m. at the Old Post Office in Cambridge.

Tuesday, June 21, 7 p.m. at the Waterloo Public Library.

Thursday, June 23, 2 p.m. at the Hillside Picnic Shelter in Waterloo Park.

Saturday, June 25, 2:30 p.m. at the Kitchener Public Library.

More info can be found at 

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