photos: Image courtesy Colin Ford / Directions Youth Services Society.

Death in a Dumpster

New musical shows what life is like for homeless youth

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Sitting on the floor of a small room in the Roundhouse Community Centre in Yaletown, a group of young artists run lines between mouthfuls of chips and pop. “Let’s try that again,” says Trinity Firth, the production’s youth director, as the piano fades into the chatter.

They are rehearsing Death in a Dumpster, a musical production about Danny, a young man who becomes homeless after hitchhiking through the Maritimes to find his long-lost mother, eventually winding up in B.C. The story follows Danny as he befriends a colourful group on the streets of Vancouver—Daisy, a woman battling mental illness, Jack, a man with addiction problems and Josie, a transgender sex worker.

The idea for the musical production came to Firth when she met anti-poverty activist Sheila Baxter at Directions Youth Services, a non-profit organization that offers a range of programs to support homeless and at-risk youth. “She gave me the script and told me that I should put it on with some other youth. I thought it would be a fun thing to do,” she adds.

Firth went to Colin Ford, the organization’s programs coordinator, and together they set out to recruit young people for the production. “It started off as justme and Colin sitting in the media room with a bowl of chips and pop trying to bribe people to come in and do a read-through.”

The production, which eventually received the support of the Access to Music Foundation, began with no intention of a big audience. In fact, at the start it was difficult to get traction, with many actors coming and going. Eventually the core group gelled. Now, Firth and Ford expect a full house when the musical debuts on Nov. 7 at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island.

A tale of many

Firth is especially proud of how much the cast and crew, many of whom have experienced life on the streets, have invested in this production. From day one Firth told the youth to take ownership of their roles and speak up whenever they felt the script didn’t reflect what life is like for a homeless young person. Through the production she hopes to challenge misconceptions about homelessness. “I've met a lot of people who think it's just laziness that people end up on the street. They don't understand why you can't just get a job. They don't understand all of the reasons why people become homeless.”

“With all of the characters being completely different, it helps the audience understand how poverty and homelessness can affect anybody— people of different genders, races and backgrounds,” Firth adds. One of the production’s main goals is to inform. “We want to make them uncomfortable. This production is not gentle. We're not holding any punches,” says Ford, who sees the musical as a call to action. “I hope the audience goes home shocked and crying, wondering what they can do to help organizations like Directions Youth Services,” he adds.

Self-belief through art

Joe Hinks, who joined the team later as a directional mentor, says projects like this are very important for the young people involved. “You're not just teaching them how to sing, how to act, how to dance. You're teaching them self- confidence, self-belief is such a huge notion that they need—everyone needs to be able to believe in themselves.”

Ford and Hinks attest to how much the cast and crew have grown since the first read-through, both in their ability and attitude. Through arts-based programs Directions Youth Services hopes to provide the youth with tools to build confidence and make positive choices in their lives.

Ford uses the example of the young actor playing the role of the cop in the production. Initially he was very skeptical of the musical and resisted becoming a part of the project. He reluctantly agreed, only after he was promised his role would be small. But without being pushed or prodded, he eventually began to take on more responsibility, making suggestions and showing up to rehearsal early.

“There are life skills that you learn with a production like this: how to engage with other people, how to be part of a collective, how to listen to other people's ideas, how to respect choices that other people are making,” Hinks says.

A model for future projects

Ford has spent the last 10 years working at Directions, where he provides low-barrier opportunities in the media arts for at-risk or street-involved youth. The project she leads range from playing the guitar to writing poetry to producing hip hop videos. Any idea can be explored, he says.

“A byproduct of this type of offering is exactly what happened with Trinity. She walked in to the centre with this script, and an idea turned into the project that it is today.”

This is the first time the organization has been involved in a production of this scale. The model has been a success so far, with many participants interested in making this an annual project. Access to Music Foundation and the current cast and crew are already planning next year’s production.

Death in a Dumpster debuted Nov. 7 at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island.


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