The Bench

The Bench.  It’s civic furniture, common property.  You sit on The Bench to think, to eat a sandwich, to feed a bird, to argue with a lover, to discuss with a friend.  Sometimes people without homes sleep on The Bench.  Sometimes, people with homes sleep there, too.  We read on The Bench, think on The Bench.  No one owns it.

When you don’t play by the rules, you’re Benched.  When you get in a fight.  When you’re late.  When you’re hurt.

The Bench is in a park where it is green and there are dogs and trees.  It’s a space away, calmer, where we can move.  The Bench is in mall, passed by a hundred people in a minute, crowded, chaotic.  The Bench is on a subway, taking us somewhere.  The Bench is near the water; the water holds the briefest scent of danger.   The Bench is made of metal, plastic, stone, wood.  The Bench is carved and careful.  The Bench is falling apart.

The Bench is the seat of judgement.  If there are two sides, The Bench decides where justice is.

The Bench is a long, sturdy work table.

The mark of The Bench is a standard.  It is what we hold to, how we evaluate our doing.  It is how we know if what we have made is good.

What We’re Doing, Why It Matters

Hospitable: inviting people in.  Gracious: treating people with unearned care.  Trust-risking: reckless faith in people’s best, perhaps unproven, selves.

Food, shelter, warmth, health.  Theatre?

Why make theatre with excluded people?  (Why make theatre at all?)  Because the core of our lack – whether addict or accountant – is not a missing thing; it’s a missing person.  Poverty of all kinds divides us from ourselves and from others, and generates insatiable want.  It’s not a want that can be filled with stuff.  It is want that we meet only when we can create, make choices, and be engaged as respected equals.  We need to have our identities reinstated, and joined together in civic relationship with those around us.  And this is exactly what theatre offers.

Intentional community: choosing to share space, believing that we are better in cooperation than we are apart.

Artists need communities and communities need artists.   Artists need the support – spiritual, emotional, intellectual, practical – of their communities so that they can offer back the prophetic healing that comes with communal expression and response to emotional events.  Without this symbiosis, artists are overwhelmed and communities are repressed.  The Bench is an experiment in artist-community interdependence.  The goal of this initiative is neither for the artist to become an isolated superstar, nor for the artist to be martyred for the good of the community.  Rather, it is for the artist and the community (the street-involved, those working for civic good, those working in theatre) to find ways to interact that are mutually beneficial and life-giving.

Aesthetically compelling and credible voice: communicating with all the muscle and urgency and searing, excellent accuracy of great art; creating as dignified equals.

We do not create art with excluded people as a kindness.  The Bench seeks to make theatre with the marginalized because we sincerely believe that there are important, vital voices that will not otherwise be heard, and that all kinds of art-makers and communities will consequently be impoverished.  We believe that art with excluded people is exactly what art is, and that this art must be measured with the same standards of excellence, curiosity and honesty by which other contemporary artworks are measured.  We think of this as a Benchmark.


The Bench is the result of a five year collaboration between playwright Shannon Blake and Sanctuary, a drop-in centre for the homeless and street-involved.  Shannon began as a volunteer with the Sanctuary drama program, writing and performing in two short productions in cooperation with the street community and with Lyf Stolte, Sanctuary’s actor-in-residence.  In 2006, in partnership with Lyf and with Sanctuary founder Greg Paul, Shannon began to collect stories from the community and to turn these stories into a full-length play.  In the spring of 2008, Shannon’s play The Passages of Everett Manning was performed by a combination of street-involved and semi-professional actors, including Lyf, to sold-out houses for four weeks.  This play was followed by Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy in 2009, Vaudeville (Voice of the City): Unrelated Acts on a Common Bill in 2010, and by Wonderful and Transient Voices in 2011.  The most recent Bench production was The Elephant Man, by Bernard Pomerance, performed in early 2012. All Bench shows are performed by a combination of street-involved and professional actors.

During these formative years, Shannon, Lyf and Sanctuary developed a number of relationships  with actors, directors, stage managers, artists, churches, social service organizations, politicians, theatre companies, and all kinds of volunteers.  They also worked with street-involved people who face addiction, mental health issues, poverty, homelessness, exploitation, physical and intellectual challenges, and/or experiences of violence, abuse or prison.   In this way, theatre became a significant point of connection between these diverse groups of people.  The Bench is a formal platform on which to base and grow this connection.