A Community Target: Practicing a Community-Specific, Site-Specific Art
A Community Target is a site-specific documentary play that depicts the dramatic collapse of American retailer, Target, in Canada. The play’s dialogue is sourced from interviews with former employees of Target’s Canadian division and was staged inside a vacant Target store. Locating a theoretical framework in the work of Tim Cresswell, Doreen Massey, Mike Pearson, and Michael Shanks, this paper offers a reflection on the play’s development process. Using the verbatim play as a case study, the author advocates for a site-specific theatre that acknowledges and foregrounds the occupants (past and present) of its given site. This piece briefly explores the ethics of creating such community-centred work, asking: how should an artist go about the collection and the sharing of stories that are not their own? How does an ‘outsider’ approach a community? Incorporating snippets of text from the play, the author unpacks their navigation of these questions.
Keywords: site-specific theatre, community-based performance, verbatim theatre, ethics of playwriting
As a site-specific theatre practitioner and researcher, I am interested in the myriad of stories, memories, and histories – true or otherwise – that compose place. Place does not present with a single narrative or a single biography. Rather, place is an active collision of living processes. I borrow this understanding of place from the work of geographers Tim Cresswell and Doreen Massey, from the theatrical practices of Mike Pearson, and from the writing of archaeologist Michael Shanks. Inherent to the work of each of these scholars is the notion that place is not static. For Cresswell, “places are constructed by people doing things and in this sense are never ‘finished’ but are constantly being performed” (Cresswell, 2004, 37). Massey’s theory also relies on an understanding of place being in constant motion, suggesting that places are “woven together out of ongoing stories” (Massey, 2005, 131). Shanks posits place as a ‘stratigraphy’ of stories (Pearson/Shanks, 2001, 24), which invites a reading into the layered history of place. Similar tracts are present in Mike Pearson’s concept of the ‘deep map’– his attempt to unearth “everything you might ever want to say about a place” (Pearson/Shanks, 2001, 162), and in his very definition of site-specific theatre, calling it “the latest occupation of a location where other occupations are still apparent and cognitively active” (Houston, 2007, XV). It is through this understanding of a ‘living place’ – a place in motion – that I approach my site-specific theatre practice. This framework acknowledges the life (past and present) of a given site; and I would suggest that a respectful, ethical site-specific theatre must ground itself in this life – in the inhabitants of its site. Without this grounding, site-specific theatre runs the risk of ignoring these ‘other occupations’ and the motion of ‘ongoing’ place. For me, site-specific practices must lean towards becoming community-specific. My 2018 play, A Community Target, is an experiment in this idea and I offer this paper as a reflection on its process.
Commissioned by Toronto theatre companies, Outside the March and Why Not Theatre, A Community Target examines North America’s evolving retail ecology and depicts the dramatic collapse of American retailer, Target, in Canada. The play – a collision between site-specific, documentary, and community-based theatre practices – positions the site’s community at its centre. It was important to connect with the Target Canada community to ensure that their voices were represented. During the creation of any site-specific project, one might ask: who occupies, or has occupied this site? With whom are we (artists) sharing this place? To write this play without consultation would ignore the stories of the 17,600 former Target employees, and would risk presenting a single narrative of their site. Instead, A Community Target is built from interviews with sixty-five former employees of Target’s Canadian division and showcases the voices of cashiers, custodians, managers, directors, and executives. Through the verbatim text, they share memories of Target’s eccentric corporate culture, personal stories of resilience in the face of job-loss, and recall the incredible community of colleagues – the ‘family’ – that developed at Target. During a staged reading in 2017, we returned the voices of this ‘family’ to their former site and filled a vacant 100,000-square-foot Target store with their challenging, cathartic stories. It was a verbatim project created with, about, and for this community – and it was a site-specific project created for, and conditioned by its site.
In engaging in such community-centred work, many ethical concerns arise. How should an artist go about the collection and the sharing of stories that are not their own? How does an ‘outsider’ approach a community? It can easily feel as though site-specific and verbatim artists simply ‘parachute’ in-and-out of communities, play journalist, and leave when the work is done. This is incredibly problematic when working with communities that might be considered vulnerable. Many of the former Target employees I interviewed had faced personal and financial struggles, family crises, and stress. Most worked in minimum wage positions at Target and continue to experience precarious employment in their positions today. In addition, very few of the people I interviewed have a platform to widely share their stories; which makes them vulnerable to how I, as artist, frame and share their lived experiences. I addressed these concerns through communication and transparency. I invited this community to think of themselves as collaborators in this piece – not subjects – not just interviewees – but dramaturgs; experts. Berlin-based ensemble Rimini Protokoll, who frequently create performances with and about (quote-on-quote) ‘everyday people’, would call my interviewees “experts of their own life” (Dreysse/Malzacher, 2008, 8) or experts of their lived experiences. I invited these ‘experts’ to lead group interview sessions. I shared early drafts of the text with those I had interviewed and their feedback influenced my editing process. Finally, during an early workshop production with Outside the March, former employees even performed as themselves in the play. Every decision was made to empower the community, help them share their stories, and to assure their agency in the creation of the work.
While most of these interviews were conducted in cafes, or over Skype, I arranged to meet with two ‘experts’ at their former Target store. The interviews during these site tours provided some of the most insightful textual material. Each conversation explored, as Mike Pearson might say, the ‘ghosts’ of the place (Pearson, 2012, 70). As we toured the 100,000 square-foot facility, the ‘ghosts’ of memories, stories, and performances that occurred in the building drove the conversation. The text to A Community Target offers an attempt to recreate the spontaneity of these moments and revive these ghosts:
I remember the final moments of our store, Robert. Absolutely surreal. Everything had been sold off. All of the shelves, the freezers, cashier stations, the lighting fixtures that had been here. Only one item was left – a cardboard box – sitting dead centre, right about there, in the middle of the store. It had all of these last remaining clothing pieces in it… just whatever was left. And we - all the employees were gathered around the box – in a large circle – watching a few customers rummage through the clothes. And we’re just waiting, you know, just waiting for them to leave. And then this one customer asks ‘is this all you have?’… as if we were hiding something in this huge empty space, right? Like ‘oh duh! Let me check in the back?!’ I don’t know. One of us nodded, and the three women left. Then we locked the doors, and got into a huddle, and just… held each other for a short while. And that was the last time I was here.
Being ‘here’ in the space invited the former employees to comment on specific details of the architecture and attach histories to certain parts of the vacant store. It was a walk into a ‘stratigraphy’ of stories, and touring their site together allowed me to see the ongoing history of their place through their eyes.
I remember this co-worker went around and took individual pictures of all of us – of every employee… because she ‘didn’t want to forget her family’. And, uh, that always kinda chokes me up a bit. Cause that’s genuinely what it felt like… losing a family.
These tours ensured that the project would exist in a marriage between the voices of the former employees and the physical site of the store. In performance, it gave us the opportunity to re-enact these memories with a detailed accuracy.
In considering the outcomes and impact of this project, I am reminded of an early interview with a Target Canada customer, Harrison. When Target announced their closure, Harrison took it upon himself to hold a funeral for the company. The play opens with a staging of the funeral procession…
…Bagpipes. The cast enter wearing black and hold flickering tea-light candles. Lights up on Robert and Harrison.
So, let me get this straight. You held a funeral for Target?
Yeah, at the Stockyards location. Like this felt like something big. You know? So we got a bunch of friends together. I rented a priest’s outfit; wrote a eulogy. ‘Target we hardly knew thee…’ Shit like that. Found a bagpiper. We all dressed in black; had a bit of a procession. A friend ordered pizza. It really drew quite a crowd. Made Global News…
Did you have a casket?
Nah, hard to find one big enough really. OH- my girlfriend at the time dressed up as a protester… like full-on Westboro Baptist Church style… uhm, the sign was… GOD HATES MOCK FUNERALS. Cause we felt… maybe this is a little sacrilegious.
In my conversation with Harrison, he said that he simply wanted to do something – to be a part of something – to mark Target’s passing. This play – this project became that ‘something’ for a number of former employees. Many of the people I met expressed that they found the interview process empowering, liberating, and cathartic. The invitation to share their stories was needed and welcomed. They saw it as a ‘coming together’ of their ‘Target family’. Some were hopeful that this project might spur some sort of change – whether that was an apology from Target, new government policies to protect workers, or simply an invitation for outsiders like me to try and understand the human impact of the giant shifts occurring in our retail ecology. At the staged reading in Target’s former Hamilton location, several members of the Target Canada community were in attendance. Hearing their intimate stories of loss and resiliency echo through the vast, vacant space was incredibly affecting. After the performance, many former employees from the Hamilton store stayed to share their own experiences of the site. By the end of the evening, our collective understanding of the site had been ‘woven together out of ongoing stories’ (Massey, 2005, 131) – stories of place, and stories of its former inhabitants.
Cresswell, Tim. Place: an introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
Dreysse, Miriam and Florian Malzacher, Eds. Rimini Protokoll: Experts of the Everday. The Theatre of Rimini Protokoll. Published by Alexander Verlag Berlin, 2008.
Houston, Andrew, ed. Environmental and Site-Specific Theatre. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2007.
Massey, Doreen. For Space. London: Sage Publications, 2005.
Motum, Robert. A Community Target. Unpublished script, 2018.
Pearson, Mike and Michael Shanks. Theatre/Archaeology. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Pearson, Mike. ‘Site Specificity and the Narratives of History’ in Performing Site-Specific Theatre: Politics, Place, Practice, Ed. Anna Birch and Joanne Thompkins. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
About the Author
Robert Motum is an emerging theatre artist and scholar. With a background in site-specific performance, Robert has staged work on an active city bus, in a castle, over Snapchat, in a dorm room, in a gallery, in a vacant Target store, and occasionally even in a theatre space. As a playwright, Robert’s writing has been supported by the Stratford Festival, Outside the March, Why Not Theatre, Convergence Theatre, Studio 180, Driftwood, the Ellen Ross Stuart Opening Doors Award, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Waterloo Region Arts Fund. Recently, Robert directed the Canadian premiere of Michael Ross Albert’s The Grass is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome, and assistant directed the Studio180/Mirvish production of King Charles III. In 2017, he was an invited member of the Stratford Festival Playwrights’ retreat. His book, Kitchener-Waterloo: a guidebook from memory, which invites its reader on a site-specific tour of Waterloo Region, was published in 2016. He holds an MA in Practising Performance from Aberystwyth University (Wales), a BA in Honours Drama from the University of Waterloo, and is a current PhD student in the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto. His dissertation project examines micronations as community-based performances of nationhood and borders.