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In the Heart of the City

Nov 30, 2016

The Heart of the City - The Downtown East Side Community Play - The Downtown Eastside City Festival


This project took place in the Downtown East Side, a neighbourhood in Vancouver, BC.  .


In the 2000's the community was experiencing a whole range of societal stressers that the community was trying to address. Homelessness, cutbacks to housing benefits, tent cities, prostitution and a new drug market were spiraling out of control. These issues  pushed grassroots community efforts to replace the negative images in the media with positive action.  As it happened, it was also the 100th Anniversary of the Carnegie Community Centre; a cornerstone facility in the neighbourhood.  In order to celebrate the history of art forms and address the concerns, members of the advisory committee proposed a community play.  They had seen a community play and were inspired - "Not the way I heard it", was a play in collaboration with Splatsin First Nations and the Enderby community, using a specific approach to play making. We, Vancouver Moving Theatre, agreed to make a play using this process.


The Playmaking process was discovered by a British playwright and brought to Canada by Dale Hamilton, a community artist in Ontario.  This process nurtures principles for building healthy eco systems: diversity, interconnectivity and interdependence. We were applying that to our own community and our way. We hired an outreach team that lived in the neighbourhood who understood the concerns, met with people in organisations to form partnerships; attached play related events to existing programs; provided accessible quality skill building workshops.  We did anything we could do to meet resistance and suspicion with respect and provide safe and inviting public events so people could socialize and enjoy creative activity.  

The process included:

  • 11 Story gathering events
  • 43 Skill building art making workshops
  • 3 community parades
  • 4 public script reading
  • 9 weeks of public rehearsals with community
  • 8 performances (including a pre-show fair in partnership with community organisations)


The original play development and production took 1.5 years.  The ripple effect and ongoing events including the Downtown Eastside City Festival has been going on for over 13 years. 

Communities Involved

The play was co-produced by Carnegie Community Centre, and the Japanese Hall and Japanese school. The Japanese Hall was returned to the Japanese community after the events following WWII.  Fifty community organisations provided in kind goods and services. DTES - is an area between Berrard inlet, the old creek flats, and former gulleys at Campbell and Camby where streets used to flow. It is portrayed as one of the city's oldest; notorious for its open-air drug trade, sex work, and high rates of poverty, mental illness, infectious disease, and crime. It is also known for its strong community resiliance and history of social activism. The DTES community members; live, work, volunteer, socialize, have family, cultural forms and artistic practice in this community.  Four co-writers were from Anglo, Asian and Indigenous backgrounds and included the playwright James Fargan and Rene Morriseau (Cree-Salapoux) who served as an advisor.  The project involved the participation of 2000 volunteers, 60 full and part time employees and 80 community performers - young and old. The community members came to an understanding of the Downtown Eastside; what it meant to be a member of the community.

Genre/Art Forms

Interdisciplinary, theatre, music, dance, processional elements


  • The project resulted in sold out shows and led to the founding of the Downtown Eastside City Festival. Participants who were involved in the original play are still involved in the Festival.
  • Participants have gone on to create plays, organizations, events, and projects of their own.  
  • The success of the play and participation of community help to launch new projects - to celebrate the neighbourhood cultural community including many new festivals.
  • It opened Indigenous arts markets and most recently the installation of a survivors totem pole.  See the project "The Big House".  
  • One year after doing the play, and with support of the City of Vancouver, philanthropist Milton Wong, Vancouver Moving Theatre/Carnegie Community Centre went on to co produce the Downtown Eastside City Festival - which includes a diverse range of activities and last year over 150 events happened in 44 locations in the community, and now includes a host of partners and over 100 artists.  The play has spawned a community engaged practised in creating work for, about and with the downtown east side community.

I wonder aloud what keeps 100 unpaid participants coming back day after day and the answer comes: people feel that they own the project and that they belong here …On the level of process, In the Heart of a City was a huge success long before it opened…  I hope that we will see more community plays in Vancouver.

Colin Thomas, The Georgia Straight

Powerful performances were mixed in with a theatrical inventiveness that drifted back and forth between the present and the past.  There was a strong presence of young and elders, poetry and prayer, injustices and activism, laughter and circles of sadness. I sat among a group of Chinese, Spanish and First Nations people. We were strangers who after awhile started talking to one another…I’d heard about the importance of community making people feel welcome and being invited. This play was just that.  I hope they keep on telling their stories.                                                                                                                   

Mary Gazetas, The Richmond Review

The DTES Community Play was powerful and humbling and magical and educational.  Many of our friends, neighbors and my daughter’s classmates were in it and loved it from the inside out.  We loved it from the outside in.  We wanted to see it twice, but it was sold out. Bravo!            

Mary MacAulay, Strathcona/DTES resident

For the nervously excited performers, relief came when the first performance of “In the Heart of a City” was enthusiastically cheered, when it was obvious that the show had touched the hearts of many….In the Heart of a City beats with vitality and hope – characteristics that don’t usually make the evening news from this part of town. These funny and brave performers are proof that the courage and humour that kept Main and Hastings alive and kicking through the 19th and 20th centuries is still around.             

Jo Ledingham, The Vancouver Courier

In the Heart of the City: The DTES Community Play is one of the most important cultural events in the history of the Downtown Eastside.                                                                  

 (former) Councilor Jim Green, City of Vancouver

The community play stands as a shining example of how arts and culture are making a positive impact in this community.                                                                                

Mayor Larry Campbell, City of Vancouver

For over a decade, Vancouver Moving Theatre has focused on art creation with, for and about people, cultures, art forms and stories old and new emerging from Vancouver's inner city Downtown Eastside. Community-engaged arts projects are contributing to new art creation, new jobs, capacity building, and volunteer opportunities and to the neighbourhood's collective memory and stories.


In our field of community-engaged art practice, professional artists engage with community to create art for, with and about communities served. Art making is integrated with community concerns, values, assets and cultural traditions. Process and product are entwined, all part of the art.

Like Canadians across Canada, we are navigating implications of living onshared territory: territory shared by choice and by force. We are entangling webs of exclusion and loss, grappling with how to repair damaged relationships past and present, and forging new relationships where none existed. We believe our communities have stories and teachings to share in the language of art about what is happening in Canada and who we are.


So we are now collaborating with artists, partners and community members to create and program art that excites us, involves and engages people/organizations from the Downtown Eastside and challenges negative stereotypes of the place where we live. Out of these collaborations, new Canadian art is emerging from our situation and time, (in)formed by cultures, protocols and techniques that have existed on this continent for thousands of years and those brought from the four corners of the globe.


- Savannah Walling, Vancouver Moving Theatre

Savannah Walling, Fall 2014

Photo by: Tom Quirk


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