McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Participatory theatre addresses health of the homeless

Published: November 28, 2017
A psychiatrist, right with red scarf, listens to an actor playing a homeless person in a 2016 production of Gerbils
A psychiatrist, right with red scarf, listens to an actor playing a homeless person in a 2016 production of Gerbils

A play that addresses the health issues of Hamilton's homeless and vulnerably housed people and invites the audience to be involved, is being staged on Friday, Dec. 1 and Saturday, Dec. 2.

The theatre production, arranged by students of McMaster University's Faculty of Health Sciences, is aimed at finding ways for people living in extreme poverty to improve their access to the Hamilton health care community.

The play, called Gerbils, is based on interviews by students with members of the homeless community.

Their stories - of stigma, mental health, and falling through the cracks - were transformed by a Toronto theatre company, Branch Out Theatre, into an engaging participatory theatre performance that was piloted in St. Catharines last year by students at the Niagara Regional Campus of McMaster's Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine.

The project is part of the students' initiative called Health and Equity through Advocacy, Research and Theatre, or HEART. Research from this project won an award at a national medical conference earlier this year.

Although not open to the public to attend, the students have arranged for three shows for local audiences at the Lincoln Alexander Centre at 160 King Street East, Hamilton.

A show for healthcare professionals will be held on Dec. 1 at 7 p.m. Health professionals may register to attend HERE.

On Saturday Dec. 2, there is a 1:30 p.m. matinee for the homeless community. There is a 4:30 p.m. performance for McMaster students especially those in the occupational therapy, physiotherapy, nursing, social work, medicine, midwifery, and the physician assistant programs. Students may register to attend at:

At each performance, the play is repeated twice, with members of the audience welcomed to take the place of an actor during the second performance if they have a solution or different turn of events to suggest.

Each performance is followed by a panel of Hamilton health system, social services and community representatives discussing the issues raised with the audience. The students plan to produce a policy brief on behalf of the people living in extreme poverty.

Rahat Hossain, a medical student and spokesperson for the student team, said: "The project hopes to not only shed light on the barriers and experiences the homeless community has encountered when accessing care, but also be able to inspire change through meaningful policy solutions.

"For change to be meaningful, it has to address the issues the members of the community find have the most impact in hindering their healthcare," he said.

"To be using their viewpoints and ideas for health policy reform really embodies health equity. We want other healthcare professionals and students to get excited about this, and realize how important it is to tailor the healthcare system to those it aims to serve."

The other students from the Faculty of Health Sciences involved in the project include Grecia Alaniz, Caitlin Ross, Rebecca Harrison, Karen Essah, and Tanisha Birk. The students connected with the Shelter Health Network, Good Shepherd, Mission Services, and Street Outreach to bring the project to Hamilton.

"This participatory theatre is a great way to involve everyone in the audience in better understanding and potentially together finding answers to social issues in our community," said Paul O'Byrne, dean and vice-president of the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster. "My wife and I attended a previous performance, and it is very powerful."

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