Local theatre company reflects on social issues by inviting audience members to join the experience

Photo by: Liam McGarry

Mirror Theatre is a not-for-profit theatre company driven to advance an audience’s understanding of social issues.

The organization, which began in 1995 by Dr. Joe Norris, was originally located in Alberta before eventually moving to Ontario. The original company in Alberta closed down, and a new version of Mirror Theatre began operating in the Niagara Region. 

The company is volunteer-driven, and a few of its members double as instructors at Brock. One of these members is Kevin Hobbs, who is the president of Mirror Theatre and professor of dramatic arts courses at Brock, including applied theatre.

“Mirror Theatre is a research-based and educational theatre company,” said Hobbs. “It uses dramatic premises and techniques in order to, frankly, explore the world; or, to allow people to explore the world for themselves.”

Mirror Theatre’s performances generally revolve around specific themes, each cover the understanding of social issues. As such, their process can certainly be described as unconventional—rather than sitting down and writing a script, the team must first research the effects of the social issues they wish to spread awareness about.

“We do interviews—we find out their stories. I don’t like to use the term ‘data,’ I much prefer the word ‘stories.’ Hearing the stories, and with their permission, taking the stories and devising something. We put them into play in order to present to an audience. That comes down to two things: it comes down to education, in the presentation to the audience—but because we engage the audience in talking back and forth with them, it’s also further research. They share their stories as well, and the research just continues. In a scientific formality, it’s known as ‘dissemination’; here, we share stories,” said Hobbs.

While Hobbs points out that Mirror Theatre does not work for Brock in any official capacity, they are certainly affiliated through the number of alumni, faculty, teachers and students that participate in their work. Brock also allows Mirror Theatre the space to rehearse within the Marilyn I. Walker downtown campus, something that Hobbs is grateful for.

There are several ways that this research might be conducted. Mirror Theatre’s creative process is one that takes some work, but it must be completed carefully in order to represent social issues onstage properly.

The scenes that Mirror Theatre devise deviate in length, sometimes ranging anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes. These scenes, which the team refer to as “activating scenes,” are created to encourage discussion.

Through interviews, the team will search for ideas that especially stick out to them and create a product deriving from their inspiration. The core cast, which consists of approximately eight individuals, will generally improvise rather than create a formal script. While script notes are occasionally taken, the exact wording is not written in stone.

Mirror Theatre will also invite those who wish to co-create with the company, devising scenes with individuals providing new perspectives.

The team will also occasionally also use visual art as a reference and their understanding of these works to devise scenes on stage.

The number of scenes that Mirror Theatre might present within a single performance varies. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the company was restricted to performing online, but Hobbs pointed out that their passion lies especially within in-person performances.

Another unique component of Mirror Theatre’s approach lies in their use of Forum Theatre. This form of theatre involves an individual known as the ‘Joker,’ who facilitates the discussion with the audience. Hobbs has quite a bit of experience within the role of the Joker.

“The Joker can come in and break the rules, but do so in a way that engages the audience. So, I talk directly to the audience. I ask the audience questions. Sometimes, I invite audience members to come down if they’ve seen something in a scene, and say ‘I really don’t like how that was said.’ Come on down, let’s try it differently. And if people are willing to come down onto the stage, they’ll try something. So, in fact, part of the work becomes embodied for them, because they’re actually stepping into the roleplay and doing the work.”

It is important to the members of Mirror Theatre that their work lives on beyond the specific performances they put on stage. As such, they have created a Facilitator’s Guide to teach those who wish to become Jokers themselves.

Providing Jokering techniques to those who take interest through workshops or guides is exciting to the company, as it means their work lives on even if they are not directly involved in subsequent processes.

Mirror Theatre uses the funds accrued from performances to give experiences to those who typically cannot afford it. As such, Hobbs believes that their work goes beyond simply understanding the community—they are devoted to supporting the community as well.

“We charge for our work, and the money that we receive goes into an account which then goes to different conferences. We provide students—Brock students, mostly—the opportunity to go to a conference; something they may not be able to do, they may not have that financial support… and be part of an academic conference. Maybe that’s where they want to go. Or, they can be part of writing a paper; because Mirror Theatre, we’re involved in writing lots of academic papers, as well. What we want to do is: we want to provide experience, and it depends on the experience that people want.”

Mirror Theatre conducts workshops that invite attendees to join in on a performance. These workshops can occur in places like classrooms, and are typically at least 90 minutes in length. Hobbs is a believer in ‘scaffolded learning,’ which starts a workshop off in an easy manner before eventually transitioning to allow participants to join the experience and embody their work.

“We don’t have answers. That’s an important thing. We’re not here to provide the answers; we’re here to ask the questions,” said Hobbs. “And if people walk away confused, it’s not because we’re trying to confuse them, but it’s probably because they’re thinking through things—and hopefully, they’re going to continue to think through things. There are big social issues that you can’t deal with solely in two hours, but what we can do is, we can start the conversation—and ask people to have the conversation with themselves.”

More information on Mirror Theatre can be found on their website.

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