Under the Line

August 2, 2014

I co-wrote one play. I worked with women, many of whom had recently learned how to read at a literacy advocacy group called Journeys in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I often think about two very profound things that I learned when working with them.

One woman told me that after she learned how to read she “could think better”. I think another way of putting it could be that learning how to read had opened up her mind.

I found out another woman in the group had been in prison. Why? She had passed bad cheques. I had never known before that anyone could go to jail for having bounced cheques which is a direct result of being poor. Today the book and television series called Orange is the New Black is helping us all to face up to the fact that many women in jail have done nothing particularly criminal to end up there. More power to them in communicating these things.

The introduction to the book format of the play explains how this came about so I will turn to this without any more preamble except to say that it was a terrific rush to hear words, that I had written or shared in writing, coming out of the mouths of actors on stage at the Gas Station Theatre in Osborne Village in Winnipeg, Manitoba and other venues. Here is how it came together:

Under the Line
by No Name Brand Clan and Tanya Lester


If you want a short description of how this play came to be written, read the history that follows.

In the fall of 1986, many students on social assistance at Journeys had questions about their welfare benefits, excess special needs, and rights. So the co-ordinator at Journeys, Kathleen Walsh, went to Margo Charlton of the Popular Theatre Alliance of Manitoba (PTAM) to ask for help. Margo and Marjorie Beaucage gave workshops for four months to answer people’s questions. From September to December these students grew into a group, grew close to one another, and grew in self-esteem and confidence. Through their support of each other, they were proud to see that almost everyone had gotten her Christmas welfare wishes. What a high! What a feeling of unity, joy, and strength!

After this success, the group decided that they wanted to stay together to write a group play. They wanted to share about the following:

-their experiences on welfare
-the strengths of many who survive “Under the Poverty Line”
-information about welfare benefits
– the need for assertive attitudes to get these benefits
– myths (that is, beliefs that people hold about people on welfare, beliefs that are not true)
-how they would like to be treated by their workers

After much talking, they chose the name for themselves, The No Name Brand Clan, because of all the No Name Brand food that they bought.

Journeys applied to the Manitoba Arts Council for a small grant through Rossbrook House. PTAM applied to the Secretary of State as well. These grants were to help the group to develop and perform the play. The group met each week and developed situations, people and the things they might say keeping in mind such topics as waiting and sharing.

Then, Tanya Lester, an experienced writer, joined the group. After each session she worked with one member of the group, Isabelle Hall, to pull the week’s material together. The next week this ‘rough draft’ was read in the group and changed until all members were happy with it.

When the writing of the play was completed in 1987, the group actually continued on under Margo Charlton’s direction. The members learned acting skills, while at Journeys they memorized their lines and practiced reading with expression in loud voices. Finally, in February, 1988, they play was performed for the first time. The group went on during 1988 to read the play eleven times and to perform the entire play twelve times. In total, nearly 1300 saw the show. At last, the play was taped on video…

Under the Line
(a witty down-to-earth look at life on welfare)
Written by No Name Brand Clan and Tanya Lester
Directed by Margo Charlton
Produced by the Popular Theatre Alliance of Manitoba

Scene 1

(Scene 1 opens in a welfare office. The clients are seated in a row, waiting to see their workers. Rose is knitting away; Mary is stilling looking at brochures; Cathy is looking at magazines, and Sharon is sleeping.)

Mary: That a nice colour. What are you knitting?

Rose: A sweater for my son, but I probably could knit one to fit the Jolly Green Giant by the times I get out of here.

Mary: Yah! Same old waiting game. It’s so boring here.

Rose: You should have brought a book with you.

Mary: I forgot, and this isn’t exactly thrilling reading material.

(Mary reads the titles of several brochures before tossing them down.)

Rose: It’s being on welfare. You’re always waiting for somebody or something.

(Mrs. Popinsky enters carrying files. She goes over to the receptionist’s desk.)

Mrs. Popinsky: Nora, has my 2:30 appointment arrived yet? My Bulova says 2:31 already, and I want to take my coffee break.

Mary: Well I’d like to take my coffee break, too!

Nora: Linda Whitehawk! Is there a Linda Whitehawk here? She’s late. What else is new around here? They’re never on time.

Mrs. Popinsky: I’ll wait a few more minutes.

(Linda enters in a hurry. She is carrying a baby. She rushed over to the receptionist.)

Linda: I’m here to see my worker.

Nora: What is your name?

Linda: Linda Whitehawk. I have an appointment with Mrs. Pop… Oh, I can’t remember her name. I’ve just been assigned a new worker and…

Nora: You’re late. Your appointment with Mrs. Popinsky was for 2:30.

Linda: Look, I’m sorry. The bus was late, and then I had to bring my daughter with me. My fifteen year old wouldn’t babysit, and my friend couldn’t because she had a doctor’s appointment and…

Nora: Mrs. Popinsky? Your appointment finally got here.

(Mrs. Popinsky enters and looks at Linda.)

Mrs. Popinsky: I am Mrs. Popinsky.

Linda: I’m Linda Whitehawk. I came to talk to you because my cheque hasn’t arrived in the mail and I don’t have food in the house.

Mrs. Popinsky: Step into my office please.

(Mrs. Popinsky and Linda exit. Nora returns to her work. Snoring is heard from the waiting room. Nora gets up and walks over.)

Nora: Hey you! Wake up!

Sharon: Uh! What’s happening ?

(Nora shakes Sharon by the shoulder.)

Nora: You can’t sleep in here. This is a government office not a hotel.

(Nora returns to her seat.)

Sharon: What a grump!

Mary: Yah! This is her kingdom. She runs a tight ship.

Sharon: I can’t help falling asleep. I’ve been waiting here for hours.

Rose: At least we’ve got a seat to wait in. Do you remember what happened when there was a mail strike?

Sharon: We were lined up outside for hours. The line stretched way down the block.

Cathy: It was really hot that day.

Sharon: People were driving by and staring at us like we were some kind of freaks. You could imagine what they were thinking: “Oh, look at all those lazy good-for-nothings waiting for a free handout.”
…To be continued

To read earlier posts in this blog, please go to http://www.writingsmall.wordpress.com
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Confessions of a Tea Leaf Readerby Tanya Lester can be purchased from the author or you can go to the title and author name at amazon.com to read the first pages of the book and buy it.


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