Branch Out Theatre’s Legislative Theatre Performance on the Right to Housing

National Housing Day in Toronto: People’s Assembly on the Right to Housing. Nov 20th, 2015

Written by Rehana Tejpar and Naomi Tessler

This year’s National Housing Day in Toronto brought together a diversity of stakeholders at the People’s Assembly on the Right to Housing. 300+ people with experience of homelessness, housing workers, activists, community organizers and politicians, including MP Adam Vaughan took part in a Legislative Theatre Performance, facilitated by Branch Out Theatre, commissioned by the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO), to brainstorm policy solutions that will help solve the affordable housing and homelessness crisis.

legislative theatre forum
People’s Assembly on the Right to Housing

Legislative Theatre is a process of Theatre of the Oppressed, developed by Augusto Boal that begins with a forum theatre – in which a play, depicting the struggles of a community is presented back to them in a community forum. After watching the play, the community audience is then invited to take on the role of spect-actor, with the power to replace a character in the play and try out an alternative, which could bring about a positive transformation. Legislative Theatre then goes a step beyond forum theatre: equipped with a toolbox of possible alternatives in hand after witnessing their fellow spect-actors interventions, the community audience is then invited to act as the people’s assembly and devise policies that could protect their community from facing these ongoing injustices.

At the People’s Assembly on the Right to Housing, these community-written policies were presented to a panel of housing advocacy experts who helped to read through each policy and choose a select few that addressed a broad range of housing issues. The audience/People’s Assembly then had the opportunity to hear each of these policies and vote on them, following a presentation of arguments from their fellow people’s assembly members – both for and against each proposed policy.

legislative theatre policies
A panel of housing advocacy experts reviews the community-written policies on the right to housing

Branch Out Theatre’s Artistic Director and Joker for the show-Naomi Tessler, along with members of the cast: Rehana Tejpar, Tanisha Taitt, Michaela Washburn, Lauren Spring and Mohamad Abou Ali met with ACTO and community members with lived experience, to hear stories and understand the complex issues around housing in Toronto. With the support of Helen Luu and Tracy Heffernan from ACTO, these stories were anonymously woven into the original script written by Tessler.

The play depicted the stories of five people who have lived with inadequate housing in Toronto – all of whom were or had been homeless: one who is living in a Homes First apartment that isn’t suitable for her family and which doesn’t accommodate their disabilities, one who is afraid of being evicted from her Toronto Community Housing apartment because she can’t afford the rent but the apartment was all she could find. It shares the journey of folks who end up homeless due to mental health challenges and those who’s family homes are too toxic to grow up in, due to parental abuse or a lack of acceptance based on sexual orientation. The play shares the traumatic experiences of shelter hopping, living in rooming houses and the trials people have to face to keep themselves and their families together. The play chronicled the characters’ journey to the courts, where a historical legal case was fought, using the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to advocate for a National Housing Strategy in Canada.

legislative theatre
Legislative Theatre Performance on the Right to Housing

Lawyers from the Centre for Equality Rights in Housing and ACTO represented applicants to the case, arguing that Canada’s failure to respond to the homelessness crisis is in violation of its international commitments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.   It also violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and specifically, s.7, which guarantees the right to life, liberty, and security of the person and s.15 which guarantees the equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination.

In June 25, 2015 The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a Charter challenge holding governments responsible for the crisis in affordable housing and homelessness will never be heard in Canadian courts. With no evidence before them, two out of three judges at the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld a controversial lower court decision that issues of homelessness do not belong in the courtroom.

“There continues to be a worsening housing crisis in Canada. Over the past five years, Ontario’s affordable housing waiting list has ballooned to 168,711 households, the Federal government has announced the revocation of 365,000 housing subsidies for low income households across the country, and the cost of keeping people homeless has continued to skyrocket.” (ACTO)

The People’s Assembly had the opportunity to watch a re-enactment of the courtroom where the Court of Appeal judge threw the case out without glancing at the 10, 000 pages of evidence. Spect-actors ran up to the stage to defend their right to dignity, humanity and housing as the crowd applauded with vigor. Out of the brilliance in the room, the following policies were passed:

  1. The Government of Canada must implement a national housing strategy
  2. People are forced to wait many years for social housing because the waiting list is too long. The provincial government must make private market rents more affordable and raise the shelter allowance for people on social assistance to an adequate amount that meets real need
  3. The provincial and municipal governments must pass and implement inclusionary housing laws that require affordable housing in all new developments


In the new year, ACTO will be following up with with policymakers and legislators, including but not limited to those in attendance: MP Adam VaughanMPP Cheri DiNovo, and Toronto City Councillor Joe Cressy. to push for these necessary policy solutions.

Before Augusto Boal passed away in 2009, he expressed that out of all the Theatre of the Oppressed practices he developed, in the time we live in now, Legislative Theatre is what he adamantly felt the world needed most. In this trajectory, we’re humbled to share that the legislative theatre performance on National Housing Day was an inspiring experience for all involved.

The audience was deeply engaged and empowered to see their stories being told and their common experiences recognized and validated and thoroughly enjoyed participating in both the forum theatre and legislative theatre processes” -ACTO members.

The performance was truly an experience of passionate social art-ivism; acting as a strong reminder of how vital this work is, and the need for ongoing outreach, mobilization and advocacy! Audience Ann Fitzpatrick, Supervisor, Community Development and Prevention Services, Children’s Aid Society of Toronto.

We believe in the power and wisdom of the community, and hope that politicians, and those who have the financial means to make affordable housing available to all those in need, can open their eyes and hearts to listen to those with lived experience, act and create real change.

For more information on ACTO,


For more information on Branch Out Theatre visit:




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