Walk around Utrecht past the charming shops, the old-world bookstores, the throngs of cheerful, attractive bikers, and immaculate, slim streets and narrow canals with nary a gum wrapper befouling them, and you can't help thinking that the Dutch really have it together. Holland is nearly perfect. It has the most productive economy per capita in the world, the shortest workweek (32 hours, by law!), and the most elaborate social safety net of any country on earth. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that Utrecht still struggles with homelessness. That it does, believes Dutch director Berthold Gunster, says something counterintuitive about the deepest form of poverty.
He thinks the best way to understand the complex causes of homelessness is not through sociology, social work, or economics, but through listening to the homeless tell their own stories. Some of which Gunster finds highly entertaining--enough to make plays out of them. In 1998, with grants from foundations and the government, he put together a play with the vendors of Straatnieuws, Utrecht's version of Streetwise. At the end of the 30-show run, one of the crew members, Johan, proposed a show based on his own life. Gunster wasn't interested. But Johan persevered and explained his concept. The play would be a game in which the audience would participate and puzzle through the roots of Johan's plight.
"The audience was shown short scenes and then asked questions," Gunster says. The play offered 15 possible reasons for Johan's situation, including illegal-immigrant status, poor health, addiction, natural disasters, and his upbringing. "The worst guessers in our audiences were the professional social workers who thought they knew everything," Gunster says. "'Oh,' they would say, 'it's because of your father,' or some other preconceived idea." He says he learned that homelessness spins out of a kind of negative feedback loop: Johan drank because he was homeless; he stayed homeless because he drank. "But," Gunster says, "it's even more complicated. Drink kept Johan docile and easier to be around. If he didn't drink he might have been homeless much sooner. What we hope to accomplish is to let people see the dynamic of these situations."
Why Is Johan Homeless? has played all over Europe and is still running with two companies. Last year Gunster brought the troupe to Chicago, but he thought that the people on this city's streets also needed an outlet. "I felt that I couldn't just leave, that I had to do something in Chicago," he recalls.
By "something" he meant a show in the spirit of the Dutch production. For him, creating a play involves getting the subjects of the drama to create it themselves. In the Netherlands the 41-year-old has worked with people on the "fringes of society," directing movies and plays starring runaway youths, workers from a shuttered steel mill, and various community groups. Recently he began working as a consultant to businesses, teaching workers to communicate with each other better. Income from his commercial work helped pay for the Chicago venture.
In May Gunster hooked up with the Streetwise Writers Group, 15 Streetwise vendors who attend a writing workshop sponsored by the paper. The group had tried and failed to put together a theater project last year, so they received Gunster warmly. The collaboration produced the play-as-bus-tour idea: instead of having the writers tell their stories onstage, they would travel to the actual sites where their stories take place.
Most of the stories in Not Your Mama's Bus Tour are not about homelessness per se. One of the episodes takes place outside Orchestra Hall. A woman describes how she danced on the hall's stage as part of an Irish concert in 1957. She dances a little for the passengers and then joins them for the rest of the tour. Another bit involves a recollection-cum-argument by two men who found themselves in the middle of Grant Park during the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention. There is also the story of a 60-year-old man who recounts a childhood on Maxwell Street, including forbidden sexual encounters. "He came out during the preparation of the show," says Gunster. The director is now gathering grants to bring the cast to the Netherlands.
"Wherever you go, I'd say there are about 20 percent of the people who can veer into homelessness," Gunster says. "The set of reasons may be similar in Chicago and Holland, but in Holland, because of our social programs, there are a lot of people who don't end up homeless but would if they were in the U.S." Maybe that's why our big cities will never look as sweet as Holland's.
Not Your Mama's Bus Tour sets off Thursday, August 24, through Saturday, August 26, at 7 PM from the Streetwise office, 1331 S. Michigan. The suggested donation is $25. Call 773-684-2742.
--Ted C. Fishman
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.