Wrong and Strong

Telling a Story of Homelessness Together
by Isabel DeBre '18, Storyteller for Good
April 21, 2015

I’m crouching in the corner with my camera and audio recorder - hoping to observe the Tenderloin Opera Company invisibly - when its leader, Erik Ehn, spots me.

He started the group in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, and brought the project with him to Providence four years ago when he became Brown’s Director of Writing for Performance.

I’m eager to snap a few pictures for this piece I’m writing and get back to College Hill, but Erik hands me a pen, paper, and copy of the opera script the group will presumably work on that day. “For the creative writing exercises,” he says.

I’m confused, hoping he got the memo that I’m just here to observe as a journalist. “Wrong and strong,” he says by way of explanation, confusing me more. “That’s our motto.”

Around me, people greet each other and chat. A woman tells Erik about her schizophrenic brother. A man talks about a homeless woman he knew named Wendy Tallo, who was recently found hanging in the Trinity Cemetery. “I know it wasn’t suicide,” he says. “The rope was hung too high. Word on the streets is she was gang raped and murdered.” Others murmur in agreement.

All of a sudden, Erik announces a weekly check-in. Members of the group take turns declaring their mental states. “Good,” “depressed,” “sleep-deprived,” “stressed.” Erik nods at me. “You?” he asks, making me visible.

I’m just here to observe, I want to say. But looking around at the participants awaiting my response, that assumption feels wrong. In keeping with his motto, I guess I need to be strong. “I’m here,” I offer.

“Welcome to the Tenderloin Opera Company,” he says.

Erik Ehn’s Tenderloin Opera Company, an informal, eclectic group of homeless people and formerly homeless people, as well as students and advocates from Brown and beyond, congregates in the Matthewson Street Church downtown.

The church’s partner organization, Heads Up, Inc., oversees the Tenderloin Opera Company, and hosts other arts and educational programs in the space to benefit Providence’s disadvantaged residents.

“People who cross the street to get away from homeless people will find themselves mixing with the people they cross the street to get away from,” Erik says. “People who practice invisibility can put that aside and manifest themselves.”

This resonates. In a flash, I think of the homeless people I passed without a glance on my walk from campus. Will these intelligent, artistic people I’m sitting with now become invisible the moment they step outside?

Once a week, the group checks in with each other, free-writes from prompts, and sings. The bits and pieces they write in the weekly workshops coalesce into full-blown opera scripts that they perform in the church’s theatre at the end of the year.

Erik calls the scripts “weird, collective fever dreams.” One plot point reads: “Wait - did they die? Or did they turn into Merpeople?”

I attempt to follow along with the script Erik has handed me:

          Hard to break/head to bark: A displaced retina. Luckily, the tree’s drunk and doesn’t feel a thing.

But you don’t have to dig for the plays’ real-life resonance. The main characters confront homelessness. Each script deals with a specific theme; in the past, they’ve addressed posttraumatic stress, addiction, and domestic violence. The stories “aren’t meant to be informational, but activating,” Erik says. They’re meant to confuse, move, motivate. 

“We don’t ask for anyone’s homeless card when they come in,” Erik says. But the typical participant has experienced homelessness, and has intense personal stories of survival and courage to share. 

CJ was homeless back in 2006. Of his six months on the streets, he says: “It was a really depressing time.” 

“When I got on the right medication, I started writing,” he says. “I needed to find myself. I found that writing was my outlet. It brings the horror out of me, into words. I write melodies, hip-hop. Poetry soothes my mind. I write about whatever I face on a daily basis - homelessness, mental illness.” 

He has been involved in the Tenderloin Opera Company for four years. “It gives me a creative mind. It makes me feel good to listen to other people’s writing - people who are older and have more knowledge - they’re mentors to me.” 

Wrong and strong. What first struck me as Erik’s random rhyme reverberates and gains meaning during my brief immersion into the Tenderloin Opera Company. I attend more and more meetings, attempting to understand this creative, committed group of homeless and formerly homeless people.

For Erik, one must participate in order to understand. This makes me feel nervous, vulnerable - wrong. But to tell the story of the Tenderloin Opera Company, I know I can’t hide behind my camera; I need to join the group, trek downtown once a week - sing, write, share out loud, and even, upon Erik’s urging, perform with the ensemble onstage at the Granoff Center. In Erik’s words, I need to “put aside invisibility and manifest” myself. 

“We do public performances, and I value the people that show up,” he says. “But that’s just past the heat of the matter. The heat, the sun, the star of it, is the process. And I want the process to be inclusive and volcanic and molten.”

In other words, collaboration is crucial. Everyone works together on the writing exercises. A couple of verses will be passed around the circle until they become a song. After performances, the audience engages too, asking the group questions and offering thoughts. The product is the process. And so, for Erik, “To see the play, to see the work, you need to be a co-maker of it.”

Perhaps what we’re co-making is a discourse on homelessness. Through TOC meetings, I come to understand and appreciate the power of this. Strong.

“Part of my story is going to be in the play,” Linda, a TOC regular, tells me with pride. The current script in-progress focuses on the theme of mental illness. “It’s about my brother who was paranoid schizophrenic. When he went off his meds, he hurt himself… and passed away.” His medical diagnosis was "failure to thrive." I’m awed and humbled by the candor and confidence with which she reveals her story - both to the group and to me, a stranger with a microphone.

“[Linda’s] ability and willingness to work with her narrative as material, to let us enter into it, is extraordinary,” Erik says. “Life for her is a resource, not a regret.”

It’s a resource that the entire group shares, as they write and think about her story together, inventing new characters and directions for it. 

Sometimes I find the TOC church room abundant, teeming with people - students, professionals, homeless or formerly homeless people excited to talk about their experiences and tuning their voices to the piano. Other times, the room is empty, save for Erik and one or two others.

At first, the inconsistency surprises me. But I soon realize that the fluid nature of the Tenderloin Opera Company is critical to its identity: “The TOC team is constantly shifting. People are flowing into and out of it. And that’s as it should be. It’s meant to be radically available to people. If people don’t want it, it will just go away. But week after week, people do seem to show up. My responsibility,” says Erik, “is to offer consistency if nothing else.”

I keep thinking about the medical diagnosis of Linda’s schizophrenic brother: Failure to thrive. It strikes me as painfully emblematic of the homeless community. Yet when I look around at people singing together around the piano, sharing stories of their struggles to find shelter, or writing about drunken trees, I don’t feel failure. I feel collective vulnerability - and in spite or because of it - strength.

After the final Tenderloin Opera Company session of the semester, the group disperses. I gather my things, assuming I’m alone. Then I hear a whisper from the corner. Across the room, I see David, a homeless veteran and veteran TOC member, hugging Linda. “It’s all going to be okay,” he tells her. “I’m so proud of how far you’ve come.”

I remember what Erik said about the company - how “it’s about listening to each other, being there for each other, taking people as human on their own terms.” As David comforts Linda, I sneak out the back door of the building I’d snuck into five weeks before. This time, being invisible feels right.

People will always keep coming and going through TOC, bringing new voices, new experiences, and new ways of meditating on homelessness and humanity.

“The act of having to find each other, survive each other, and build through each other... I believe that it’s lasting,” Erik says. “Even if people leave the workshop and never return to the arts again, they’ve engaged with each other in this act of collective faith that hopefully will serve them as they survive and thrive in the world.”