Humanizing Homelessness: An Interview with Lisa Hoelscher of Gathering Ground Theatre
Emerging from grassroots efforts to decriminalize homelessness in Austin, Texas, Gathering Ground Theatre is a company of people with lived experiences of homelessness and allies. Through Theatre of the Oppressed techniques and sustained collaboration with local organizers, Gathering Ground Theatre aims to influence public opinion, local legislation, and electoral outcomes. The group envisions a world in which homeless residents experience the same compassion as those who are housed. Lisa Hoelscher began collaborating with Gathering Ground Theatre as an ensemble member in 2019, and Anna Rogelio Joaquin came to the group as an artist-organizer later that year. Lisa and Anna currently serve as an outreach specialist and director of communications, respectively, though the group primarily operates as a collective.
Anna Rogelio Joaquin: I first heard about Gathering Ground Theatre when I moved to Austin for graduate school. I had the pleasure of meeting some members at a Homes Not Handcuffs rally in 2019, and I’ve been creating and organizing with the group ever since. Could you share a bit about how you found out about Gathering Ground Theatre?
Lisa Hoelscher: Well, I went to the library, and they had a little flyer up there. It was on a pole, just taped up. So I went, and I just fell in love! It was the Tales of Sleepless Nights project. The one we did to get the camping ban reversed. And it happened!
Anna: Yes, it did!
Lisa: It freakin’ happened, girl, do you remember that?
Anna: 2019! It was huge!
Lisa: We won!
Anna: Could you share more about the format of Tales of Sleepless Nights?
Lisa: Well, it was downtown, and we were guiding the audience around like a walking tour and giving monologues of our personal experiences. And I remember that performance being the very first time I started seeing injustice as a social issue, as a political issue. I was so conditioned by the city and the way our country is run that I didn't see it at first.
Anna: Were you specifically focusing on hostile architecture?
Lisa: Yes, and how the city is designed to be hostile on purpose! Gathering Ground reconditioned my mind, you know? And I'm just so grateful. I'm not going to be like a herd of cows herded over here and herded over there by the government or the city. You know, we don't have to be just conditioned. There are some injustices, and it's not a bad thing to bring them up and clear them up.
Anna: Right! So, Gathering Ground doesn't just stage pre-existing scripts of popular plays or musicals. Could you talk more about the kind of theatre the group does?
Lisa: Well, we make up performances about our experiences of being homeless or by talking about anything we are going through right now with audience members. For my first performance, we had captured this audience of a mixture of a few homeless people, but mainly, they were busy people who were right there.
And I remember that performance being the very first time I started seeing injustice as a social issue, as a political issue.
Anna: Where was your Tales of Sleepless Nights monologue?
Lisa: Mine was on Congress Avenue, in front of Starbucks where they had the aggressive architecture. They had rows of metal balls there to keep people from sitting on the ledges. So I did my performance, and… it was… very healing for me. And I'm humbled by the audience’s reaction… It makes me cry… because, like…I didn't know that there was a name for it, and it was called dehumanization. I was so blind to it in my own country that I didn't know it was happening to me.
After they wouldn’t give me the water…it sounds so silly now…
Anna: No, not at all.
Lisa: Well, when they wouldn't give me the water at the IHOP, I would walk down the street, and there'd be big bowls of water for dogs. And they’d make it fresh and cold all the time. So at that performance with a captive audience on Congress, I held them, and I even tried to make right at the end. I tried to make people kinda laugh. And nobody laughed. It was like a hushed quiet, like, “WTF.”
That’s when I knew that something seriously was wrong with that, even more than what I thought—that it was much deeper. After doing that performance, I started healing primarily, and I'm okay with it now, you know? I mean, it doesn't… it just makes me cry because I was healed; it doesn't make me cry because it happened to me. I really felt like there were people out there that cared!
And remember when we did that thing on the radio?
Anna: A Tale of Two Citizens. I’m still amazed by how we recorded our script over the phone and were able to present it with a panel and week of action, all during the heat of the pandemic.
Now the group is working on a memorial performance to honor people in the city who have died because of homelessness.
Lisa: Yeah. We showed how people get mistreated, how we're kicking people when they’re down already, you know? And then with the landlord and people losing their housing right after they get it—all that is true. Bad stuff happens to people because they’re alone, because they’re broke, because of poverty. And poverty isn’t something for you to be judging people by.
Anna: Right, it’s not their fault. And we've faced so much loss over the past few years. You know, people near and dear to us as well.
Lisa: That was hard to lose Pat and James. It was really hard to lose James. Oh my gosh.
Anna: Of course. Pat had been collaborating with us since 2019 through Tenants Speak Up! Theatre, and James was a founding member of Gathering Ground and one of your best friends. I feel like there’s never enough time to grieve. Though now the group is working on a memorial performance to honor people in the city who have died because of homelessness. What are your hopes for that performance?
Lisa: Oh, there are gonna be puppets! And we’re gonna have three banners, and they're going to have all names of the people that have died and people’s stories. I just want to tell their stories so bad. And many of these deaths are because of Prop B.
Anna: Right. Prop B was a proposition in 2021 that reinstated camping bans, sitting and lying down in certain areas, panhandling at certain times—basically overturning the 2019 win we actually started off talking about.
Lisa: You remember when I did that drawing for the zine, with the city sweeping homelessness under the rug? Well, that’s what's happened. My drawing said: “Prop B won, now death has begun.” Now they've swept them under the rug with the vote. And death has come.
Anna: I think another thing that’s special about Gathering Ground is how connected it is to other groups and organizing in the city, like DSA and Homes Not Handcuffs. It helps our theatre target something concrete, like Prop B.
Lisa: I'm encouraged by that, too. Gathering Ground has educated me politically from the very beginning by telling me that things were happening to us that I had accepted, and showing me that things can change.
My drawing said: “Prop B won, now death has begun.” Now they've swept them under the rug with the vote. And death has come.
Anna: What else do you wish more people knew about experiencing homelessness?
Lisa: I wish they knew that when the lady at the bus stop that's cussing and has physical tics, that she's been through something. People don't just choose to be homeless. Something has happened in their life, terribly wrong. And some people, they can come out of it if you just, like, give them a chance. Those are the survivors. Those are the ones that's going to adapt and make it out. Then you have the ones that just have more barriers, and they are more damaged by either their home or society, or they just have mental health issues or a learning disability. And they just fall through the cracks and get abused even more on the street. And everybody feels like they're doing better than them. Well, you know, you're not doing better. You're doing different.
Lisa: Just telling you on the real, Anna, I feel like the Lord has used Gathering Ground in my life to heal me in areas that I didn’t even know I was really messed up in. And what a cool way to heal from trauma and from difficult situations that you've had in your life. And it's showed me that pain and suffering has been around for a long time, and that we can do something about it. Doesn’t have to be wasted.