Here is the Newsroom article of our bizarre, brilliant and beautiful time in Los Angeles. A transcript is provided below if you’re all clicked out.

Skid Row is full of drugs and violence but author Justin Brown also found creativity and inspiration lurking in the shadows of a place many consider to be America’s worst man-made disaster

The sun shines brightly in winterless Santa Monica as smiling tourists stroll along its infamous pier and huddle around street singers and magicians. Suntanned kids sip on vintage soda. A crowd gathers around a beach volleyball game and munch on crab enchiladas. If they’re lucky they might catch a glimpse of Bradley Cooper, or see an influencer roll out of a red corvette. Wow, you think to yourself, this is California.

Though it’s not.

18 miles east of this American euphoria is a place named Skid Row, an area of fifty city blocks and home to approximately 5000 homeless people. It’s been called the ‘worst man-made disaster in U.S history,’ and was recently dubbed ‘the place where people go to die,’ filled with ‘zombies, absolute drug addicts with mental illnesses.’ In August of this year, a 62-year-old man was murdered here, his tent sent ablaze as he sat inside it. A terrible and violent end to a life.

I have landed in Skid Row to pursue a project with the University of Auckland’s Creative Thinking Project. Part of the impetus of going to L.A is to create a theatre project to counter these dehumanising narratives by telling other stories. Stories of people struggling to stay alive through acts of kindness, generosity, and how the arts are central to their survival on Skid Row.

My job is to document a performance with arts organisations working with the city’s homeless. The production is headed by Professor Peter O’Connor who has been invited to L.A to inspire those who live on Skid Row to express their hopes and experiences on stage. The ensuing Skid Row production will be performed twice in a large gallery space at MOCA (The Museum of Contemporary Art) and completed in just three days.

But first things first. To get to MOCA we must first walk through Skid Row, where we see block after block of emergency and makeshift shelters, people sleeping in cars and vans, and hundreds of tents. I keep thinking I’m going to get beaten up, or shot. I have travelled all over Africa, and even its worst parts wouldn’t rival Skid Row. It crushes the soul and the smell of piss stings the nostrils. I feel as if I’m in a scene from Grand Theft Auto.

We arrive in The Arts District, an industrial area of former warehouses and factories that have been home to artist studios since the 1970s. At MOCA, we are given a warm welcome and meet the cast of 25 gifted to us from Skid Row Housing TrustMy Friend’s PlaceUrban Voices Project and The Los Angeles Poverty Department. Peter gets to work with his team, Melbourne’s musical maestro Craig Christie and Arizona choreographer Kristina Friedgen.

Nerves switch to excitement. What could we make this week? Peter welcomes everyone in te reo and we sit in a circle with the cast and introduce ourselves, an act which at first seems glib, yet becomes so important. There are stories of abuse, neglect, loneliness, hunger and poverty. We meet Lorraine Morland who lost two of her sons to gun violence. Over the next three days, she turns up early, gives the best hugs, and acts and sings her heart out. What an amazing woman.

We also meet Jerry, otherwise known as ‘Iron,’ 63-years-old and recently beaten for being gay. His injuries cause his left cheek to balloon like a bulbous zit the size of a grapefruit, yet he is the most joyous, energetic, swankily-dressed poet and performer you could meet. His attitude says it all: ‘You got a problem with my face? Ain’t my problem! I’ll heal and rise!’

Over the next three days theatre masterminds Peter, Craig and Kristina slowly and deliberately layer together stories, songs and movement pieces devised by the group. This is no place for doom and gloom. Instead, the living installation represents babies been born, the possibility of soaring as superheroes, and of people living in the most extreme of places. The cavernous gallery is manipulated to set up small, interactive spaces for audiences to view each story separately, and up close. It is chaotic and noisy and hard to keep up, just like life in Skid Row.

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Every theatre production has its fish hooks, though the issues we encounter at MOCA are far from typical. One performer turns up one day, and doesn’t come back the next. Another has been taken away by police for questioning. Someone who showed signs of feverish learning the previous morning hides in a dark corner of the gallery, his head in his hands. It turns out that while sleeping rough the night before he had his backpack stolen with everything in it. Come break-time, coffee, sandwiches and donuts are devoured. I use this time to film the cast for a 10-minute documentary that will be used as a central part of the performance.

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It’s three days later, 2.50 pm on another blue sky day in LA. We’re seated at MOCA, the cast are ready, the crowd expectant. But there’s a problem. The show is due to start in ten minutes, though one major part of the puzzle is missing. Iron isn’t here.

A man squeezes in beside me and whacks me on the shoulder. His face is bandaged and the back of his t-shirt is covered in sweat. It’s Iron.

‘Hey Justin,’ he whispers. ‘Made it!’

‘Iron …what happened?’

‘Been in surgery,’ he says.

‘Are you okay?’

‘Little sore,’ he replies. ‘Opted for a local over general so I wouldn’t miss the show.’

And he was up and away, acted out of his skin.
Three people die every day on Skid Row, which equates to about 1000 a year. ‘It’s Time’ ends with an installation that draws us to confront this awful fact, the scream of a mother lying beside the slain body of her son echoes around the vast spaces of the gallery. It is Lorraine, imagining what it might have been like had she made it in time to see either of her two sons being killed. A rousing revolutionary song interrupts the tragedy, with the cast and audience singing, ‘I’m not giving up, I’m not giving up, no not yet.’

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We arrive early in the morning in quiet, little old New Zealand. We know we’re home because it takes less than 20 minutes to get from plane to taxi. It’s so great to see my family, my dog pees himself when he sees me. Auckland is so green and doesn’t smell of weed. Yet.

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Thank you to the people of Skid Row who allowed me to film and share their stories in this performance. Huge thanks also to our audiences, MOCA, Skid Row Housing Trust, My Friend’s Place, Urban Voices and The Los Angeles Poverty Department. Thank you for helping us make the invisible stories visible. We’ll be back.

Tonight I head to Los Angeles!

Disneyland? No. Santa Monica? Ah…no.

Skid Row? Yip.

Over the next twelve days, Professor Peter O’Connor from The Creative Thinking Project will work closely with downtown LA organisations working to aid and abet homelessness—among them Urban Voices, My Friend’s Place, and Skid Row Housing Trust. Our workshop will pose questions about the visible and invisible strands of those who live on the streets of Los Angeles. Feel free to read more below, the words of which are taken from the original Newsroom article.

How do you measure misery? Justin Brown travels to ‘the worst man-made disaster in the US’ where he finds hope in theatre.

It’s one in the afternoon and I’m sitting on a park bench outside Verona Cafe on K Road, Auckland. Two men sit beside me. One is drinking warm beer from a 750ml bottle as he chats to a man in a wheelchair with a cigarette butt hanging from his mouth. The men pass the butt to each other, inhaling what is left of it. The man in the wheelchair has an issue with his right leg, it is bloated and twice the size of his left. His mate unscrews the cap of his pawpaw cream tube and rubs some on his friend’s leg, laughing. ‘Now don’t go getting any ideas!’

I soon learn that one of these men has been homeless for 26 years. I feel ridiculous and ashamed about the MacBook in my backpack, the iPhone in my pocket, and the cash in my wallet. The men pass around 50c coins as if they are gold. I give them $20 to buy a burger, knowing where the money will go. Even so.

As I walk to my car I half expect to catch Six, the editor of the K Rd Chronicles who recently hosted a web series of the same name. I loved that series. It gave me an appreciation of what happens on a road where both awful and beautiful things happen, a road which few of us want to think about, mostly because the topic of homelessness involves sticky, murky, uncomfortable questions. Why is it one of our country’s most pressing problems? How did we allow this to happen? Why don’t we care?

A few months later I meet the star of the show herself. Six, whose blurb on K Rd Chronicles describes her as an ‘overqualified, underemployed, transgender journalist’. Six sits cross-legged outside St Kevin’s Arcade, she is selling her community newspaper. I stop. Should I approach her, tell her how much I enjoyed the series? But what will I say? Don’t be such a wimp. As I should have expected, Six is engaging, smart and polite. I take a copy of the paper and go for coffee, unaware just how important her series will be to me.

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A few kilometres from K Rd lies the Hobson Street Theatre Company, a place Professor Peter O’Connor (The University of Auckland and The Creative Thinking Project) knows well.

HSTC is New Zealand’s only theatre company made up of people who are, or have been, homeless. It’s also where Peter created That’s What Friends Are For, a play that ran for five nights at Auckland’s Basement Theatre. The show was advertised as an experiment to discover whether the cast could make friends with the audience in just one hour. In September 2019, the show would be presented with the supreme Creative New Zealand Community Arts Award and the homeless cast were flown to Parliament to receive their award.

Six months later and Peter receives an invitation to Los Angeles to create a performance with arts organisations working with the city’s homeless. Skid Row, in particular. He is asked to collaborate with LAPD (Los Angeles Poverty Department), The Skid Row Housing Trust, Urban Voices, Piece by Piece Mosaic arts and My Friends Place in a bid to create a performance in one week at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

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‘Justin, wanna go to LA?’

It’s Peter.

‘Sure,’ I reply. ‘What for?’

‘Surfing.’

Silence.

‘Just kidding. I want to make a show about the possibilities inherent in hope. To create a play about seeing Skid Row not as a problem but rather about seeing the possibilities of the homeless of LA. To witness strength, purpose, and beauty amidst the ugliness. Let’s celebrate the beauty of survival against all odds and mourn those who have succumbed.’

‘Um, sure, yes, of course! But … what’s the show about?’

‘Dunno?’

‘Who are the actors?’

‘We have been allocated a cast of 25 .’

‘Wait, are you nervous?’

‘Shitting myself.’

All of this despite Peter having created and researched theatre in earthquake zones, prisons, schools, psychiatric hospitals, after terror attacks and with the homeless for nearly 40 years.

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Andy Bales, CEO of the Los Angeles Union Rescue Mission has called Skid Row ‘the worst man-made disaster in the US, a place where 53 blocks of abandoned people have been left to die.’ Those 53 blocks account for approximately 13 percent of the 36,135 homeless individuals in Los Angeles. Since 2012, the number of homeless in Los Angeles has increased by 50 percent. Skid Row itself is home to approximately 5000 people. Imagine the entire population of Warkworth or Cromwell each living in little more than a one-man tent.

After a recent visit to the area, Peter warns me I’ll be in for a shock. ‘The level of human misery on the streets is like visiting a war zone,’ he says. ‘The overwhelming smell of urine and human waste, abject poverty, and loss of hope in the faces of so many is deeply impacting.’

Why such a toilet shortage? Corruption. A decade ago 27 Porta-Potties were placed on Skid Row and from day one gangsters charged the homeless anything from one to five dollars to use them. These days there are fewer than a dozen toilets, forcing many dwellers to use buckets, which are emptied into the street or trash cans. Once a day, the streets are power-washed by authorities to stop disease.

Peter: ‘Yet in the midst of such despair, I found arts organisations doing extraordinary work, rebuilding community and creating moments of beauty that act as an antidote to the ugliness of people’s lives. These social service agencies are committed to reminding the city that Skid Row isn’t the problem, it’s a symptom of a wider problem of human greed that also impacts us in New Zealand. Our show is about the possibilities of Skid Row, of asking people to look with fresh eyes at the beauty and capacity and glory of those who live on these streets.’

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In the past, my travel books have been light and fun, though they’ve always been about people. In UK on a G-String, I door-to-door busked my way around the Motherland. In Teed Off in the USA, I attempted to play golf with whoever featured on the front page of the newspaper in whatever town I was visiting, and in Bowling Through India the Black Craps and I challenged street kids to games of cricket. LA is very different. Peter isn’t the only one kakking himself.

As an ambassador for The Creative Thinking Project, I’ll be leading the documentary team. I’ll try to capture the moment, to find the story. I’ve met the Los Angeles crew on a conference call only, though as soon as I hung up I realised what a scarily brilliant beautiful honour it was to be invited to help curate a performance at one of the city’s major cultural institutions.

Ah, Doubt, I didn’t see you there! What if the whole project tanks? Is it possible to create a performance in one week that highlights the enduring spirit of hope and resilience in the depths of extreme poverty and despair in one of the richest cities on the planet?

What about our American mates? What do they want to achieve? Amanda Hunt, Director of Education and Senior Curator of Programs at MOCA is interested in revealing the artistic and creative potential of the city’s homeless. ‘In doing so,’ she says, ‘we believe it unveils and reminds the city of the humanity of those who live on our streets.’

How do you measure misery? More to the point, how do you fix it? An actor named Richard took part in That’s What Friends Are For at The Basement Theatre. When he was asked what he enjoyed most about the experience he replied, ‘You want to turn your negatives into a positive, and theatre is a great way to do it. Hopefully, I’ll keep doing it for the rest of my life and I know a lot of the cast feel the same. We shine when we’re on stage.’


My dog is a pain in the arse, but I love him.

I love him because he’s instantly become a part of our family. Growing up, we always had a dog in our house, (RIP Holly, Amber and Charlie), but I’ve never owned one myself.

Another thing that occupied my time growing up was cartooning. My sister and I never stopped, all mum had to do when she wanted a cask of wine at the neighbours was to supply us with a pen and paper. We’d lie on our stomachs on the carpet and create. We never stopped. Only, over time, I did.

Something else has been on my mind lately. Lifelong learning. We all dream of it, but what if we get to a point in life where we sit comfortably in our comfort zone and quit? Why the hell would you go to university aged 67? What’s the point of learning Spanish if you’re never going to visit? Personally, one day I want to make guitars?

Will I?

It’s often said that we revert to doing what we did as kids. For me, that was cartoons. My dog Cooper is teaching me how to do it properly. You’ll get to meet him on my new Insta page. Woof.

Friday life lesson – START THAT THING TODAY.

shane-warne-hd-wallpaper-smooking

Women’s cricket needs a need a villain, a cheat, someone to hate (preferably not from these shores). In my latest article for Newsroom I interview Anna Peterson from the White Ferns. While we’re on the topic of cricket, here’s an article where I disprove the theory ‘Never meet your heroes.’

On another note altogether here is how our family recently survived the trauma of a renovation and how we stumbled across what we thought was a little known reptile park north of Auckland.

Enjoy!

 

Reviews for my middle grade novel ‘Shot, Boom, Score!’ have made me smile lately. Here a few:

Lots of humour and home spun philosophy from Justin Brown such as: ‘One day is like scoring a goal in the Cup Final, the next is like being bowled first ball by a girl.’ I know how it feels. Primary and intermediate in appeal especially to reluctant boy readers who love sport.

(Bob’s Book Blog)

A laugh out loud tale for all sports lovers! Cricket and rugby are themes but Toby lives and breathes all sports, is loyal to his mates, and is a likeable character.

(Kids Books Blog)

Over all I rate this fantastic book 9 out of 10. When your mum or dad says go to bed and stop reading you sneakily keep reading because your on a cliff-hanger, then suddenly you’re already done, then you start having a melt down. Well the only downs in this book are probably…nothing so I should probably rate this 10 out of 10 but I don’t want to be too nice. Once again it was totally awesome. This book is about if Toby gets 20 wickets and 10 tries by the end of the season he gets a gameboxv3 but this big bully called mcGravy try’s to stop him from getting that game box so will Toby get those wickets and tries before its to late? And this book is very funny.

(Finn – aged 9)

In the interests of instilling a love of reading in our children we read to them. A lot! What is crucial is that the books we read grab their attention and keep them riveted. And if it can keep the parents who have to read it entertained as well its a welcome bonus. And finally, if there is a lesson or two in there, subtle enough not be be seen as lessons, then great! The whole family enjoyed this book. My wife and I read some each night with the kids always begging for more, no matter how much we read. We had to learn to stop early, then agree to ‘one more chapter’. The adults enjoyed the book as much as the kids because it took us back to what it felt like to be young, and the challenges and issues we faced. When Jill was reading I also wanted ‘just one more chapter’. I got the distinct impression the author has not grown up himself, which is just what’s needed in a children’s book author. Justin captured what it was like to be a kid as if he was still living it. We are reading it for a second time now, and like the Pixar movies, I am sure not for the last time. Brilliant!

(Richard, father of two, South Africa)