Concert During Wartime

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Signal Theatre, in association with John Gzowski and The Music Gallery presented excerpts from “A Soldier’s Tale” on November 17th, 2013 @ The Music Gallery in downtown Toronto.  This event was inspired by the legendary wartime concerts organized by Myra Hess.  http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/history/myra-hess-concerts/the-myra-hess-concerts

The concerts served a hugely important public service, a humanitarian goal.

Concert During Wartime was conceived by Signal’s artistic director Michael Greyeyes and composer John Gzowski to present some of the music that Gzowski had created for Signal’s newest project “A Soldier’s Tale,” a co-production with the National Arts Centre and the Canada Dance Festival.  This work will premiere on Feb. 20th, 2014 at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre and presented by DanceWorks, as part of their Mainstage Performance Series.  This hybrid dance/ theatre work examines the aftermath and costs of war.  “A Soldier’s Tale” is a work for 13 performers that emerges from the director’s research into the lives of contemporary soldiers and the disturbing and ongoing trauma that conflict has wrought upon the lives of those soldiers and their families.  Our entire society, in fact, is indicted, as war has become regularized and commodified in our era.  War and the machinery of it are now an integral part of our national economies and our  prejudice against violence is somehow muted in our media discourse, or drowned out by a chorus of voices proclaiming patriotism or xenophobia as sufficient reasons to embark upon such a path.  Every person in the west is embroiled in war–now continual–because of the benefits that it brings to our economies–benefits that we all share, no matter our politics.  Concert During Wartime is intended, therefore, as a simple reminder that we are at war.  Canada is at war, on that November night and as you read this.  Our armaments, our technology, perhaps even our fellow citizens are involved in the destruction that is unfolding across the globe, minute after minute.  We are all downrange is someway and this concert was to remind us, as Myra Hess did in London so many years ago, that people must always gather together and in so doing we  affirm our humanity.  Hopefully, we will also gather to question our national politics in some way, and examine the costs of war in a harshly critical light and question whether or not we are doing enough to end it.

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Background

Gzowski’s music emerged from the demands and narrative of the larger theatre work.  “A Soldier’s Tale” spans a number of generations of soldiers, from WW II to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The music presented in concert is part of Act 2, which is set on a roadside in Iraq, circa 2003.  In this act, a young female soldier awakes to find herself alone in this foreign land, brought to vivid life by Gzowksi’s score.  As the action unfolds, we find ourselves bombarded by images from those conflicts, transitioning between the deserts of Iraq to the homefronts of the West.  Act 2 is meant to provoke and demand from our audience a new awareness of the ongoing trauma in the lives of these soldiers, with alcoholism, domestic abuse, and suicide at record levels.  The effects of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), known previously as shell-shock and combat fatigue, are increasingly coming to the forefront of our consciousness.  War has come home.  And the statistics imply that this is only the tip of an iceberg.

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Ana Groppler, as the soldier in Act 2

(Photograph by John Lauener)

After the concert, one of audience members asked John and myself how the original work, “L’historie du Soldat,” composed by Igor Stravinsky factored into our creation.  Clearly that musical work and the libretto behind it bares little connection to our current work.  This is purposeful.  In 2010, a conductor from the United States asked me to conceive of a new iteration of “L’histoire du Soldat,’ based upon a new score created by Chickasaw composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate.  I told the conductor, I was not compelled by the original libretto, with its Judeo-Christian parable of selling one’s soul for financial gain, but told him I was quite interested in examining the lives of real soldiers and their families.  Unfortunately, this production did not come to fruition, but it did sow the seeds for the upcoming production.

“A Soldier’s Tale” is supported by The Canada Council for the Arts and The Ontario Arts Council.  “A Soldiers’ Tale” is written by Tara Beagan, dramaturgy by Yvette Nolan, with movement dramaturgy by Nancy Latoszewski, with music by John Gzowski, lighting by Elizabeth Asselstine, set and costumes by Shawn Kerwin and sound design by Andy Morrow.  Choreographed and directed by Michael Greyeyes.

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Photograph from Signal Theatre’s 2013 workshop production.

Staging Ethnicity

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Signal Theatre’s Artistic Director was invited to present a manifesto at the 2012 PuSh Festival in Vancouver, that examined among other things, the staging of ethnicity.

man·i·fes·to n
A public written declaration of principles, policies, and objectives.
Artistic manifestos can be a call to arms, a statement of principles, or a line drawn in the sand. They can be a provocation and a challenge to existing tastes and aesthetics, an analysis of landmark productions, a spotlight on seminal points in time, or simply a confirmation of emerging trends, values and practices.

The PuSh Assembly has commissioned a thought-provoking manifesto from acclaimed First Nations actor, choreographer, director and educator Michael Greyeyes. His manifesto will address the inherent complexities of staging ethnicity—what defines “native” theatre, what the public expects it to be, and how this impacts those who create and experience theatre made by contemporary native artists.

The entire manifesto will be published serially, via this blog.

Staging Ethnicity: A Manifesto for Yesterday

An empty stage. On a large backdrop, a single image is projected—white lettering against a black background.

IMAGE: Staging Ethnicity: A Manifesto for Yesterday

An actor walks on stage and approaches a large wooden podium on stage L. He regards the audience intently, relishing the moment.

(forcefully) I’m not an Indian Chief… (a beat—then a sly ¼ turn of the head, with a charming smile and announcer voice) …but I do play one on television.

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IMAGE: Michael Greyeyes as Tecumseh in the PBS Series “We Shall Remain” 

And this, by any reasonable standard, makes me an expert on the matter… Wouldn’t you agree?  My name is Michael Greyeyes. I am Aboriginal. I am Cree. I am a westerner. I am here to discuss… yesterday.

Yesterday seems as good a place to start as any. Even though we have been convinced that yesterday is gone—I don’t think it is actually.

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William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead… (a beat) It isn’t even past.”

Yesterday, I woke up. It was a quiet morning in Toronto. Very little snow, so far this winter. The sky was predominantly grey. The temperature was warm for February. Yesterday was a rather non-descript sort of day. (candidly, honestly) Yesterday, I realized I was without a past. I do not have a name.

The actor pauses for a moment—a look of confusion passes across his face. He recovers.

…Where was I? Yes. The temperature. Unusually warm for February. More akin to a month like August…

South Saskatchewan River

rush-hour-in-saskatoon

August. Sometimes August in Saskatchewan can be downright cool. What’s the saying in Alberta?—after Stampede, it can snow anytime. Saskatchewan’s like that. From when I was about six years old, I spent every August in Saskatoon, where I grew up. And then other times it was blazingly hot. Endless days on my bike. Vinyl banana seat under my ass. Short black hair, slick with sweat and poly-blend longsleeve shirts with buttons and pants. Couldn’t imagine wearing shorts or a t-shirt in those days. Just wasn’t done. Late summer sun. When I think about August and growing up on the prairie, I inevitably think about my attenuation to the land and its culture, the girl who got away, and Folkfest, Saskatoon’s multi-cultural celebration (now in its 30th year).

Let me explain: By the time I was 10 years old, my family had moved to Toronto where I attended the National Ballet School of Canada. I was the first Aboriginal boy to attend that school. Some journalists at the school doing an article on another student saw me run past—a chubby, brown kid—probably sweaty—with jet black hair. It drew their interest.

IMAGE: Indian Boy with Dancing Feet. (Toronto Star, 1977)

We lived in Scarborough, one of Toronto’s suburbs, and every year we travelled home to Saskatoon for the month of August to re-connect ourselves to our families, our friends, neighbours. And to the land. We visited my kokum, my aunties, uncles and my cousins. Trips to Battleford and PA.  Each August, I was reminded that I had a past… and a name… and a community to which I belonged. And. I had Folkfest to look forward to.

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According to its website, the phenomena of Folkfest is described as follows: (buoyantly) “FOR THREE DAYS EVERY YEAR, Saskatoon comes alive with the sights, sounds and tastes of our ethnic heritage. Thousands of volunteers contribute hundreds of hours to ensure your visit to each pavilion is a great experience. Performers of all ages, combined with exquisite artisans, global merchants, talented cooks, and enthusiastic servers, are proud to share their unique culture with you. Join us to become part of the cultural heartbeat of Saskatoon!”

Let me explain: Various communities, such as Ukranian, Greek, Italian, Chinese, Indian and Métis, Phillipino, and Caribbean, among many, would program events, including folkloric dancing, cuisine from their homelands, music and arts and crafts. Folkfest was awesome. I was a teenager, and I was girl-crazy. And those girls at the Indian and Métis pavilion were outta this world. Especially, the pow wow dancers. I looked at them like royalty. I still had a few friends from my days as a kid growing up around Saskatoon’s east end, near Market Mall. I lost touch with most, except for a few—who didn’t hold living in Toronto against me. Like Peter Shuttle. (remembering) Peter Shuttle.

He was cool. He mentioned that the best pavilion was the American one. (disbelief) The Americans had a pavilion!! I had to see that.

And yes… it was the best. They had a Dixieland Jazz band. And they served beer.

MUSIC CUE # 1: Dixieland Jazz (plays softly underneath the following text, until it fades out)

(Aside) I mean the Indian and Métis pavilion could have served beer too, but I think everyone would agree—the optics of that wouldn’t have been—shall we say—ideal. Anyway, Peter knew someone who would serve us. So… there I was with my beer and teenage libido… The actor grabs a plastic cup of beer from the podium’s innards and walks stage right and sits down on 2 empty chairs, downstage R.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

(originally performed @ Performance Works, Feb. 2nd, 2012)