Time

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by Yvette Nolan

As it ticks down (how can we possibly open in six days? where did the time go?), we all feel the pressure of having less and less time to do all the things that need to be done. Final sound cues not yet recorded, costumes still being fitted, and how does this moment lead to this moment in this act? When will we get to run the whole thing together?

Time is also the ungainly partner of space. We can only book appropriate rehearsal spaces in small little blocks of time – four hours here, four hours there – which brings us back around to questions like when will we get to the run the whole thing together?

Little details become time-consuming: what do US military personnel call their Forward Operating Bases? Do they use nicknames? Location names? Code names? How do you hold your rifle and push someone with your hands at the same time? How many bottles of beer can one carry in addition to a crate full of bottles?

As the time slips away, the demands on the time seem to increase exponentially. Requests for interviews, program information, decisions about music and sound and video. Less time to contemplate, pressure for a quick and final decision.

And yet, in this river of flowing time, we take a couple of hours to gather and feast, to remember why we do this work. Last Sunday, the company came together to feast the ancestors, the veterans who we wish to honour with this work, the soldiers and the civilians who live and die in war, the late Lori Piestewa, Hopi soldier and the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the American military, whose life and death loosely inspired the second act of A Soldier’s Tale. We feast to remember why we do this work, not for ourselves, but for those who came before and those who will come after. We take the time to acknowledge the way we are connected, backwards and forward in time, and to acknowledge how we are responsible for our actions, our work, our art.

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Both photographs by John Lauener.  Pictured in background, Yvette Nolan.  Above: Eva Greyeyes, with cast.

space

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by

Yvette Nolan

Space.

Rehearsing a piece the size of A Soldier’s Tale presents all kinds of challenges, not the least of which is space. Most theatre companies in Toronto do not have dedicated space, but are dependent on cobbling together rehearsal schedules in a variety of spaces across the city. As a theatre artist, I have rehearsed in buildings with no heat, studios with no access to a bathroom, people’s living rooms, beautiful, equipped spaces which we had to vacate every day at certain time to make way for the next renter, which may be a yoga practice, a bhangra class or an audition.

A Soldier’s Tale is big – thirteen performers onstage – Shawn Kerwin’s set is big, and everything and everyone moves. Signal has managed to secure rehearsal space big enough to contain us all, but we – like our show – move, a lot and often. And the dancers dance, which means sprung floors, or at least forgiving ones.

This adventure in moving takes us all over the city, from the National Ballet School studio to a dance studio up in Thornhill. Two days ago, we battled the snow to our space in Thornhill, most of us arriving late despite leaving home early. Most civilians would have called a snow day, but we were preparing for a showing at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the home of the Canadian Opera Company.

Yesterday, we showed excerpts from both Acts of A Soldier’s Tale in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, to a very full, warm and engaged audience. No costumes, save one, no props, save a pair of army boots and ten chairs rounded up for us by the house Technical Director, scripts in hand, John Gzowski’s music in the air, lighting by the creator, flowing in through the huge glass windows facing Queen Street which frame the astonishing backdrop of the city. It was terrifying because of where we are in the process, and exhilarating because of where we are in the process. During the Question and Answer following the excerpts, audience members asked incisive questions about how we as artists talk about war, and how we address gender politics in our subject matter. Their questions gave us insight into what we are saying with the work.

The staff at the Centre were so welcoming and good-humoured, the showing such a huge success, that would have been enough for one day, and yet, there was more. We ended the day with two hours in the Karen Kain Studio, continuing to work on the second act, solving some staging issues, surrounded by the makeup tables of the opera chorus.

Space.

Space,

The beauty of the “bau probe”

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by Yvette Nolan

This is such an alien concept that most of us didn’t even know the word – bauprobe. The very idea that we could be in the theatre weeks before we open, with our set pieces, trying out staging, is so outrageous that we don’t even have a word for it. Now that we’ve done it though, I don’t know that Signal will ever again create work without it.

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In preparation for A Soldier’s Tale which runs February 20 – 22, we spent two days with the set pieces – rolling flats, wooden crates, bottles – and the team of designers on the stage of the Fleck theatre at Harbourfront Centre. We discovered so many things that we are able to address now, weeks before we actually move into the theatre. The stunningly beautiful panels are more transparent than we had anticipated, and will require some adaptation. (In the world where the bauprobe is de rigueur, the panels would have only been mockups, and we would just build new ones based on our experience onstage, but very few theatres have those kinds of resources, never mind the fledgling Signal Theatre. So, we adapt.) Sound and video designer Andy Moro took advantage of the time to try various projections on various parts of the stage, and he and Michael were able to make choices about placement and effect, with the input of lighting designer Liz Asseltine. Fight director Simon Fon staged a fight with two performers that will be rehearsed from now until we open, a physical action that informs the text that Tara Beagan is creating for the second act.

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The greatest gift of the bauprobe is the reduction of anxiety.  Michael kept remarking that the discoveries we were making now gave us time to respond, that if we were finding these things when we moved into the theatre, three days before we opened, we would be forced to compromise, to abandon some elements that were integral to the vision.  Instead, we go into rehearsal able to focus on the work, the story of how when we go to war, the war comes home with us, with the confidence that the space, when we move into it, will be ready for us to fill it.

Yvette Nolan

Dramaturg

All photographs by John Lauener.

(Pictured: top-Danny McArthur, fight–Simon Fon, w. cast/ words–Tara Beagan)

Staging Ethnicity (Part Three)

Chief Bromden Will Sampson

Will Sampson (as Bromden, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”)

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.

Staging Ethnicity: A Manifesto for Yesterday (Part Three)

I’ll call it “our little cross to bear.”

The actor introduces the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” relating the stories of McMurphy and Bromden trying to lift the marble/ water/ machine device.

Bromden

The actor in his recounting even attempts to lift the podium. He genuinely struggles, muscles straining, veins bulging, but to no avail. He isn’t “big enough.”

Until the very end, when Nurse Ratchet has the Jack Nicholson character lobotomized, and Bromden realizes he must be free or die in that place… Let’s watch that final scene.

A/ V CUE #1: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (final chapter) plays on the screen.

(As the soaring music from the video clip fades, the actor walks back onto the stage facing the audience. The final image of Bromden, his white hospital pants clearly visible against the backdrop of trees and greenery, running free—directly into the countryside.)

That’s a beautiful image.

But they “staged the native” … in a profoundly subtle way.

(genuinely wondering)  Where was Bromden going?

He was heading into the woods… But somehow that was okay?

That was his place.

In nature.

Does he not have the skills to survive there, the knowledge to learn the land and make a home there?

We don’t question that at all. Imagine if Bromden was a Jew, or a Greek. The audience would be worried about him. (anxious) Uh. Where’s he going? He’s running into the woods… There’s bears! And cougars. How is he going to survive? There was a hidden hand here writing that story, re-writing our images. They “staged” the native, and it’s been happening ever since we were first represented on stages and in media in the North American context.

They are packaging, making static our image, our reality according to a set of prescribed codes. In this film, they “staged the native.”

Dramatis Personae refers to casting, who’s on the stage. Will Sampson, who played Bromden, was an incredible actor, an immense presence on screen. We know. We know he is an Aboriginal man. We have no doubt of his authenticity.

Local colour is a term they use in theatre studies, that refers to the trappings of a specific staging. It includes anything we see on stage, the costumes, the set design, the props. Let us say you want to stage Romeo & Juliet, and you want to set it in Italy, during the renaissance. You may not necessarily want to put that Pepsi machine in the background of the piazza. You don’t want to set up something inconsistent with our belief in the time frame, etcetera, etcetera. So local colour is used to lull you into the belief of a presumed reality. It immerses you in a world of belief. And if the “world” of the Indian looks right—then conversely so must the rest of the “package.”

Language. Language is a very powerful tool. When you hear it—you know. It, like the others, immerses you in a world of authenticity. It immerses you in the reality… of the native. Leading your further down the garden path.

And what about the music. I loved that weird harp sound. And there were also the drums… And flute…

(beat)  I could almost hear the hawk cry.

With that as a backdrop of sound, with the drums and the flute—they painted him. They painted him red, unmistakably, as native. You see there was a “hidden hand” writing, imagining that scene according to its creators’ unquestioned (and unexamined) cultural frame.

This reminds me of something Marlon Brando spoke about a few years ago, when he asked why there were no Jewish stereotypes in early (or subsequent) Hollywood films. Of course Hollywood is replete with all those most egregious and outrageous stereotypes: the wily Chinese, the listless and lazy slave, the drunken or lawless Mexican—and countless more. But there is no equivalent Jewish stereotype. Why, he asked?

Of course he was pilloried for saying it: ‘An anti-semite!’ But nonetheless, he was correct. There are no cruel and demeaning stereotypes of the Jew because the Jewish community—who were fortunate enough to be in positions of control within the Hollywood system—saw no benefit to promulgating them. So they didn’t allow them to be presented. You saw their “hand” by the absence of it. And that’s how critical race theory works.

Critical race theory emerged in the 1970s, in America, from the legal academy. In it, the theory asserts (quoting Ric Knowles “Theatre & Interculturalism”):

• That racism is not aberrational but systemic (or ‘ordinary’)

• That racism serves the interests of a white dominant elite and working class who have little material interest in eradicating it

• That race does not, in scientific terms, exist but is invented, socially constructed, and historically variable—although the material consequences of its invention and application are very real

• That no person has her or his own unitary, essentialist identity; rather, everyone participates in identity construction that cuts across a range of categories including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and ability.

Out of this work, other scholars began to examine the “hidden hand” that was writing representation. From this emerged “whiteness studies.” Yes, it’s a course you can take: Whiteness 101. • Ric Knowles, a noted scholar, adds “that whiteness studies reverses the ethnographic gaze, racialises whiteness, and investigates the invention of ‘normal’.” • It asks, “where whiteness comes from, how it became the ordinary, neutral fallback position from which ‘others’ could be viewed and judged…”

You see, you have to look backward in time—you must look toward yesterday to see the hidden hand that has been writing your narrative… “PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN!!!”

From Thine Eyes, Michael Greyeyes

from thine eyes

Photo of Sean Ling, by Cylla von Tiedeman

This is a photo of a recent production from my company, Signal Theatre. This is from thine eyes, which I directed and choreographed.

I have zero interest in staging ethnicity.

Let’s look at the requirements for “staging ethnicity”:

Dramatis Personae: none of my cast were Aboriginal.

Local colour: I assiduously avoided any of the trappings of the native stage—no feathers, no regalia. Modern clothes.

Language: there was little spoken text. It was in fact a dance theatre work—and the text was primarily physical. But again it was not identifiably “native.”

And music. The music included classical work—Mahler, but it was primarily contemporary in its sound. There weren’t any drums or flute present at all.

I was breaking all the “rules.”

But what I am most proud of is that the work was Aboriginal to its core. The creative and dramaturgical team, myself and Yvette Nolan, as writer, were both Aboriginal. The production team and cast was incredibly diverse, but they were all guided by Native Earth Performing Arts (our co-producer) and its 7 core principles: Courage, Generosity, Tolerance, Strength of Character, Patience, Humility, Wisdom. And each section, each moment reflected our knowledge as Aboriginal people and the social realities that affect our communities. The first section explored addiction, the second examined spousal abuse, the third examined how we heal from grief and loss, while the 4th section explored my spiritual belief, taught to me by my parents, of our passage into the next life—as we journey into the land of the dead.

FTE Bones

(The actor becomes more adamant—fiercer—more focused.)

So I stand here before you—before members of my own community—CHARGED WITH THE TASK OF MAPPING A WAY FORWARD!

But there is no way forward—the MAP HAS EXPLODED. We can move forward, backward, up, and down. It does not matter since the paths are too numerous to choose from.

But, at the same time, we must acknowledge our burdens. Too heavy to lift in years past. Too important, too defining to abandon. I just hope that our shoulders are broad enough to carry that past and in so doing… SET IT FREE.

The actor moves to the podium and grasps it at its base—mirroring Bromden from the film clip shown earlier. The actor struggles mightily to gain a grip. He strains but does not relent. He will not give up, until the podium rises. He pauses, then surges it onto his shoulder. Straining. He gains his footing standing with the podium balanced upon him…

**In the ideal setting—the actor would smash the podium through the screen at the back of the stage—letting it rip the fabric, creating a whole through which the actor jumps  (just as Bromden did from Ratchet’s ward)  forcing the audience to stand as he runs away from them, receding into the darkness of backstage.**

(At the PuSh festival in 2012, the stage went to a snap black as the actor began running toward the screen.)

Staging Ethnicity (Part Two)

MG Passchendaele Rife

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.

Staging Ethnicity: A Manifesto for Yesterday  (Part Two)

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.

“Story of the girl who got away.”

Holding the beer in his hand, the actor describes the setting, as he sips his beer.

The American pavilion was a school gymnasium. The band was playing. It was packed. (Aside) I should also mention that at that point in my life, I wasn’t terribly successful at dating. Anyway, the place was packed and then weirdly the crowd parted and there she was across the room. A gorgeous girl. And we looked at each other… and she smiled at me.

So for the rest of the evening, I wandered around exchanging glances with her (the actor walks around the stage, acting out each glance and shy response, sipping his beer)

And then… I went home.

A year goes by.

Next August, I went back to the pavilion, hoping to see her—perhaps do more than merely stare at her this time. But she wasn’t there. I looked everywhere. I was about to give up, when I spotted her… (with utter disbelief and joy) and she was looking for someone. She saw me and smiled again. I smiled back. We smiled at each other all evening… Getting closer and closer to each other and…

Then I went home.

I was so disappointed in myself. I was absolutely determined to speak to her, so I literally couldn’t wait until next year and hoped—hope against hope—she would be there once more. So another year rolled by, and another Folkfest was organized. I was there, beer in hand.

And she saw me.

We were older then, and we gazed at each other more directly. She had a certain look in her eye. Determined, like me, to not let it slip away this time. I walked outside, hoping she would follow me. I was sitting in an area with many chairs. It was nearly empty. I waited only a minute and then she appeared. She saw me, momentarily faltered, and then walked right up to me.

Smiling.

She looked at me and, then indicating the seat next to me, asked if there was anyone sitting there. I smiled back and said no. She turned to sit down and then I noticed at the last possible second that there was a puddle of water on the seat—it had just rained that afternoon—she was about to sit on. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking, but I blurted out—very loudly. “THERE’S WATER ON THAT SEAT!!” She jumped and looked taken aback. I was so embarrassed by the sheer volume and tone of what I just said, that I became tongue-tied. She smiled awkwardly at me and then walked away from me—clearly disappointed or at least embarrassed by the moment.

I wanted to tell her to come back. If only I had… But I couldn’t speak, couldn’t form any words to apologize or explain my outburst… I ran from the Pavilion in shame.

The actor walks back across the stage to the podium.

What this story tells me is that we—Indian people—certainly have patience and fortitude and long memories. (Aside) By the way, I never did see that girl again—but have wondered about her. In the end, I did work up the nerve to ask a girl to marry me. (beat) And interestingly—she’s an American.

The other part of this story is Folkfest.

Jacqueline Taucar in “(Per) Forming Ourselves and Others in Toronto’s Multicultural Caravan Festival,” analyzes the institutional script of the government of Canada and its policy of multiculturalism and the ways that “ethnicity” is organized and performed for consumption by peoples outside of the originating culture. The government funded multicultural preservation and heritage initiatives, through festivals just like “Caravan” in Toronto, “Mosaic” in Regina and “Folkfest” in Saskatoon, among many others. Diversity was now something to be celebrated and shared. Taucar writes: Rather than suggest that multicultural policy is drafted and then written onto performing bodies, I argue that it is a more complex and interconnected process. Multiculturalism is a physical style, an act that performs and is performed by individuals.

As a famous hawker once said, “You gotta give the customer what they want.” And according to many of these festivals it seems they want spicy food, lederhosen, feathered anything, and spaghetti ‘n meatballs!

“At Caravan, tourists saw a ‘staged ethnicity’ produced for consumption” and the “Homeland imaginary.”  Taucar writes: “The relationship between Caravan tourist and the performance was complex and showed the potential for tourist dollars to shape cultural representations through the economy of supply and demand.” But this was not the only angle by which we see the formation and concretizing of culture. There is another concept in which a culture—which is never static, it is always evolving (unless you’re talking about Ancient Egypt or the Sumerians)… creates its own static identity from the inside!

Let us describe it as the “homeland imaginary.” It is a place, a time, a frozen moment—which may or may not have ever existed. It is imagined collectively and defended fiercely. August. The girl who got away. Culture as commodity. The homeland imaginary.

Which brings me to my so-called expertise on matters of cultural significance. I have a past. But it is checkered, shall we say. Equal parts Spider-Man, Brady Bunch and sitting restlessly on my kokum’s couch, while all the grown ups laughed and talk in Cree. Ballet shoes and Chopin. Watching the fancy dancers walk past me—ever the tourist…

This is my claim to authentic knowledge. It reminds me of a passage from Harlem Duet by Djanet Sears, in which Othello explains to Billie, his first wife, that he and Mona—a white woman—are engaged to be married.

The actor walks forward to the downstage lip of the stage.

Othello: “My culture is not my mother’s culture—the culture of my ancestors. My culture is Wordsworth, Shaw, “Leave it to Beaver,” “Dirty Harry” […] I mean, what does Africa have to do with me. We struttin’ around professing some imaginary connection for a land we don’t know. Never seen. Never gonna see.”

(The actor returns to the podium.) This is not uncommon to hear—as colleagues and friends admit in moments of doubt and insecurity that they are inadequate to the task of representing the larger community. (The actor takes on various notes of apologia, contrition, self-loathing, etc.) I’m not Jewish enough… I don’t speak Hebrew. I never grew up on the rez… I grew up in Burnaby. I’m adopted… I don’t speak Cree. I’m not a real Indian… I’m not Black enough… (The actor looks to his right, as if the person speaking that last line is standing to his side.) Negro, please! What on earth are you talking about!!?! My God. You’re trapped in some bizarre snow globe of identity. You’re caught in the homeland imaginary. Of course you have the right to speak, for yourself, your family, for the larger community if you so desire—because you were born into the role. But you can also—if you so desire—just speak for yourself.

Because there is a double-edged sword to those of us of colour, of differing religion, or gender and orientation, in that when we speak—we automatically speak for the greater community. Ask Spike Lee.

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The critics jumped all over his film, Do The Right Thing, which is about the racial tensions in his neighbourhood in Brooklyn. They asked about the absence of drugs in the film—a sin of omission—since crack was exploding across urban America at that time, particularly amongst African American and Hispanic populations. Spike Lee’s supposed mistake was that he did not stage the totality of his ethnicity—all that the dominant white audience expected and perceived of his community. But in fact, it was their framing of his work by their collective perspective that highlighted something crucial in the staging of ethnicity—that audiences expect certain things of us.

Call it what you will.

I’ll call it “our little cross to bear.”

(Stay tuned for Part 3, coming soon)

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

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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)