by Ae Ran Jeong
Founded in 1982 the Native Earth Performing Arts (NEPA) (Preston 138) has become synonymous for the start of modern Native theater in Canada and its course resembles the path of survival for Native people in this land. Tomson Highway, the artistic director and playwright of NEPA, planted the seed for contemporary Native theater and the seed grows and develops on its own establishing a unique function and place for Native theater. The specific NEPA template for theater as a ceremony parallels other Aboriginal ceremonies such as the pipe ceremony, the sweat lodge and the prayers of the talking circle. Theater as ceremony seeded by NEPA follows precise processes and practices to create a distinctive working rehearsal procedure. Theater as a ceremony primarily focuses on healing the participants.
NEPA was a role model for the Saskatchewan Native Theater Company (SNTC) and this company, which through the Circle of Voices Program (COV), began in 1999 to work with Aboriginal youth, explores the healing aspect of theater. Kennetch Charlette, artistic director of SNTC and COV, worked directly with Tomson Highway on the original production of Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing. Mr. Charlette is a personal descendent on the artistic line Tomson Highway began. This essay will briefly trace Highway's influence on Kennetch Charlette and then follow the COV's collective creation Indian Time as it continues the path of the healing ceremony of theater.
In his recent essay Should Only Native Actors Have the Right to play Native Roles?, Highway desperately speaks out against hatred (158) and calls for freedom (160). Hatred may be the greatest obstacle for Native people on their healing journey. Hurtful colonial experiences leave a scar on a peoples soul and result in a chain of distrust, blame and revenge. This is a universal, historical experience whether it be the Japanese occupation of Korea or the colonization of North America. Hatred closes the heart tight and even generates a self-destructive energy and a self-hatred which destroys the family, the community and eventually a nation. Highway succinctly writes, " . . . hatred, as who doesn't know, kills and kills completely" (158).
To heal the "internally directed hatred, internally directed violence" (Highway 158) is a process. A process to break the silence and detach oneself from the vicious cycle. To be free and free in spirit one must face the place of pain and liberate oneself from the sore spot. Highway suggests first to unlock and release the anguish, pouring out the poisons in a form of autobiographical or autoportrayal theater. He practised this both in his theater work and his novel writing. Highway wrote the first draft of Dry Lips while in hospital where his father was dying (Schmidt). He snatched ideas from his real experiences. At first he had a dream while sleeping in his fathers bed:
It was a hockey game with this young man who was about 17 years old, and the women were playing. Something happened on the ice, and the man had an epiletic fit, started speaking in tongues, you know , freaking out. It was a desperate thing. So that's where the play started, that was the character Dickie Bird. (Schmidt)
Later he went to the bar near the hospital and recorded his impressions and experiences providing the source for the bar scenes in Dry Lips. During the workshops for Dry Lips which involved sessions of talking and discussing material with the actors, playwright and dramaturge, Mr. Charlette shared stories of his brother suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). He gave Highway personal insights into FAS that became integrated into the part of Dickie Bird which Charlette performed. Billy Meresty, in an interview, also revealed facets about his character Simon Starblanket :
It involved a young man who accidently killed himself. It was based on this young man's real life back home. All of those stories, all of those events, all those tragedies, humour and joy are actually based in real life with real people, our relatives. (Tinguely)
Highway recalled that, " . . . all this time my father was dying . . . The first draft blew out of me as a cry of despair . . . So the play came from the heart, it was a cry, it came from such a deep place" (Schmidt).
Charlette was convinced, right from the beginning of his participation in the workshops of Dry Lips that negative events must be retold and shared so they can be addressed in order for the healing to begin. Only in the recognition can the process be activated towards a healthier attitude and healthier mind. "Only then one can deal with it for what it truly is" (Charlette). He sensed this process of talking out, transforming into theater and the presentation to a public was an essential step to objectifying the internally directed hatred and violence felt by the story owners and that within a safe environment a person may study each problem/poison allowing for the possibility to build strength and courage to face ones own weaknesses. This was the ceremony of theater healing centered on the bravery to face ones own truth and to passionately care with each and every single step.
Rene Highway viewed Dry Lips "as a release for something that has been lurking in our psyches for years & years & years, It is a massive release to see it on stage" (Preston 149). Kennetch Charlette paid homage to Dry Lips, saying it deeply shaped who he was (Charlette). One key that he identified in this process of opening up was the idea that the actors needed to help Highway complete the script. The words of dramaturge Hibbert still echo in his ears to this day: "the process is always about the writer and what the writer needs" (Charlette).
So the actors shared their stories, read the drafts and discussed the script. This shocked the young Charlette who fantasized the struggling writer locked away and isolated in his room in artistic agony finally emerging weeks later with a genius, brilliant product. Highway was always approachable and open to suggestions about character and dialogue. He asked if the stories were working and rewrote material if people suggested changes. Charlette witnessed how a play developed and how his story was needed and he learned how to work with others in creating a script. This was a priceless teaching and it shaped Charlette's vision for the COV and later became an integral part of the ceremonial theater healing process.
Dry Lips changed Charlette's life. He recalled his naive desire to become a great artistic star making millions of dollars, having girl friends and attending fabulous parties. At the time he was a drug and alcohol user, basically destroying himself. While performing the play he "felt the aspects of it" and decided to clean up his life. It was not easy. Failing many times, he sank deeper down till on the advice of other Native people he went back to the Sweat Lodge. That was it! He was never to turn back and succeeded in quitting all substance abuse in 1992 - three years after Dry Lips. He claimed it was the culture that centered him. Native culture pulled him through and kept him healthy. He overcame the eurocentric stereotypes which marginalized him and systematically robbed him of his identity while stamping him a second class pseudo-European, a foreigner to himself.
During the Dry Lips rehearsals at Passe Muraille Theater, Highway always had "a medicine man of a ceremony at the beginning [and] we had an elder come in, Max Ireland, an Onaida man"(Schmidt) who gave a remarkable supportive prayer. This was cultural strengthening for the actors. Even the choice of actors was a deliberate act of communal strengthening of the Native community. Highway chose Native actors who had never acted before. Alan Hibbert, the participating dramaturge observed:
On a philosophical level, to see that Tomson was willing to take a sub par professional actor in order to teach, in order to get that contribution of other Native people . . . Tomson was very committed to his community, so he’d take a lesser performance and come out richer on the pedagogical level. (Schmidt)
It was no coincidence that Charlette, three years after Dry Lips, would turn to his culture for assistance as this cultural connection had been introduced earlier during the Dry Lips rehearsals.
The final lessons of Dry Lips was to come. During the creative collaboration Charlette understood the focus on women and how they represented all people and their plight and how people were abused and abused themselves in a raping of their own culture. Highway realized that these concepts were controversial but he did not expect that the harshest criticism would emanate from the Aboriginal community. Charlette witnessed the power of theater to challenge. Charlette discerned that the Aboriginal community was not fully aware or able to face many questions:
. . . if one questions their very own belief system and puts them off balance they tend to get a little irritated, shall we say? But the irritation that they feel is something that forces us to re-look at ourselves . . . (Charlette)
Charlette felt with conviction that without accepting and then facing the loss of their culture the Aboriginal community would not be able to truly heal. To ignore the negative would only generate a fantasy. Charlotte states:
When I look back now, wow, it was just incredible. What we have achieved and what he [Highway] did to move the Native theater in Canada, it's just phenomenal. I still refer to Tomson Highway as a granddaddy of us all because he was such an influence in my life, I keep moving forward with him in mind all the time because I've seen him struggle through all. I've seen the criticism he's taken and live through and still takes. But he's still here and he's still writing. I hope that he continues. (Charlette)
Charlette now understood a theater practice based on his own personal journey of ceremonies, rituals and talking sessions with all types of collaborators from elders to fellow actors. He appreciated the theater art not from a eurocentric source but from his own cultural essence.
Charlette's sense of mission was further intensified during the shooting of the film Big Bear. Despite the increase of "brown faces" in mainstream stage, film and television there existed few opportunities for young native actors to prepare outside the traditional training institutions so controlled by the exclusive "whiteness" of dominant society. The Native voice with all its distinctive cultural song and dance, movement and imagination was ignored at best and at worst dismantled. Young native actors would learn the mechanics of theater which questioned their cultural context and asked them to fit into the needs of established conventions.
Charlette saw his work with Highway as a gift to share with others and he assumed the responsibility of providing hope and support to those with desires to be an artist free from any cultural guilt. He wanted to correct the notion that being Native was something to be overcome and eliminated. After all, Charlotte pointed out:
We are not to be revolutionary against the system but we are going to make the system pay notice to us because we are not going away, we are going to be here for an awful long time. (Charlette)
SNTC is born from the same impulse that led Tomson Highway, as a little Indian boy to grind his teeth and "[dare] to dream of a career in the theater" (Highway 153). SNTC was born so that Indian people could take control over their own lives and destiny. Cultural identity, the chronic Canadian headache, would be celebrated by SNTC and flourish with the COV program.
Charlette knew the healing power of his tool, theater. He believed that a lack of cultural identity was at the center of the native youth crisis. For Charlette, culture was the aim and at the same time the push to draw people forward. He knew to respect the ceremonies and the pedagogical force that was at the heart of all ceremonies to point to the question of who we are. He knew that the essence of the ceremonial healing theater must follow this path of traditional rituals and ceremony leaving entertainment behind. When asked what is the difference between theater and ceremony and ritual he answers without hesitation "None!" (Charlette).
The term ceremony/ritual, used by Charlette, is a loose philosophical term. In our materialistic, money centred world we search for a place to belong. According to Charlette each person is a spirit entity. It is ridiculous to be spiritual on this earth because we already are a spirit. What is important is to know that one is a spirit and to learn how to be a human being. Since as a human we are mortal we can never answer all the mysteries that surround us. In this limited time one can learn about oneself: Who is one? Why one is here? What is ones specific gift? To exist as a human is itself about ritual. Ritual is life itself. Free from the idea that ritual is religious, the actor working on the body, the mind and voice is an incredible ritual, a ritual journey towards an understanding of this precious life.
Supported by this potent philosophy the COV program consists of three practical elements: a cultural component, a theater based component and a life skills and career component. The eight month program starts with the cultural element. COV introduces the pipe ceremony, the sweat lodge and culminates in participation in the sun dance. The theater element with its actor training, rehearsal process, opening night and touring begin well into the third month. Finally the life skills and career preparation takes the focus for the last months as resources from university and experts in particular fields are invited to provide council as the participants begin to make future plans. The 2004 COV program collaborated with playwright Drew Hayden Taylor to produce Indian Time.
The talking circle is at the heart of the COV program. In the talking circle participants establish a trust towards each other and the program. Their boundaries are revealed and their personal struggles emerge. Charlette comments:
Sometimes it goes really deep. We try to allow them to speak their minds and their hearts and to dig down deep to those things that are painful and hurtful even downright ugly and to bring them up.
The talking circle creates a safe environment where they are protected with their raw emotions. Elder in residence, Earnie Poundmaker is always present guiding and praying. Poundmaker maintains that the most important attitude for the talking circle is non judgement. In fact the talking circle is fundamentally listening. When they listen Poundmaker believes that "the answers always come out from themselves not given to them" (Poundmaker). A trust is built by listening and sharing and the talking circle serves the healing journey.
There are three types of circles; the talking circle, the sharing circle and the healing circle. All circles start with a prayer and the ritual smudging. There is a feather to be held by the one talking and the rest listen. The feather goes around the circle with its own time. No one talks without the feather. They listen. If it is a talking circle the participants talk openly on any kind of subject or issue. Each person will share and speak out. The circle values just speaking the truth from the heart. If it is a sharing circle one person becomes the focus and is allowed to speak on something that has specifically happened. The subject is limitless. One allows oneself to share while the rest listen. When finished the others will speak as a response.
The healing circle is formed when one is ill either physically, mentally or emotionally. A person is placed at the center of the circle and the circle prays for the person. The person asks for healing. Poundmaker and Charlette both believe the grandmothers and grandfathers are present in circles to guide and help the participants. Nobody controls the circle. Charlette asserts that "the circle controls the circle. You get that many people and that many spirits sitting in a circle, depending on the prayers and where everybody is at, they can be incredibly powerful" (Charlette).
From the talking circles COV has developed a working process to create a script. The personal stories are transformed into a theatrical story. After the talking circles are established the professional writer comes in and becomes a part of the circle. The playwright and youth participants get to know each other and slowly open to each other. Then an interview process takes place between them one and one. Taking down all information, they discuss the play, the structure, plot, storyline, characters, and everything. Meantime permission is asked from the story owners to use their story in the final script. Then the playwright goes away for three or four weeks to write and comes back with a working draft. They spend another week in talking circles. Once a final script is drafted, COV has a permission to change it during rehearsals. The rehearsal process, directed by Charlette, breathes life into the script. Drew Hayden Taylor, the 2004 COV playwright notes in the program of Indian Time:
This fabulous group of youth (and when did 18-24 year olds start looking so young) came up with the concept, the storyline, and the issues themselves. I was just their humble vehicle, slapping some dialogue and character names on the story they wanted to tell... I don't know who learned more, myself or them.
It might be scary for the participants to watch their own life story acted out by others on stage, however Charlette believes in the power of story. The truthful story has its own energy which reaches out to other people who need help. By allowing personal experience to go public, one affects others in many unexpected ways. Charlette tells the story owner to be "not fearful but proud." From his own experience, Charlette insists,
All those negative emotions like fear, jealousy, and anger take control of us and lead us down to a very destructive path or a very painful path but when you understand that the fear is just like laughter and happiness, these emotions belong to you. You can learn how to take control of that and not let it control you. (Charlette)
One way of controlling painful emotions is to pour them out and objectify them. As Highway quotes "...before the healing can take place, the poison must first be exposed..." (quote in Dry Lips). Participants confront their weaknesses watching them over and over again during the three week rehearsal, two week run and touring. By the end we hope that participants are stronger. Thomas King writes about this creating the story of who we are:
I'm sure he [my father] didn't leave because he hated me, just as I'm, sure that my mother didn't stay because she loved me. Yet this is the story I continue to tell myself, because it's easy and contains all my anger, and because, in all the years, in all the tellings, I've honed it sharp enough to cut bone" (25).
Pain is brutal to expose and tough to heal. COV does not hesitate to be cruel for the healing process is not always gentle. Native youth have grown up with the stereotypical image of the urban Indian. Poundmaker lists the negative forces that they face all the time:
He is lazy, he is drunk, he is a b&e artist, he belongs to a gang, he is not capable of holding down a job, he is not capable of remaining at school... If one is instilled with these over and over, one begins to accept those negative forces whenever a life crisis occurs.
Poundmaker continues, "It creates a lot of anger and a lot animosity and certainly doesn't do a whole lot for a person's self esteem and their confidence as a human being." Well, we have heard all this before.
One day when I was down at the SNTC theater space researching this essay, a beautiful spring sun called us out during the break. I stood with the youth who were smoking, chatting, and laughing in front of SNTC on the street. Four little kids were coming towards us playing and running. They were looking at us singing "dirty brown, stinky brown, drunk brown." I was so embarrassed not knowing what to do. Immediately I felt an impulse to distance myself from the COV youth. I produced a distorted smile and blushed. I was thankful that I was not a brown Indian watching those little brats disappear. When I looked to the COV participants I despaired at their callousness and apathy. Breaking the numbness, R said "well, I was like that when I was little" and another answered "you are still." They all burst out laughing but I had to hold back tears.
Another day, a guy from the street yelled into the SNTC office, "I have five dollars in my pocket and I have to pay tax to feed these fat Indians..." The guy disappeared and the COV staff came to me asking what he said. I answered, "oh, I... Couldn't hear."
The greatest responsibility for COV is "to reinforce the sense of identity, that our way, that being an Indian person is a good thing," Poundmaker remarks. He continues:
It is through seeking out the original connection between people and Mother Earth that one feels oneself as part of a bigger-self which is the living force that is universe. One stands in the field rooted deeply in the earth empowering oneself. (Poundmaker)
Through the ceremonies and rituals with which Poundmaker assists and the theater that Charlette directs and finally with the life skills and career information the participants fight to hold on to their identity building. Self-destruction caused by self-hatred is the single most serous problem for Native youth today. COV helps them in every possible way. Charlette loves the SNTC motto, "Make It Happen!" Once they build a better sense of who they are, they know how to help themselves and view the world through a healthier frame. Participants become much more confident after COV and they are able to "Make It Happen."
From Dry Lips to Indian Time, Native theater has moved many Indians to a rich time and to a safe place through the ceremonial healing theater. Tomson Highway left Canada feeling "a pressure cooker environment" (158) due to hatred, political correctness, criticism, and a "stultifying and asphyxiating" (159) milieu. He deplores the lack of diversity and challenges "should only Native actors have the right to play Native roles?" It is an urgent cry of freedom, "what we all need, desperately, is room to breathe!" (Highway 159).
It is time for Charlette to prepare an answer. Thanks to Highway throwing the question out Charlette searches for an answer to 'grand daddy's question' as he moves forward one step at a time, which is a hard won lesson from the Indian Time equation.
Charlette, Kennetch. Personal interview. 28 March, 2004.
Highway, Tomson. "Should Only Native Actors Have the Right to play Native Roles?" Rose. Burnaby, B.C. : Talonbooks, 2003. 152-160.
------ Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing. Saskatoon, Sask. : Fifth House, c1989.
King, Thomas. The truth about stories : a native narrative. Toronto : House of Anansi Press, 2003.
Poundmaker, Earnie. Personal interview. 26 March, 2004.
Preston, Jennifer. "Weesageechak Begins to Dance: Native Earth Performing Arts Inc.." The Drama Review (TDR), Vol.36 No.1. School of Arts, New York University, 1992. 135-159.
Schmidt, Susannah. "Interview with Tomson Highway." Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing by Tomson Highway. May, 1998.
------ "Interview with Alun Hibbert, Dramaturg." Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing by Tomson Highway. May, 1998.
Taylor, Hayden Drew. "Playwright's Notes." Indian Time. Saskatchewan Native Theater Company (SNTC). March 26- 8 April, 2004.
Tinguely, Vincent. "Interview with Billy Merasty, Actor." Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing by Tomson Highway. 12 June,1998.