A visual artist I respect tremendously called me in the middle of the day on Saturday, two days after my play The Unplugging opened on the Factory Mainstage, a co-production between Factory and Native Earth. My colleague, whom I will call Maskihkiwiskwe, is in Saskatchewan. She had been dragged into the debate about the casting of the play in Toronto, and she was calling me to ask me what was up.
I thanked Maskihkiwiskwe for calling. She is the first person who has actually called me. We are not friends, though I have seen her work, I have heard her speak, I have worked in the room around her, on projects she has headed. When her number popped up on my phone, I did not know who it was.
I told her I had heard about the discussion on The Facebook, although I am not on The Facebook; people had clipped and sent comments to me. I told her that I had been warned to be careful of my personal safety, that I should watch my back. Maskihkiwiskwe told me that I needed to say something, that the whole thing was raging around me, around my play, and that I needed to speak. But no one has spoken to me, I said.
But you know what is being said, Maskihkiwiskwe said. People are waiting to hear from you. While I find that hard to believe, since no one has asked me, Maskihkiwiskwe says I must say something.
The Unplugging has three roles: two “women of a certain age” and a young man. The women, Bern and Elena, have been banished from a community that only wants “women of child-bearing age”. In order to survive, the women have to dig down inside themselves and remember what they know, what they have learned from their elders. Elena in her mid-sixties, remembers snippets of her language (Anishinaabemowin), how to make a snare and trap rabbit. Bern, the younger at 50-something, is a former party-girl who is completely disconnected from her history, her roots: “So much I don’t know about where I come from”. The knowledge she remembers is the cabin in the north to which she leads them where they might be safe and have a hope of surviving.
I have heard that someone actually said that there are “hundreds of aboriginal actresses” who could have done these roles. There are not. When Nina and I sat down a year or so ago to talk about the play, we made a list of the women who could possibly play the roles. That list included Indigenous actors, and actors from the larger multicultural theatre community. It is not a long list.
Here is a thing. There are so few roles for women, of any age, that it is something of a miracle that there are any women still in the business in their fifties and sixties. Many quit, frustrated by roles or lack of them. Many move into other arenas – film and television, scholarship and the Academy. Over the course of the development of The Unplugging, many fine actresses have read the roles of Elena and Bern. Michaela Washburn and Tara Beagan were the very first Elena and Bern I ever heard; they were both too young by decades. The first reading at Weesageechak featured Patti Shaughnessy and Maev Beatty, both too young. Along the way, Val Pearson, Elinor Holt, Marie Clements, Margo Kane, Tina Cook, Erina Daniels, Colleen Gosgrove and Lisa O’Hara read the roles. With the exception of Margo Kane, all the actors have been too young for the roles. When Margo agreed to play Elena in the premiere of The Unplugging at the Arts Club in Vancouver in 2012, we were all aware of how lucky we were to have her.
(Even when you think you have the secured the perfect cast, there are no guarantees; a third production of The Unplugging by North Road Theatre, directed by Bill Lane, lost its first Indigenous Elena, postponed the show to recast, and then lost its second Elena. Bill Lane recast with Jan Kudelka, and the show just closed to packed house at Debajehmujig Storyteller’s Larry E. Lewis Creation Centre in Manitowaning, after short runs in Sudbury and North Bay.)
Many of the names on our not-long list were not available. I suppose the benefit of lasting into your middle-age as an actor is that you become a rare and precious gift. Many of the names on our list are working, not just in Indigenous plays, but in classics, world and Canadian, in new visions of old plays, or in new plays that imagine this old place in a new way. Similarly, the Indigenous artists on the creative side whose numbers are even smaller than the actors were either unavailable or withdrew for other opportunities. We were fortunate to have the Indigenous scholar Liza-Mare Syron with us in the room throughout the process until the first audience.
Many things play into the casting of a production: availability, ability, desire, resources. Can the theatre afford to bring in actors, if they are even available? I have heard it said if Factory could not cast the roles with Indigenous players, then it should not produce my play.
This is problematic for me, since I am mostly a playwright since I left Native Earth in 2011. During my time at Native Earth, I often found myself reaching across community to cast, since the pool of actors who were available, and affordable (i.e. local), was limited. Large cast plays often stretched our resources to the breaking point: for The Unnatural and Accidental Women, we brought in Lisa C. Ravensbergen, Trish Collins, and the magnificent Muriel Miguel for the role of Aunt Shadie, who was a woman of a certain age. For readings of Larry Guno’s Bunk # 7, about his residential school experience, we plumped our ranks actors from the fu-GEN community, like Byron Abalos and David Yee. We cast across community because the work needed to be done, the authors needed to hear their words onstage, the stories needed to be told.
Which brings me back to The Unplugging.
I had the opportunity to talk to a group of students on Friday night after the show, with Nina. We sat on Camie Koo’s beautiful set, under Michelle Ramsay’s suns, and took questions from the 40 odd students and their teachers. They were smart and curious. They asked about how Nina directed the play, they asked about the casting, they asked about the inspiration for the play. Nina and I talked about how theatre is all relational, about how our long relationship informs the play. Nina talked about the values embedded in the play, and how she and the design team all learned from the text. We talked about our long relationships with these designers, Camie Koo who has designed for both Nina at fu-GEN and Cahoots and for Native Earth, and how Ramsay is my lighting designer when I direct. I talked about Velma Wallis’s telling of the Athabaskan story of Two Old Women, which inspired my 21st century version. I talked about becoming a woman of a certain age, and becoming invisible and how my mother died at 63, impecunious and undervalued, because she was perceived as past her usefulness, and how I had to dig down and remember what I had learned from her in order to go on.
I also spoke about how John Ralston Saul’s book A Fair Country had inspired the play. Saul’s theory is that this country is built on Aboriginal values, that before the British arrived, the first people and the first arrivals were living here together in a good way, intermarrying, practicing egalitarianism, consensus-building, community over individual. I want everyone who lives here to adopt an Indigenous worldview, one that springs from the land on which we all live. My elders have told me “learn the language where you are, Yvette”. I offered that to the students. It behooves us to know where we are living, who was here before us. You can learn the language of the land on which you stand. Elena remembers what she knows and she teaches it to Bern who in turn teaches it to Seamus who, it is hoped, will teach it to the community that has banished the two old women.
Nina has said that everyone on this show has depended on the text to show them the way forward. The play is about generosity, and building community, and understanding how we are all connected, backwards and forwards through time, to those who came before us, and those who are yet to come, and to each other, all of us who are living here now, trying to find a good way forward.
– Yvette Nolan