Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Bob White, Colleen Murphy, and Appropriation at the 2017 Stratford Festival

The Place: a church meeting room in Stratford, Ontario

The People: adults in a week-long seminar for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

The Event: the guest lecturer, Bob White, a dramaturg for the festival
[D]ramaturgs contextualize the world of a play; establish connections among the text, actors, and audience; offer opportunities for playwrights; generate projects and programs; and create conversations about plays in their communities (source of definition is the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas page.

Dare I tell my story the way the dramaturg told his, the day he was the guest at the seminar? Nah. I'll just tell it like it was. 

Bob White told us that he asked Colleen Murphy to submit three one-page ideas for plays that the Stratford Festival could do this year (2017). Of the three, he really liked one that would become the play the festival is doing this year: The Breathing Hole

What, you wonder, is it about? Here's the description from the festival page
Intersecting with Canada’s history from the moment of First Contact to a future ravaged by climate change, this saga follows the mythic adventures of a polar bear to a profoundly moving conclusion.
Specially commissioned by the Festival to mark Canada 150.
Nothing in there that says Inuit... but if you go to the festival page you'll see an Indigenous woman. A polar bear is behind her. Bob White, at one point, said it is an Inuit story and at another, said it isn't. He also said that they were aware of discussions about appropriation of Aboriginal stories and that they wanted to be careful with The Breathing Hole. Like Bob White, Colleen Murphy, is White. 

Aware of the appropriation conversation, Bob White said he set up a meeting with someone who could look over the play and make sure it was ok. That someone, he said, is Indigenous. He may have said that person's name but I don't remember. That person said it was ok. 

The next thing he had to do was to find some actors who would do the Inuit parts. Bob White said he set up a meeting with some Indigenous actors. Here's where his story got kind of interesting as he recounted how he felt as a White guy going into a room of Indigenous people. He could feel the tension. He'd never felt anything like that before. The actors were not at all pleased or happy about the Breathing Hole project. Oh how I wish there was a recording of that meeting, and of what Bob White said to us that day! 

Bob White said that, in the meeting with the actors, there was a lot of back and forth. On the second day of the meeting, all talk stopped. Nobody said anything. They were at an impasse. A few minutes passed. He wondered if it was all over, if the project was going to fail. 

But, he said, he spoke up, stepping into that silence. He told them their voices were being heard and that their voices would be in the program materials. That seemed to make a difference. This--again--is his telling and my remembering of what he said. One way to think of it: he saved the day and the play went on to open as part of the 2017 festival.

I stood to ask Bob White some questions. I'm paraphrasing as best I remember. If anyone reading this was in that room, please share what you heard. 

I said "If I understand what you've said, the Native actors did not want to do this play because it was written by Colleen Murphy, who is not Native. Do you think, if you were to ask the actors if they would prefer a play written by a Native playwright, they would prefer that?"

Without missing a beat, Bob White said that yes, he was sure they would prefer a play written by a Native playwright. Kudos for his honesty.

And I said "But you did this one, anyway?" 

Again, without missing a beat, Bob White said yes. Again, he was being honest, but this reeks of his privilege and power. 

He also said that they agreed to do it. And then he tried to say something about how it isn't really about Indigenous people, anyway. It is about climate, he said. I was pretty irate by then and said something like "Oh, right. It isn't about us, but you're using us because we're so handy for things like this." There was a bit more. Again, I wish I had been recording that seminar!

A day or so later, I started looking up information about Murphy. 

Prior to The Breathing Hole she did a play called Pig Girl that was controversial. The main character is an aboriginal woman working as a sex trade worker, who is captured by a White man and taken to a pig barn where he rapes, tortures, and kills her. In essence, the play is about MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women). Its premier in Edmonton was followed by a discussion. None of the people in the play, or on that panel, were Indigenous. After hearing from Murphy and the actors, Simons (the moderator) invited the audience to participate in the discussion. 

"A very different debate unfolded." she said, because Tanya Kappo, a founder of Idle No More was in the audience. Among her questions was why there weren't any Native people involved in the play or the panel. An Indigenous playwright spoke next. He said the play was exploiting Indigenous women, using what was happening to them as entertainment and that when a play about that is done, it ought to be done by Indigenous people. Another Indigenous actor stood to say that, too. 

In response, Murphy asserted her right to tell stories she wanted to tell. 

See? Colleen Murphy and Bob White knew a lot about appropriation before embarking on their effort to stage The Breathing Hole because she had been critiqued for it--by Native people. But, she and White--in choosing The Breathing Hole essentially said they don't care about what Native people say--they were gonna do it anyway. And they did. 

I got a copy of the program for The Breathing Hole so I could see what space Bob White provided for the Indigenous actors voices.... but found nothing other than the usual acknowledgements. I imagined a page or portion of a page where the Indigenous actors could say... something! Not sure what they'd say, though! They're in a bind. If you're in theater, working/performing at Stratford is an extraordinary opportunity. If they are perceived as too critical, they could be putting their careers at risk. Bob White said they're in other plays, too, and I am sure they are gaining a lot by being in The Breathing Hole and in whatever other plays they're cast in. What I hope for them and the Inuit director--Reneltta Arluk--is that Stratford brings them back again and again--and that the festival commissions a Native playwright for them to perform and work in.


News articles about The Breathing Hole call it an Indigenous story. But Colleen Murphy is not Indigenous. You cannot call her play Indigenous story. It is a White woman's story and it has some Indigenous parts to it--but still--it is a White woman's story. In theme, it is like Brother Eagle Sister Sky by Susan Jeffers, or any of a long list of books by White people who use Native people to make a point. Climate is definitely of primary concern to Indigenous people but I can't help but wonder what a Native playwright would have chosen to bring to the Stratford stage. 

And, I can't help but wonder what impact it would have in other ways. Right now in shops in Stratford, there's a lot of Inuit art. That's been the case for decades (I first went there in 1989), but you'd be hard pressed to find anything by anyone from the First Nations for whom Ontario is their homelands. 

On September 16th, the festival will live stream a forum with First Nations panelists. Here's the info:
Canadians assume that the First Nations have some special place, that they shape our society in some significant way, but history – as well as contemporary actions and attitudes – might suggest otherwise. In a country where the rest of us are immigrants, what do the First Nations represent, what do we owe them, and what of the future? CBC Ideas host Paul Kennedy moderates a discussion featuring Anishinaabe writer Niigaan Sinclair; Dr. Alexandria Wilson, one of the early members of Idle No More; Nishnaabeg scholar, writer and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson; and indigenous scholar and artist Jarrett Martineau.
This Forum event will be streaming live on our Facebook page on Saturday, September 16 at 10:30 am.

I'll tune in and be back here to add what they say to this post. 

1 comment:

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

Oh no! The ghoul who did that horrific play about the MMIW! No! That was so evil, there's no way she should go near Native subject matter. This is horrific.