A Day of Aboriginal Arts: Starting One Theatre Season With Another

It was a fantastic coincidence that the day I took my mother to see our first English Theatre play of the season was also the opening of Móshkamo, the Aboriginal arts festival at the National Arts Centre. And, coincidentally, the first play of the season was a co-production between the English Theatre Department and the new Aboriginal Theatre Department.  I was very thankful for this as I would have loved to have bought tickets for the Aboriginal Theatre  season this year, but unfortunately I could not justify the extra cost this time (weddings are expensive). So I was content that I would at least be able to attend an Aboriginal Theatre/English Theatre co-production, as well as the opening of Móshkamo. The opening ceremony for this artistic and cultural event was free to attend, so we decided to check it out in the morning before seeing The Unnatural and Accidental Women later that night.

The event began with a parade of canoes down the canal; thankfully, the weather was perfect.  As they docked near the NAC and everyone came ashore, the ceremony began.  Unfortunately, as this portion of the event was held outdoors, it was difficult to see everything that was happening.  As everyone there jostled for space along the outdoor ledges of the NAC, my mother and I found a great spot to sit and watch the canoes come in.  But although our spot on the ledge had a great view of the canal, this meant that we couldn’t really see what happened after that on the ground below the NAC, although we could at least hear the music.

Once the opening ceremony moved inside into the lobby, we had the pleasure of listening to some wonderful speeches and prayers from Aboriginal chiefs, elders, and theatre practitioners.  And, of course we heard from the Artistic Director of Aboriginal Theatre at the NAC, Kevin Loring. I have seen him perform many times on stage at the NAC and I am absolutely thrilled that he was chosen for this position.  I am excited to see what he will bring to theatre at the National Arts Centre and which Aboriginal plays will be appearing on stage over the course of his tenure. The opening ceremonies were concluded with a moving blanketing ceremony honouring a group of renowned Aboriginal playwrights and directors, and I was thrilled to see that one of my favourites – Thomson Highway – was among those on stage.

The events of the morning were so fantastic that I had high hopes for the play that night.  Directed by Muriel Miguel and written by Marie Clements, I was very much looking forward to seeing The Unnatural and Accidental Women. Unfortunately, I was very disappointed with the play.  When an announcement was made at the beginning of the show, warning audience members that some of the content of the play might be hard to handle and that grief counselors were standing by, I was expecting a moving piece that would bring me to tears.  Although I certainly felt bad for the characters on stage, whose stories were inspired by those of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, there was so much that I did not enjoy about the play that it was difficult for me to become fully emotionally invested in the story.

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Based on the language and the stylistic choices, I feel that this is probably one of those plays that is better read than performed.  I would absolutely love to get my hands on a copy of the play since the language was poetic and beautiful, but for some reason I just felt that this did not translate well to the stage.  And I cannot be certain why this is.  Some of the more stylized elements of the play could have easily been elements that were specified in the script, or conscious artistic decisions made by the director.  Although these aspects of the play were interesting, like the flashy bellhops/dancers, I found that they just fell flat during the performance.  This is another reason why I wouldn’t mind reading the script: to see what was intended, what was supposed to be a metaphor, and what was simply a directorial decision.  This story has a lot of depth and I am very disappointed that it didn’t seem to translate well to the stage.

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I even grew underwhelmed with the set as the play progressed.  Although I absolutely adored the set when I walked into the theatre, over time it became unclear as to why certain design decisions had been made.  I loved that the upper level of the set was sectioned off to look like hotel rooms, but the fact that there were beams all along the set separating these rooms interfered with the AV effects.  When text scrolled across the back of the stage wall, it was often obscured by these beams and at times it could be difficult to read what was being projected. Additionally, there were some sound issues throughout the play. At times, the music and microphones were just too loud and the volume was not even consistent.  I know that I saw this play at the beginning of its run, so I hope that for later productions the team was able to work out these issues.

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Unfortunately, we did not stick around to see the second act of this play.  Between not wanting to miss the last bus of the night home and dealing with health issues, when I hear that I play is almost 3 hours long and won’t be over until close to 11pm I immediately have to consider whether I like it enough to stick around.  The play was ok, but was it worth potentially missing the last bus home or feeling unwell the next day? Not really.  And since the play was a kind of collage of different stories of murdered and missing Aboriginal women, after a while all of the stories started to sound repetitive.  And we already knew how each of these stories would end, as the information pertaining to the deaths of these women was projected onto the back of the stage multiple times.  After some discussion, my mother and I felt we weren’t going to see anything too different in the last act from what we had already seen in the first act.

Since I had enjoyed the morning’s activities so much, I was just that much more disappointed that I did not enjoy the play that night.  Especially since it was the first play of the English Theatre season, and it was a part of the Aboriginal Theatre season that I wish I could have bought tickets too.  Based on the success of the Móshkamo opening ceremonies, I have no doubt that the Aboriginal Theatre season will improve and develop into something spectacular.  And based on the line up in the English Theatre season, I am excited to see what the other plays have in store.

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