« Children of God » and Community Healing Through Theatre: Stories from a DAREarts Artist-Educator

Cathy Elliott is an artist educator with DAREarts’ First Roots program. It’s an honour to be able to share her stories with the ArtBridges community and I want to thank Cathy and Marilyn (the founder of DAREarts) not just for their amazing work, but also for their willingness to share. I hope you enjoy!
– Cora, Indigenous Community Arts Coordinator & Communications Assistant, ArtBridges

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It gets a little difficult sometimes to remember that the word « healing » had more power before it became a made-for-tv catchword, or a politician’s promise or a meme. I have difficulty saying it. Its meaning has been worn down, polished thin through constant use. But it is the only word I can use for what I wish to attempt to describe as a monumental event that has had an effect on my life.

Corey Payette contacted me last summer to audition for a workshop production his musical, Children of God. When I found out what the theme was, and the subject matter, I wondered – how can you approach a subject like this and how do you present it to the people who have been damaged by generations of abuse?

Trigger. React. Release. Rejoice. Heal.

Most of the cast is predominately Indigenous Canadian. We all have or had family members who went to the Residential Schools. We knew about the stories that were being told. We’d heard them before. For me, it was my cousin Pat who went to the Shubenacadie school. Who talked about it, who seems to be still working it out. Playing the record over and over in her mind until it spills out and begins with the words, « Those nuns… »

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Note from Cathy Elliott’s journal: A beautiful first day with Corey Payette and the company of « Children of God. » Wow. I’m overwhelmed by just being here. We speak of such universal things I forget where I am… and to think: we are rehearsing in the chapel of one of those Residential Schools. And this is the view I took, when I got there, out the window, not realizing where I was. Our Elder, a survivor of the school we were in, described looking of that very window as a child, longing for her home. This is the direction she was gazing at, so many years ago.

We rehearsed in the former Chapel of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School now called Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc Chief Louis Centre.  Elder Evelyn Camille came to bless the space and talk a little about the school and what this production meant to her. She described looking out one of the windows and visualizing her home, hundreds of miles away. She was five years old.

This school closed in 1978. I was still in college.

Walking up to the school was like walking into a horror film. I saw an NFB film that depicted a Christmas in this school, featuring little Indian girls in angel costumes, happy to be here, while some of their schoolmates were lucky enough to go home for the holidays and spend them with their families.

Even now, it makes me a little nauseous. I thought a lot about my Grandfather, his siblings, my cousins, the generations of kids who went to the Shubenacadie Indian School in Nova Scotia. As we heard the little kids playing and talking as they walked past our doors on their way to the nursery school down the hall. As we looked at the 24 hour Crisis Line and considered calling.

I had nightmares during this time. I couldn’t shake it all off. It was like a boulder on my heart, pushing down. But because we had the opportunity to dissolve that mass by singing, drumming, moving through that world with the help of our co-cast members and director Corey Payette.

We did our first run-through for an audience that consisted of workers from the now reclaimed building. They were staff members from the building itself, teachers, Elders, Survivors and their family members. We were all devastated at the end of that run-through. It was really hard to hear the reactions of our audience, but it was good to have one all the same.

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There is laughter and lightness in this play that saved us all from wanting to slit our wrists. Or run away. Or just cry for hours. (Although, some of us did, we were unable to staunch the tears for a while. A lot of hugs and handholding.) Corey, who has lived with this story for eight years of development, shook us out of what could become dam, and encouraged us to use this pain and remember why we are doing this.

That word again.

Opening up wounds, letting the pain out, examining the underlying causes of our grief and shame and anger…

The public performances were equally difficult, but rewarding. I folded my tongue around Ojibwe words and nuances.  I walked off the stage at the end of the show on rubbery legs. I stood in the wings and loved this cast with all my heart. I loved the audience for its courage. I loved our creative team for their care and brilliance.

I loved myself in this role.

It became so much more than a role for me. I sang for my Mom. I sang for the women and men in Webequie First Nation back in Ontario who lost their childhood in the schools and their children to suicide. I sang for all the kids I’ve worked with, in the countless arts projects we did together with DAREarts and other arts organizations. I sang for the fathers who look beyond their own feelings of shame to see that their communities need them. I sang for the Elders who came and smudged and blessed every thread, every paintbrush stroke, every voice, every piece of material that was in that Kamloops theatre.

The talk-backs at the end of the three performances we did (I think we could have filled the house for a full run – people drove from a day away to see Children of God.) were like a big hug. Sometimes a shake. But mostly hugs. We talked with Survivors who went to the very school we rehearsed in, and some had good advice and concerns but mostly gratitude for Corey’s work. It was good for the cast to sit and decompress with our audience. It was like we’d all gone on a big trip and weren’t quite ready to go our separate ways.

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Community was a huge factor here. It wasn’t a one-way conversation. It was a circle of artists, teachers, clergy and health workers that made this miracle happen. When people see the path to a constructive way to examine the inconceivable, they band together and come up with a collective way to heal.

The last performance was different from the first. Corey knew I was taking this stuff home with me at night. He told me that the last song, « Bamaapii Ka Wab Migo, » is a celebration of life. A release. That, that was the moment when I could let all of this grief go. To send it off with the smudge and the music. I didn’t have shaky legs at the end of the last show. Chi Miigwetch, Wela’lin Corey, for this healing gift.

Related links:
Urban Ink
CBC interview with Corey Payette
My comment about Community Arts, specifically Indigenous Arts ,with Artbridges

Read Cathy’s previous posts:
03/30/15 – Paving a Future – The Ice Road to Tuk: Stories from a DAREarts Artist-Educator
12/15/14 – You’re Gonna Save the World: Stories from a DAREarts Artist-Educator
10/30/14 – Thunder Bay & Rexdale – Too Much in Common: Stories from a DAREarts Artist-Educator
07/04/14 – Excellence is Earned: Stories from a DAREarts Artist-Educator
05/23/14 – Introducing – DAREarts Atlantic: Stories from a DAREarts Artist-Educator
04/29/14 – DAREarts Out on the Land in Attawpiskat: Stories from a DAREarts Artist-Educator
03/24/14 – My Drum’s Journey: Stories from a DAREarts Artist-Educator
02/16/14 – It Starts With a Circle: Stories from a DAREarts Artist-Educator

Read DAREarts’ profile on ArtBridges’ Community-Engaged Arts Directory and Map
All photos courtesy of DAREarts

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