There were no curtains, no props, no backdrop. It was just a handful of actors and as many in the audience, in a dark space no bigger than a single-car garage, tucked at the end of a corridor beside the Yellowknife Public Library.
That’s where Reneltta Arluk, actor and playwright who calls the Northwest Territories home, staged a week-long play reading series this past February. She and dramaturg Joanna Garfinkel gathered all the recorded plays they could find that were written about the North—72 in total—and narrowed it down to a selection: some written by Northerners, some by southerners; some plays dating as far back as the ’60s, some contemporary ones. She brought together actors from New Brunswick, Alberta, B.C., Nunavut and the NWT. And she invited the public to watch, react, and share their own stories.
Most of the plays, and some of the actors, had never been to the North before. “I want to build a collective awareness of our stories,” Arluk told the audience. “I want us to find our voice.”
"Before, there were no storytellers; only people who told stories. Now, we can sell them life furs." - WILLIAM, Esker Mike and his wife Agiluk
“Never say die” is Aklavik’s motto. The NWT community was settled in 1912 and served as an administrative centre in the Mackenzie Delta for decades before the government declared it unfit for further construction, and in 1953, decided to establish nearby Inuvik instead. But Aklavik persisted, and it’s still on the map today.
This is where we begin. It’s the setting for Esker Mike and his wife Agiluk, which, when it was produced in the early ‘70s, was one of the first plays that didn’t depict the North as an idyllic, simple place. Playwright Herschel Hardin, a Montrealer who’d experienced the North, knew better.
Esker Mike is a Hudson’s Bay Company trapper in Aklavik whose defiant Inuk girlfriend, Agiluk, refuses to bear more children until he can start trapping enough to feed their whole family. Enraged, he forces her into marriage. The Anglican church gladly obliges, but it’s clear Esker Mike would just as easily take his services to the Catholic church. He’s an unscrupulous, foolish businessman: with help from his buddy William, he cheats his way into some welfare money by pretending it’s for Agiluk’s nonexistent cousin, and promptly loses that money in a business deal gone sour. In despair, Agiluk kills and buries two of her children.
“Brutal!” exclaims the constable who finds her, after the deed is done. “Life here is brutal!”
“Not brutal, Mac,” says the weary sergeant beside him. “Difficult. Life here is difficult.”
“Were you offended?” Arluk asks us, the audience, afterwards. We shake our heads. Someone in the back pipes up: “We were uncomfortable at times,” she says. “But not offended. It’s not offensive. It’s just true.”
"I feel like you are a glaring mirror and you can see my thoughts." - SARAH, Tumit
Tumit, Inuktitut for “tracks,” is Reneltta Arluk’s own one-act play. It started out semi-biographical, and over time, it’s taken on a life of its own. Her character, Sarah, discovers she’s pregnant after kicking out her alcoholic boyfriend, then relives her memories of growing up in the bush, being raised by her grandparents; about her missing mother and absentee father, and about being sexually abused as a child.
Afterwards, Arluk tells us about the day before she premiered it at the Talking Stick Festival in Vancouver in 2013. Nothing was going the way it should, and she began to sob out of exhaustion. Her friend and sound technician, Travis Mercredi, took her aside.
“He gave me the biggest hug,” she recalls. “He said, ‘This is your mother’s story. This is my mother’s story. This is all our moms’ stories … Think of all these women we admire who survived a part of life that could’ve destroyed them. You’re sharing [their story].’” Tumit ended up having a successful, sold-out run. And Arluk’s experience reflects a fundamental shift.
“Growing up, we were often shushed: ‘Don’t be so telling! Don’t talk about stuff like that!’” actor Mary Buscemi, who flew in from Iqaluit, explains. “That morphed into these stories of the North being all about mythical creatures we can relate to. We were taught not to tell personal stories.”
"The better you understand and the braver you are, the more beautiful I and all things shall be." SUMNA, Inook and the sun
In the middle of a long, dark winter (as they often are), a young man named Inook declares he wants to bring back happier days by seeking out the Spirit of the Sun. With guidance from the Spirit of the Wind (and some mockery from the Spirit of the Moon), he’s led to an underwater world, where a sea goddess, Sumna, presents him with three challenges, and a bunch of singing seals help him along. He finds his way to the Spirit of the Ice, who’s got the Spirit of the Sun trapped in his kingdom. Inook sets the Sun free and marries her. But once a year, she tells him, she must leave him and return to the spirit world.
Sound familiar? Playwright Henry Beissel probably picked out some tasty morsels of Inuit legends, says actor Tiffany Ayalik, who plays the Sun, “and mixed it with…Greek mythology?” she shrugs.
We in the audience agree Inook and the Sun is weirdly appealing. It was first produced with a cast of marionettes in 1973, and adapted into an opera in the ‘90s.
Is the cultural mishmash acceptable? After some reflection, you might conclude it wouldn’t do so well if it were written today. As with an early Disney movie, you just have to be lenient with Inook and the Sun.
"The real issue is not and will never be climate change. The realy issue is that we, flawed humans, are just terribly ill-equipped to deal with loss." - LEANNA, Sila
“Sila” is an Inuktitut word that can mean wisdom, or it can mean everything around us: the air we breathe, the great life force. Sila is the story of modern Nunavut, where Inuit politicians are shouting to make their voices heard on the global stage, where youth are struggling with drugs and suicide, and newcomers are learning they have no choice but to become part of the community or leave. Playwright Chantal Bilodeau, who’s from Montreal and lives in New York, is working on an eight-part series of plays about the Arctic; Sila is one of them.
When Sila opened in Boston in 2014, Arluk played the lead role of Leanna, an Inuk climate change activist, whose teenage grandson commits suicide. The character is loosely based around prominent Nunavut leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier. Arluk later met Watt-Cloutier at a conference. “I was starstruck,” she recalls. But Watt-Cloutier hadn’t yet seen the play. Like many plays about the North, Sila had never before been shown up here.
It might be because few communities have stages. And that might also be the reason, says Arluk, that so few youth in the North see the performing arts as a creative outlet.
“There’s a sports arena in every community,” she says. “But not necessarily a theatre.”
"[...] a disappearing woman, nobody minds. Just walk. Disappear." - EVANGELINE, Sled
The stage directions for Sled list three settings: “the present, Toronto; a lodge in Northern Ontario and its snowmobile trails; a wilderness farther north.”
In Toronto, a disturbed young man reunites with his long-lost sister after finding out he’d been kidnapped at age four; they develop a confused, sexual relationship. Across the street, a troubled couple is consumed by violence. Through it all, an older, second-generation Italian man watches the neighbourhood go by, recalling the days when being Catholic was a social stigma.
The Northern Ontario lodge is where the couple goes to try to rekindle their marriage, and the displaced young man tries to bury his crimes. The wilderness farther north is where, after her incest, after witnessing her brother kill a man, and after watching her brother collapse and die, the long-lost sister, Evangeline, hopes to disappear.
Is Sled a Northern play? Arluk asks afterwards. Some of us shake our heads. Too much Toronto. And it’s written by Judith Thompson, one of Canada’s most renowned playwrights, who’s not a Northerner either.
But then again, the North is to many people what it is to Sled: a blank slate, a white canvas where we bury our past. A vanishing point.
"It's going to be personal. Very personal." - JOHN TURNER, The Mechanic's Helper
It begins with a tense, fuming silence.
“All you had to do was shake your head and say nothing,” the woman says finally, turning her head to glare at he man who plays Everett George Klippert. He meets her glare. He says nothing.
They exit, and the cast swirls through scenes shifting back and forth from a territorial courtroom to the House of Commons, from the interrogation room where the RCMP officer in Pine Point, NWT, questions Klippert about his relations with other men, to a private conversation between Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and justice minister John Turner.
It’s the first ever public reading of The Mechanic’s Helper, an unfinished play about the last man in Canada imprisoned for being gay.
In August 1965, Klippert was taken in for questioning about an arson case in Pine Point. It’s a ruse: the RCMP officer, acting on complaints from a young man’s parents, probes Klippert about his relationship with that young man and a few others in the 1,000-man mining town. Klippert didn’t need to confess anything, as the woman playing his sister points out. He’d already served time for gross indecency—a charge leveled at many homosexual men at the time—back in Calgary, and he’d left for Pine Point to escape the stigma. But Klippert, an even-tempered mechanic from Calgary with a flirtatious sense of humour, speaks up anyway.
The RCMP officer asks him what he did with whom, and Klippert answers truthfully (the script is drawn almost verbatim from the official record). For that, he’s shut up in a psych ward indefinitely. He eventually learns he’s going to be labelled a dangerous sexual offender. He appeals his case; the territorial court upholds the ruling; his case reaches the Supreme Court, which also doesn’t budge. But it’s enough to set off shouting matches in the House of Commons, culminating in Bill C-150, the 1969 crime bill that conceded the state really should keep their noses out of the nation’s bedrooms.
The playwright watches from the front row.
“This is a Northern story,” says Ben Nind, after a standing ovation. A long-time Yellowknifer who was the executive and artistic director of the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre for nearly 10 years before stepping down in 2012, Nind is also Arluk’s mentor. “The fact that it can appeal to a wider audience is an offshoot benefit. It is a larger issue [than something that] happened in the isolated North.”
Klippert died in 1996. But Nind tracked down the RCMP officer who first arrested him. He had late stage Alzheimer’s when they met. “But he remembered the day he arrested Klippert,” says Nind, “down to the colour and type of car he was driving.”
When Nind completes the script this spring, he’s planning to produce the play and have it open in Pine Point. It’s a shell of a ghost town nowadays; Pine Point stopped being a town in 1988, shortly after the lead-and-zinc mine that founded it shut down. But plenty of people remember Pine Point. And staging the play there, says Nind, “that honours the place, Pine Point, as a dot on the map.”
"...[it's] just plain naive for a grown white man to be scared of Indian fairy tales." - LABINE BROTHER 1, Burning Vision
Before his death in 1940, Louis Ayah, a prophet of the Sahtu Dene, foretold that “forbidden” rocks near Great Bear Lake would be used to destroy people in foreign lands, and spread poison to his people, causing widespread illness. Marie Clements’ Burning Vision, which premiered in 2003, is a story about the Sahtu Dene who mined uranium near Great Bear Lake—the same uranium used to build the atomic bombs that devastated Nagasaki and Hiroshima during WWII.
Maybe you remember this bit of history. Maybe you vaguely recall that Port Radium, near Great Bear Lake, is where the radioactive stuff came from. But it’s quite another thing to watch Fat Man and Little Boy come to life as characters in their own right. To watch an underground uranium miner fall in love with a radium painter—one of the 1930s artists who didn’t realize their glow-in-the-dark paint was killing them—and a Métis baker fall in love with a Japanese fisherman. To see the same actors playing the LaBine brothers, who discovered the uranium ore, also cast as a pair of unsuspecting Dene miners.
It’s a difficult play to process. And it hits home.
Amos Scott, who’s producing his own TV show about Dene culture, thanks the cast, and Arluk most of all. “I’ve been to Délı¸ne, and I’ve been to Great Bear Lake,” he says from his seat in the audience. “I know the history, but I never felt it when I was there.”
You couldn’t picture those places concealing the makings of atomic bombs, he says.
“Because they’re so beautiful.”