God’s Lake: the lived truths

Photo courtesy of Astros Media

God’s Lake Narrows is a small Indigenous community located approximately 550 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. This isolated fly-in community is only accessed by way of plane, boat or winter ice roads.

Certain lives within this community will be explored in the upcoming verbatim theatre production, God’s Lake, hosted by Presentation House Theatre. It runs from Feb. 18–23 and is presented by Victoria’s Castlereigh Theatre Company. The company specializes in documentary style theatre based on real-life accounts and storytelling.

Genesis of the play

The community has seen its share of tragedy, says Francesca Albright, the artistic director of the company. In 2013, the community was shaken by the murder of 15-year old Leah Anderson. The community is still waiting for answers seven years later.

“This project came along when myself and Kevin Lee Burton, award-winning filmmaker, producer and former resident of God’s Lake Narrows, began a conversation about collaborating on a story about the unresolved death within the broader context of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada and traditional justice,” says Albright.

The piece has been in research and development since 2017. During this time, Britt Small, the director, says that the true-to-life nature of the story affects how she navigates her role.

“Because it is a verbatim piece there is an obligation to be as authentic and clear as possible. To not mediate that in any way and let it exist as it is,” says Small.

During this last year after their festival premiere in January 2019, they have spent time refining the production through collaboration with local artists. They brought in the expertise of costume designer Carmen Thompson and collaborative choreographer Starr Muranko of Raven Spirit Dance.

“Starr worked with the actors to generate a [physical and emotional vocabulary] about the words they were saying. This I think has really deepened the work,” says Small.

Indigenous foundations

(Left to right) Erica Wilson, Akalu, Ashley Cook, Nick Benz. | Photo by Naomi Devine Photography

In July, composers, Ziibiwan and Melody McKiver traveled to Sioux Lookout for a week to work through and reimagine the score. In combination with Burton’s original film work, new projection designers Astros Media captured video and photographic footage from Manitoba. This multidisciplinary approach transports the audience into another space.

“The understanding and feeling of it are more prismatic as opposed to just words on paper giving it a kind of feeling that you cannot get anywhere else,” says Small.

While the multi-disciplinary production serves as a unique approach to verbatim theatre, it is important that the script honours the story and words of the people who spoke them. Having strong Indigenous foundations and sometimes common life experiences helps the dialogue to elevate and illuminate some uncomfortable truths.

“All the dialogue within the script is not Indigenous people speaking to Indigenous people. It is a dialogue of Indigenous people speaking to non-Indigenous people. If the audience is non-Indigenous, I want them to know we are speaking directly to them,” says actor, Aqqalu Meekis.

Meekis, best-known for his work on the APTN tv production Cashing In, is from the Oji-Cree Nation of Sandy Lake reserve, another fly in community in Northern Ontario. It has had its own share of tragedies.

“The nuances brought up in the script, I can definitely relate to and understand,” says Meekis.

While the play reflects on a specific tragedy, it does offer hope. Small, who says she was humbled by working on this piece, comments that there are solutions suggested by some of the characters. Over and over the play talks about what home really means for people, home within self, community and the larger world.

“In the end, it is about how we find kinship with each other and how we are accountable with each other as people regardless of where we are from,” Small says.

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