New play addresses the ongoing trauma of residential schools

"Although the new play Reckoning would be timely at any moment, I am overwhelmed by the realization of its particular poignancy now."

The long road to reconciliation is explored in Tara Beagan and Andy Moro's Reckoning

PJ Prudat and Glen Gould in a promo still from Reckoning ( Andy Moro/ARTICLE 11)

Although the new play Reckoning would be timely at any moment, I am overwhelmed by the realization of its particular poignancy now. A few days after I spoke with its creators, Tara Beagan and Andy Moro, headlines were flooded with the news of a horrific spate of suicide attempts that have now led to a state of emergency being called in Attawapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario. One of the triggers named for this extreme wave of tragedy is the "emotional damage caused by abuse during enrolment at residential schools [that is] having a ripple effect throughout the generations." As I write this article, a coalition of Idle No More and Black Lives Matter protestors are currently occupying the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada office in Toronto demanding that the federal government take immediate and long-term action. 

Reckoning — which opens this weekend at the Theatre Centre in Toronto — is a triptych of stories that use movement, video and text to theatrically explore three separate experiences with Indian Residential Schools, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its impact across the country.  It was written, directed and designed by Beagan (Ntlaka'pamux and Irish-Canadian) and Moro (Omushkego Cree and mixed European), who are also the founders of Article 11, a production company inspired by traditional indigenous ways of living. They both spoke to CBC Arts about the project.

What kind of research did you do to write Reckoning?

Beagan: My mom applied for the Common Experience Payment so when that option was on the table it was a really interesting conversation in our house because we weren't sure what it would mean to accept the money or what it would signify not to pursue the money. Getting taken from your parents at six-years-old, there is no making up for that, so it's a tricky thing. I was investigating it partly as an artist and partly as somebody whose family was impacted by it. I read as much of the official documentation that I could and then once Andy and I were certain that we had this idea for a triptych, we started putting our heads together and really thinking about all the different perspectives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, all the different lives that have walked through that Commission and what it means for all of them and how much peripheral damage there has been just because of the Commission, in spite of some people having really really good intentions.

How do you practice self-care when writing and producing this work?

Moro: Because we're partners on and off stage, that can be a strength and also kind of the hard part. We have to remember to look after each other and take care of each other. There was one day when I got home and Tara was a wreck because she'd been working with some of the official documents around the adjudication process. Sometimes just being with the material is really traumatizing. Once we got together with the team, they were really strong indigenous artists who know how to hold each other up and be strong in the work. In a way, the act of telling [these stories] is a way to care for each other as individuals and as a community.

Beagan: We keep medicines in the room, and if we get overwhelmed, we're rehearsing in a place and we're performing in a space that understands what smudging is. We make sure that we work in the spaces that know what it means to be an urban Indian and to practice self-care.

Moro: And we've extended that to the performances themselves. We'll have social workers there on-hand in case anybody in the audience feels the need to step out or smudge, or just talk to somebody and face those things that are often really suppressed in our histories.

Why is it important for artists to create space for the stories of survivors?

Beagan: There are so many people who fell through the cracks of that whole [TRC] system. [There are] people who went through terrible trauma in the schools but are completely unwilling to accept any amendment money. There are people who refuse to be put back into a system, to speak all of those traumas again for people who they maybe just met that day and then to be given money for it. So where does that sit for those people? For us it's important to keep the conversation open so that the community can feel on a grander scale that we don't remotely think it's over yet. The 94 calls to action are just the starting point. Attending the final report in Ottawa in December, the enormity of the emotions in that room were such that it has to go through our artist nets. We can only hold each other by continuing to acknowledge and keeping the conversation going. By making sure that we all look each other in the eye and say, 'hey, we're still doing this.' Nothing is reconciled. We want to head in that direction but it's a long, long road.

Moro: There's something really interesting about this material because it does impact so emotionally, everybody feels like their experience within the system and with these stories is the experience just because it's so huge personally. It's really important to communicate how expansive and important and personal and universal [this is].

Nothing is reconciled. We want to head in that direction but it's a long, long road.- Tara Beagan

Why did you choose the medium of theatre to explore these stories?

Moro: It's a triptych, three separate stories, three separate accounts and not only are they completely independent of one another but they're also treated with three very different theatrical styles. In a way, they feel like three separate shows but they're back to back and it speaks to how different people's experiences are. We're using our collective experience as theatre artists to bring different aesthetics to each chapter of this story. I don't know if you can do that in a way that isn't theatre. We are in fact in a room together, so you can feel the energy of everybody being right in it. When you're in a room together, it's a different thing.

Beagan: The thing that all three sections in the triptych share in many ways [is that] we're becoming uncomfortably intimate with the characters. By the end of the show there will be people in the audience who have inhaled breath that one of the actors has exhaled. It's that close. It's a communing. After we've gone through that experience together, we're sharing a room together. So there can be this caretaking. In between the three sessions, when the actors are not in character, [they will be] working with other actors to re-set the stage for the next telling. Lights will spread through the room so that everyone can see each other. Care workers will be on hand to help [audience members] leave the room if they want to and do whatever they need to do, and then come back in if they want to come back in. We're building air and we're building space for each other around all of the scenes because we do hit hard. We come in hard and strong. We have to allow for people to breathe and look around the room and remember that we're safe.

Moro: It's a way of acknowledging this is heavy material and it is personal for so many of us. But we're not therapists. We're artists. We're storytellers. So we need to stay in that place and remind each other and the people that join us in that room that this is a creative response to something that is emotional and is personal, but it is theatre. It's not therapy. It's theatre.

What are your hopes for the play beyond this production?

Beagan: I hope to definitely keep the show around. It's created and performed by indigenous artists so that makes it worth being accountable to each other and to the stories. And we are necessarily invested in the subject matter. In no way is it tourism. It's coming from deep inside of ourselves so we believe that we have created a piece that people will want to have around because of its strength as art, not simply as a conversation piece for politics, but as something that is moving and that unites humanity. As lofty as that sounds, that's ultimately the hope for why we make art.

Reckoning. Created and produced by Article 11. Apr 15-24. The Theatre Centre, Toronto.