Arts

You don't have to leave your house to travel around the world in 80 plays

We asked art lovers how it felt to hear their cultures represented in Soulpepper's new audio drama series.

We asked art lovers how it felt to hear their cultures represented in Soulpepper's new audio drama series

Around the World in 80 Plays. (Soulpepper Theatre/soulpepper.ca)

While international travel remains impossible for most Canadians during the pandemic, Soulpepper Theatre Company is serving up a trip for your imagination. Around the World in 80 Plays is a two-month-long series of audio drama versions of significant theatre works from eight different cultures on five continents: Canada, Argentina, Italy, Russia, India, Iran, Jamaica, and Nigeria. The audio dramas are presented alongside ancillary programming, including documentaries about the plays and playwrights on the CBC Radio program Ideas, links to other important works of art from these cultures and even cooking lessons and restaurant recommendations.

80 Plays is another step in artistic director Weyni Mengesha's plan to make Soulpepper the home of a global theatrical repertoire. For many spectators, it will be an introduction to writers and plays they've never heard of before — or perhaps knew of by repute but not experience. And for audience members with roots in the cultures represented, it's an opportunity to engage with important plays from their own traditions.

In a year when most of us can barely leave our homes, what does it feel like to hear your culture represented in audio form? CBC Arts caught up with three arts lovers to talk about their responses to the first two plays in the series: Moonlodge by Cree-Salteaux writer and arts leader Margo Kane, and The Walls by Argentinian playwright Griselda Gambaro.

Margo Kane's play Moonlodge is a "story of resilience and the incredible mothers, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers who continue to survive with humour, dignity, and honour," says Jani Lauzon, director of Moonlodge. (Getty/Soulpepper Theatre Company)

"My mind was completely and utterly blown," says Victoria-based arts manager Sarah Pocklington after listening to Kane's Moonlodge. "It was brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant."

Pocklington, who is of mixed Cree heritage, knows Margo Kane through their shared professional networks, but had never read or seen Moonlodge before. In the play, originally performed in the 1990s by Kane herself, a young Indigenous woman named Agnes narrates her experience of being separated from her family and raised in foster care, then gradually discovering Indigenous cultures and her own identity within them.

"The way that the story was told, it's very similar to the way that an Indigenous storyteller, an elder, a knowledge-keeper would tell a story," says Pocklington. The storytelling is sufficiently open so that it can be "various things for different people, depending on who they are, where they are, in their life, all kinds of contexts."

The show begins with Agnes interacting with other women in a moonlodge — a place where Indigenous women go to share space during menstruation — and then quickly flashes back to her early life with her family before she is forcibly separated from them. "That was a beautiful home and those kids loved being in that home," says Pocklington. Kane's storytelling captures specific details of Agnes's young life, such as a memory of standing on a chair cooking fry bread. "The descriptions were incredible," says Pocklington. "They were visual. I felt like I was there."

Agnes grows up in foster care with a well-meaning but overbearing white woman called Aunt Sophie, and internalizes a lot of stereotypes about Indigenous people. Agnes "seemed to me to be just the most lovely young lady who was raised completely separated from who she is and from our culture," says Pocklington. "And as a result went into the world really naive, and that breaks my heart."

The play turns into something of a road movie, with Agnes drawn into the 1960/70s West Coast counterculture and finding her way toward engagement with her Indigeneity. Pocklington says she was "almost jumping for joy" when Agnes meets an Indigenous woman named Millie at a pow-wow and is eventually invited by her into the moonlodge. Part of what drew Pocklington into the listening experience, she says, was the "seamless" way in which the actor Samantha Brown, under Jani Lauzon's direction, moves between voicing Agnes, Aunt Sophie, Millie and many other characters, as well as singing many pop and rock songs from the period. Following Agnes's personal journey as she develops a deeper understanding of her own culture beyond the clichés she grew up with was a deeply moving experience for Pocklington.

In The Walls, Griselda Gambaro holds a mirror to state terrorism that still echoes today. In the 1963 play, a young man is placed in a room without trial, interrogated by mysterious figures as his humanity is stripped away. (Getty/Soulpepper)

Beatriz Funes and Melissa Prado are both Toronto residents with roots in Argentina. Funes, who works as a translator, emigrated to Canada in the 1970s during the Dirty War, when tens of thousands of Argentinean citizens disappeared or were tortured or murdered under a military dictatorship. Prado, a lawyer and theatre board member, was born in Canada to Argentine parents; her family moved back to Argentina when Prado was an infant, and she spent formative years there. She met Funes, who is a generation older than her, through her friendship with Funes's son. "This is the way we Argentinians are," laughs Prado. "We invite each other over to our houses and everyone becomes sort of like a big family."

The Walls is a suspenseful drama that depicts a character known only as the Young Man (played by Augusto Bitter) who is brought to a well-furnished room and interrogated by two other men, the Functionary (Carlos González-Vio) and the Usher (Diego Matamoros), as the walls of the room start to close in. Beatriz Pizano's production being told solely through sound and voices "made it even creepier," says Prado. "Because you can't see anything, so you don't know what's really happening."

Remarkably, the play premiered in 1963, more than a decade before the Dirty War — presaging the tactics of random incarceration and psychological warfare that characterized that time. Prado, who knew nothing about the play before she listened to it, says that she wouldn't necessarily "have known that it was about Argentina, in particular without the context, because it is such a universal theme." Funes, on the other hand, knows Gambaro's work well, and agrees that the depiction of the abuse of power has a universal resonance.

"An abuser could be a person, could be an institution, could be one country over another, could be a community over another, could geopolitically be a hemisphere — the North hemisphere over the South hemisphere," said Funes. "I mean, we go on and on and on."

Prado says she found the play "very disturbing" because of how effectively it portrayed the way that individuals, and a whole population, can be brainwashed. "You have no real understanding of reality, because somebody else is telling you what reality is. That's how oppressive governments come to power."

Funes recalled seeing on the Canadian news that Argentina was on its way to defeat in the 1982 Falkland Islands conflict, and then getting on the phone with friends and family in Argentina who had watched their own local news reports. "They said, 'Do you see how we are winning?' And I said, 'Well, I don't think we're winning. I think you're there being destroyed.'"

Having been tied so closely to a situation where state-controlled media distorted the truth, the play hit especially close to home for Funes as she tries to make sense of different messaging around COVID-19. "Sometimes I feel like we are being manipulated.... I distrust, sometimes, the news."

Funes said that while the play is bleak, Gambaro's message still rings true: it's about "the danger of remaining passive."

"We cannot block ourselves in our house, to protect ourselves from abuses of power. We have to respond actively. Otherwise, when the abuser is already at his peak of power, it's already too late."

Left to right: Diego Matamoros recording The Walls, Augusto Bitter recording The Walls, Samantha Brown recording Moonlodge. (Supplied)

No one play — or novel, painting, or song — has the capacity to sum up a culture. But works of art can serve as windows onto places, situations, and times, and, as in the case of these plays, can put audiences back in touch with aspects of their heritage that have the potential to move, inspire, and sometimes disturb. Diving deep into the home place while never leaving home: that's one of the particular and timely benefits this audio series is bringing to listeners across Canada and beyond.

New recordings in the Around the World in 80 Plays series will continue to premiere through June 9. New features premiere on CBC Radio's Ideas every Wednesday. soulpepper.ca

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karen Fricker is a Toronto-based arts writer and educator. She is a theatre critic at the Toronto Star and has written and broadcast for other outlets including Variety, the Irish Times, RTÉ, and the CBC. She is an Associate Professor of Dramatic Arts at Brock University and the author of The Original Stage Productions of Robert Lepage: Making Theatre Global (Manchester University Press, 2020). Karen is involved in a number of projects around new approaches to theatre criticism training, including Seeding the Future (a collaboration between CBC Arts, Obsidian Theatre, Brock University, and York University) and Youth Theatre Ireland’s Young Critics program.

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