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A Writing Exercise

Written by Eugene Stickland - November 21, 2019

After a break, I was back with the Stardale girls last night for another writing session for our 2020 performance project, The Road. As we hadn't worked together for a while, I had prepared a rather safe plan, a descriptive writing exercise to gather some more imagery about the road, or path, or city streets the girls find themselves on.

But as I sat listening to Helen and the girls talking in their circle, I had time to reflect on the past week, during which time four people in my life passed away. It's a tough reality about getting older, more and more people will die, but four in a week seems a little excessive. And then that made me wonder just how much death these young girls had experienced in their brief lives.

What we are setting out to explore is the effect of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's Commission's findings on our girls' lives. I was thinking how, sadly, we can get used to that language - Missing and Murdered - and not feel the full impact of the sorrow and hurt that goes along with that. I understand that in a political sense there is justifiably outrage as well, but in working with these girls I can only ask that they share their personal experiences and hardly expect them to speak to a broader societal perspective.

And so, death - the preferred field for writers of all ages and cultures to dig their shovels into. While still in the circle we spoke of loss, of how it feels to lose a friend who suddenly moves away, or how we feel when a loved one actually dies. I spoke of my own experience last week, how it made me feel, and then asked them to share their own thoughts and experiences on paper.

It's a tough thing to ask of these girls, and so as always I told them that if they didn't have any such experience or just didn't feel like going there to draw a picture or listen to music of whatever they felt like doing. It's never my desire to traumatize anyone.

And so off they went to their various tables in the space we meet at, and wasn't I pleasantly surprised to see most of them actually writing, filling in some cases card after card with their brightly-coloured markers? I had mentioned that when we lose someone, when we are grieving, and maybe don't really have anyone we can talk to, that writing can often be very therapeutic and comforting. I think we saw some of that last night.

When the girls came back to the circle, one brave soul read out what she had written. The first part of it was about losing her grandfather who had had Alzheimer's at the end of his life. Young as she was, she still wrestled with the fact that there was no closure for her, he was simply lost to her. When she finished, there were tears and many hugs. And it hit home not just to me but to all of us how terrible for someone to go missing and not to have the chance to say good bye, clear the air, make up from a fight, say "I love you" or whatever the case may be.

It's hard work. It's deep and it's emotional. But come the spring, these girls will stand on a stage somewhere with a powerful and eloquent message to deliver.

Looking Down the Road to the Past

Written by Eugene Stickland - November 3, 2019

Blog #3

Helen McPhaden and I met this summer to discuss creating a new performance piece with the girls, for them to perform at various locations around Calgary as we have done in the past with Committing and The Make Believer Project.

The timing of our meeting was just after the Commission on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women had released its report, so that was certainly on our minds when we sat down to discuss a new project.

As we all know, sadly, one important element of the whole messed up situation is the Highway of Tears in British Columbia. The big question for Helen and me is what exactly do the Stardale girls make of that situation? How does it make them feel? What would they have to say about it that I could help shape into a performance piece?

The tricky part is, it's a very delicate subject and you have to be sensitive to the girls and find a way to talk about such painful realities in a way that won't leave them traumatized. You need to create a larger platform for the story to be told in, to provide a larger context, so in that regard we settled on the idea of The Road, used as it often is as a metaphor for life, which may at some point encompass the Highway of Tears.

With this wider focus, we hope to be able to explore the girls' sense of history of their people - where they came from, how they lived, problems they have faced; then the present - what is the road (or city street) they now find themselves on like; and then the future - what kind of road do they envision for themselves as they grow older, and for their children and grandchildren.

Here's the thing that I hadn't thought about when we began this, and I suppose a reality that is generational. Because I grew up in the pre-digital world, I can envision a time when things were very different than they are now. I'm what's known as a digital immigrant.

Not so for the girls. They are digital natives, so to speak. They don't really know any other way of life or of interacting with the world around them. So, I asked them to imagine a world that has none of the things that we take for granted. Take away the building we were working in, and with-it electricity and heat and plumbing and the chairs we were sitting on and everything else.

This they could do, by and large. But then I asked them what they would do, how they would occupy their time in this natural world, and that became a little more difficult to envision. No smart phones, no tablets, no iTunes or Spotify, no Netflix, no Facebook, no Instagram, no Snapchat - none of what we all take for granted now and spend most of our time engaged with. What then?

There were a lot of blanks drawn on that one. Suddenly the world seemed like a big vacuum with nothing in it. Nothing they were used to, nothing that mattered to them, nothing they could really talk about. It's probably an interesting exercise for anyone these days: how would you spend your time without and of these things we are all now so terribly addicted to?

So, little by little we will creep forward in time. When I think they are ready to learn more about the Highway of Tears and share their feelings about it, we will go there, and it will be an important part of our journey down the road and an important element of our performance piece.

Of course, in creating a piece like this, it's all about the journey, after all.

Committing Again

Written by Eugene Stickland - October 14, 2019

On October 11, three of the Stardale girls (Nicole, Kris and Brook) and I performed our presentation piece, titled Committing, at the beautiful central library in Calgary.

Committing was first developed at Stardale in 2013. Director Helen MacPhaden had become alarmed at the statistics being released at the time pointing to the fact that where was a real suicide crisis among First Nations youth. She thought that developing a piece exploring the subject could be beneficial in terms of creating awareness and helping to foster some discussion about causes and possible solutions. She asked me to facilitate this process and that was my introduction to the Stardale girls' program.

It was, to put it mildly, an unusual process. Imagine a room of teenage girls, about twenty-five of them between eleven and seventeen, suddenly in the presence of a much older white man who's asking them how they feel about suicide. It took some doing to get them to open up and even say "hi" to me, let alone share their thoughts on such a personal and emotional subject.

Not long after we started, Helen received an invitation to present our "play" to hundreds (even thousands given an extended webinar audience) of professionals and policy makers in Edmonton. We had about ten words on paper at that point. I began to develop a twitch in my left eye and was seriously questioning my decision ever to go into the theatre.

But we soldiered on. Eventually I gained the girls' trust and they began to open up and describe their experiences (for example, one girl said one night, "I hung myself the other night") and slowly but surely a script emerged. As far as possible, I tried to use only the girls' words in the text, but I may have added a few bits as needed. We were blessed to have the multi-talented Genevieve Pare work with us and help finalize the script and then direct the girls at our one and only performance in Edmonton. (Others had been booked in Calgary, but it was the time of the flood and in this case, the show did not go on.)

We had twenty-five girls on stage in Edmonton. It was a recipe for disaster but the theater gods were smiling on us and we pulled through. And received an enthusiastic standing ovation for our troubles.

In my mind, there was no way we could hope to duplicate that success, so a few years later, Helen and eight girls and I revisited the script and came up with a pared down version for three girls and a narrator. The way things have gone, that narrator is usually me.

And so that's what we presented at the library.

It was a small audience - they often are when we perform this piece. And yet, whenever we are invited, Helen jumps on the occasion to present the play. She and I are of the same mind on this, I guess. You never know who might be listening, and you never know if hearing this piece might help change the mind of a vulnerable young person who has been thinking of taking her own life.

If one person is listening, then it's all worth while.

Stardale Update

Written by Eugene Stickland - September 30, 2019

I am back working with the girls of the Stardale Women's Group this year. We are developing a performance piece titled "The Road" which came about following a conversation between Helen McPhaden and myself this summer. We had gotten together, as usual at Caffe Beano, shortly after the findings of the Commission into the Inquiry of Missing and Indigenous Women. I was reminded of the Highway of Tears, about which a friend of mine wrote a play a number of years ago. I thought the idea of the road, as metaphor of our girls' lives, as well as that of the history, present and future of their First Nations could lead to an interesting and compelling presentation. And so off we go!

This is the third time I have worked with the girls. (By "the girls," I mean the participants of the Stardale program generally. The girls I first worked with six years ago have moved on and are young women now, though there is some continuity year to year. None of the girls I worked with the first time out are in this year's batch.)

Helen hired me six years ago to create some kind of performance piece examining the issue of youth suicide in First Nations communities. It will probably come as no surprise that the instances of suicide among First Nations youth are markedly higher than in any other community in Canada.

Stardale had been invited to present this piece (whatever it would be) to about 400 policy makers and "experts" in the area at a conference in Edmonton. The room was booked, the audience (an influential one at that) would be there. The only thing we didn't have was something to present and that's where I came in. Helen invited me for coffee at Caffe Beano.

"So I need you to get the girls' thoughts on suicide and from there write a presentation piece that we can do," she likely said.

"OK . . .how many girls are there?"

"25."

"25. Gee, that's a lot. Do they have any acting experience?"

"No."

"How old are they?"

"Between ten and seventeen."

A wiser man than I might have walked away, but I could sense Helen's sincerity and who knows, if we could come up with something that might shine some greater awareness on this situation, maybe even help save a few lives down the road, then it would obviously be worth while.

It was tough sledding, at first. The girls didn't know me. There are very few men involved with Stardale, and what am I if not a white man? A very tall one at that. Some of them really didn't know what to make of me.

Somehow, we got something down on paper. I tried as far as possible to use only the words the girls gave me. We hired a good young theatre maker named Genevieve Pare to direct the piece, and thanks to her good efforts we were able to put together a final script. It was called Committing.

Twenty-five First Nations girls on stage at the same time, right there in flesh and blood, speaking to an audience of over four hundred people who had been talking about them and their problems all morning - it was a very strong statement.

We have been invited to present this piece on many occasions since that day in Edmonton six years ago. A few years ago, Helen and I and several of the girls got together and pared it down to be presented by 3 girls and a narrator (i.e., me).

As I write these words, we are preparing, while in the middle of a snow storm, to present this smaller version of the script at the "Orange Shirt Day" activities in Calgary, "an event that started in 2013 . . . designed to educate and promote awareness about the Indian residential school system and the impact this system had on indigenous communities for more than a century in Canada, and still does today."

Their Motto: Every child matters.

That might well be the motto of the Stardale groups as well.

Eugenius 1 and the story journey begins.


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