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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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