When new acquaintances find out I teach at a university, the first thing they want to know is what, exactly, I teach. Usually, I say “theatre”. Sometimes they ask for details, and then I explain that our program is academic, not conservatory, and that technically I teach “theatre studies”, not acting. But usually we don’t get that far. “Theatre” seems enough for most people – it’s cool, seems fun, and is largely self-explanatory.
But teaching theatre, for me, isn’t just about introducing students to plays and performance – the obvious stuff. When I explain to my classes at the start of the semester what it is we’re going to be doing together, I often tell them that we’re going to be learning how to be critical, self-aware, thoughtful audience members. This is not just a useful skill for when you find yourself at a live performance; it’s an essential life skill. Being a thoughtful spectator allows you to read the world with care, parse competing sets of information astutely, and examine the things you’re seeing and hearing from multiple angles, in their critical context. In other words: it allows you to bear witness, with care, to our world and the many different peoples in it.
Last weekend I had the privilege to attend a piece of theatre that demanded I bear witness to a very specific, urgent set of experiences: those of indigenous survivors of Canada’s residential school system, their families, and others who have been touched by the official process of truth and reconciliation that took place between 2008 and 2015. (For those who don’t know anything about Canada’s TRC, the archive of its findings is available here. If this seems a bit overwhelming, start here. If you know nothing at all about Canada’s residential school system, read this first.)
The work I attended is called Reckoning, by playwright and actor (and, I’m proud to say, my friend) Tara Beagan and designer Andy Moro, in conjunction with their company Article 11. It’s at the Theatre Centre in Toronto (an amazing arts hub and incubator) until Sunday 24 April.
Reckoning is composed of three short plays: a dance-movement piece with recorded sound, (Witness) in which John Ng performs the role of a TRC commissioner, coming steadily more undone as he encounters the brutal testimony he is meant to synthesise; a realistic scene (Daughter) in which PJ Prudat plays the child of a former teacher accused of rape who seduces her father’s accuser (played by Glen Gould); and a truly hilarious, incredibly poignant monologue (Survivor) by Jonathan Fisher, who plays a survivor recording a note for his family as he prepares to commit suicide on the steps of parliament in an act of protest against the insufficiencies of the reconciliation process.
These are the bare bones. This show’s power, however, resides in the ways it asks us, over and over, to look again – to look deeply into and engage thoughtfully with seemingly simple, spare scenes. Reckoning is elegant, gorgeous to watch, expertly composed. But it is not at all beautiful – and in this contrast its truth lies.
In the first scene, Ng’s official witness enters his office tentatively, slowly; soon, he begins to contort as the language of the commission’s official documents (transmitted through the space’s sound system) hits him literally in his gut, snakes across his body. He removes pages and pages of testimony from his briefcase only to feel, too, their violence; he grabs his task lamp and turns it into a gruesome, angry eye, staring hard at words that could scarcely be more viscerally draining. The virtuosity of his movements contrast sharply with the contortions he must undergo, dancing with the angry, bright light as he struggles to get out of the room. His body bears literal witness to the demands of bearing witness to the material we are all encountering together. He trains us in the act of witness as we prepare to continue Reckoning‘s journey.
Prudat and Gould have an even greater challenge: to “act natural” as they embody two people whose experiences of the residential school system are both historical, distant, and yet profoundly present and immediate. Prudat’s character was born at a residential school, her mother a student and her father a teacher; Gould’s is a survivor preparing to give testimony to the TRC. When the play opens they have just had sex; they then begin drinking and talking. Prudat’s daughter has been torn apart by the accusations against her father, who has since died; she has invited Gould’s character home in order to see him in the flesh, but also, it appears, to see her father again, and to demand he/they (both?) witness her suicide in the face of his accusations, her loss.
The naturalistic set-up of this scene makes it gut-wrenching: as always with Beagan’s plays, naturalism is here a vehicle for profound intimacy onstage that goes painfully awry, and that requires audiences to squirm through the anxiety and discomfort witnessing others’ bodily intimacy can impose. Here, I found myself fascinated by Prudat’s gorgeous body, dressed only in a slip, but pulled sideways by the sheer complexity of her lived experience as a child of the residential school system, a woman trapped by her love for her father despite the wreckage of her origins, able to see both sides of the commission’s work (supporting survivors, suing for justice for both survivors and accused) and yet unable to see her way clear of the implications of the commission for her family, her future. Even as they ask us to revel in Prudat’s beauty and Gould’s charm, Beagan and Moro here require us to look beyond them, into the unexpected difficulty of this daughter’s relationships, coloured as they all are by her colonial present, and to recognize the “reconciliation” process as uneven, inadequate, ugly, deeply damaging.
Daughter ends with a moment of violence aborted, and a glass of wine flung sideways. When the lights come up Jonathan Fisher appears to mop the deck, makes light of the work, and everyone (at last) can laugh, unburden a bit. At the performance I attended Prudat caught a chair as it nearly fell from the platform stage; this became our opportunity to applaud, since applause had felt quite wrong at the end of her and Gould’s performance. I found this accident instructive, powerful: does bearing witness at the theatre mean applause, bravos, or boos? Not really. Those are acknowledgements of work, declarations of approval (or not). Witnessing human experience, human bodies in pain, at the theatre requires something very different. When we clap, we thank the actors for their labour, and then put it to one side; when we do not clap, as in instances like this, it is (I hope) because we are doing our own work, prompted by the work of the actors and production team to labour ourselves in their stead.
Fisher’s closing monologue is, like Ng’s piece, an exercise in virtuosity; so damn deadpan-funny I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t supposed to be enjoying it – after all, he’s recording a suicide note! OR, was I? Fisher’s survivor obviously wanted the people for whom he was recording his message (Charlie, his nephew, and Trina, his sister) to feel both his joy and his sadness, to hear his funny as well as his hurt. How do we live with two contradictory emotions at once? Can the pleasure we take in a performance be more than “culinary” (as Bertolt Brecht might say)? Can it enable our political engagement? These are hard, nuanced questions – the kinds of questions essential to developing a practice of critical spectatorship.
Near the end of his recording Fisher’s character makes us all get up: he DEMANDS, with acute vocal force, that we stand to sing, with him, Canada’s national anthem. For the purposes of his note this is a deeply ironic gesture: our anthem is laden with assumptions about who owns Canada, who owes Canada allegiance, and who Canadians are (sons, not daughters, according to the lyrics – sorry, ladies! Fisher deadpans again). This is the one moment in Reckoning when I was called upon to use my physical body to meet the performance; it’s easy for spectators sitting in the dark to forget we have bodies, unless the seats are especially uncomfortable, or unless the bathroom beckons. Strangely, however, in this case none of us seemed reluctant to get up. Fisher’s script required him to boom out his demand that we stand, but it wasn’t really necessary. We were all already on our feet.
Something about this work, this process through which it had taken us, had made us all well aware of, and also prepared for, the need to rise and meet Fisher’s voice and eyes. (And our voices he insisted upon: none of this lip-sync pretending, he scolded.) Meeting survivors’ eyes with our own eyes, open wide and searching for more than we think we already see, know. Meeting survivors’ voices with our voices, ready to speak of the atrocities, the cultural genocide, on which this country is founded, and ready to speak toward a better shared future.
That’s not reconciliation, but it’s the first step towards a reckoning.
NOTE: I’d like to thank Tara and Andy for extending me a complimentary ticket for this show. Work like Reckoning is made on a shoestring, and needs our support. Go see it!