A giant labyrinth has quietly sprouted within a 14,000-square-foot space at Uptown mall. Using the magic of theatre, its creators hope visitors to this maze-like edifice will gain a new and enlightening perspective on relationships between non-indigenous and First Nations people.
I visited the labyrinth this week. It’s located on Uptown’s upper level, not far from a Moores clothing store and a Shopper’s Drug Mart. This curious looking assemblage — housed inside an echoing, empty retail space loaned by Uptown — is constructed with swathes of fabric and recycled wood. Battered-looking windows and doors are a favoured building component.
The labyrinth, built by volunteers, is home to an unorthodox theatre project hatched by Victoria’s Will Weigler, a theatre director and producer. The project is called From the Heart: Enter into the Journey of Reconciliation. Beginning Wednesday, the public is invited to watch 30 volunteers, mostly non-actors, perform self-created vignettes within the labyrinth.
It sounds like fun.
The notion is that you enter the labyrinth and watch performances along the way. These mini theatre pieces, ranging in length from 90 seconds to 10 minutes, share the same theme. They are inspired by “transformative” moments when participants encountered something that made them view their relationships with First Nations people in a new light.
In all the years I’ve been writing about theatre, I’ve never encountered a project quite like this. The actors are non-indigenous folk (although one of the project’s facilitators, Krystal Cook, is a Kwakwaka’wakw woman from the Namgis First Nation of Alert Bay). They are a diverse group, ranging in age from 18 to 80. They represent many walks of life: teachers, students, furniture makers, library clerks, counsellors.
One participant is a Buddhist chaplain with the University of Victoria’s multifaith services. She is Soshin McMurchy, who is 59 and has never acted before in her life.
“Before I’ve run away screaming from acting,” said McMurchy, a thoughtful woman with close-cropped gray hair. “At first I went, ‘No, too scary!’ ”
Weigler and his team sought participants via such organizations as the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria. A friend of McMurchy’s heard about the project and tipped her off.
McMurchy was immediately intrigued. At the time, she was becoming increasingly interested in the relationship between First Nations and non-First Nations people in Canada. McMurchy had even attended several Idle No More protests. But she wanted to take it further.
From the Heart: Enter into the Journey of Reconciliation seemed like the perfect next step. McMurchy collaboratively created a vignette about her and two other women’s experiences with First Nations people. She didn’t describe her own theatre contribution in specifics; the vignettes are, in part, intended to surprise theatregoers. But McMurchy did say her piece is inspired by “moments of realization” regarding her relationship with the First Nations community.
Cook, herself a theatre and dance artist, has worked as a facilitator within aboriginal communities to bring about healing through the arts. She was eager to join the team creating From the Heart: Enter into the Journey of Reconciliation.
“I wanted to be involved, because it is the first time I’d heard of non-indigenous people wanting to take an interest and responsibility and accountability and deep caring to explore this issue on their own,” Cook said.
She encouraged participants to dig deeply within themselves to give their theatre pieces emotional as well as intellectual heft.
During the creative process, some were moved to tears.
“People have just jumped off the cliff and gone for it,” Cook said. “The bravery of people to go into the unknown and be able to sit with it. It has been uncomfortable at times and emotional and intense.”
I first met Weigler 18 months ago. He is an intense, enthusiastic man whose utterances — if written down — would often be punctuated with exclamation marks. Back then, he’d just finished a doctoral dissertation, working with the University of Victoria’s theatre department. Weigler had interviewed people about their unforgettable experiences while attending the theatre; he called them “aha!” moments. He then analyzed these experiences to see if any identifiable patterns emerged.
With From the Heart: Enter into the Journey of Reconciliation, Weigler puts his ideas into practice. He gave the participants theories on how to create “aha-moment” theatre — the sort of theatre that speaks to audiences in an exciting and direct fashion.
From the Heart: Enter into the Journey of Reconciliation was inspired directly by Paulette Regan’s book, Unsettling the Settler Within. Regan (who gave a talk to the theatre participants) suggests non-aboriginals must reject the notion of settlers as peacemakers and acknowledge the “destructive legacy” of colonialists.
Weigler told me the theatrical vignettes hatched by his crew of fledgling actors are nothing short of amazing. And that’s judging by any standard.
“I think community theatre is maligned or dismissed because they don’t match professionals. We’ve tried to find a way for non-professionals to create astonishing work on their own terms,” Weigler said.
“I think we’re doing work that [is so good], professional theatre people will be really hungry to see how we’re doing this.”
The project has had its share of bumps. When a previous warehouse location for From the Heart: Enter into the Journey of Reconciliation fell through, Weigler talked Uptown into hosting the project. It was a last-minute thing. Materials from Portland’s ReBuilding Centre (a non-profit outfit offering recycled building materials) were to be trucked in on a Sunday; Uptown granted permission to use the space just two days earlier.
Originally, Weigler had envisioned a $150,000 project. That level of financial support failed to materialize. Instead, From the Heart: Enter into the Journey of Reconciliation was hatched on a $23,000 shoestring with funding from the Vancouver Foundation, Van City and the B.C. Arts Council.
Volunteer help was the key. For instance, Aboriginal Neighbours — an ecumenical organization founded by the Anglican Diocese of B.C. — provided free lunches for participants. To ensure the labyrinth met the municipal building code, a local architect volunteered her services.
Weigler is impressed the unpaid participants stuck to a rigorous schedule of rehearsals, which meant giving up alternating weeknights and entire Saturdays.
“It’s kind of amazing,” he said. “For three months they stuck with it.”
Weigler hopes other cities will follow Victoria’s lead. He’s creating a how-to book on the process. And a filmmaker is shooting a documentary.
For her part, newbie actress Soshin McMurchy hopes From the Heart: Enter into the Journey of Reconciliation will help — even in a small way — create a better relationship between aboriginals and non-aboriginals in this country.
“I think it’s time to take a stand,” she said. “ I hope this is the seed of a revolutionary, deep change in Canadian mainstream life.”
From the Heart: Enter into the Journey of Reconciliation runs June 12-15 and June 19-22. To purchase tickets link to: ticketrocket.org/events/