Last Friday’s sunny evening marked the opening of The Hidden Stories Project, a production featured in this year’s Fringe Festival and directed by Susan Uchiatius with Bill Beauregarde. I put seeing this show at the top of my list of priorities after reading Theatre Terrific’s Press Release a couple weeks prior. My interest was predominantly piqued by the diversity of the cast, and the show’s premise to successfully and peacefully integrate this diversity into a collective unit of healing. I must admit that I was slightly skeptical as to how a less than sixty minute production was going to solve the complexities surrounding multicultural coexistence. It would be unjust to claim that all cultures and individuals of varying abilities hold the same hierarchical position on the social and cultural ladder. One’s power and privilege can willingly or blindingly prohibit them from wanting to understand the issues that affect those lower on the ladder. I headed into the show with multiple questions surrounding these concerns on my mind, specifically: can empathy be taught? This was a complex question that Hidden Stories answered by disassembling cultural power structures, and stripping down to the core elements that define our humanity as a unified group.
As I took my seat amongst the audience members on the wooden path in Sculptural Grove, fixated directly behind the Performance Works building on Granville Island, I stared out at the actors frozen in tableau position. They were split into two groups, dispersed amongst the grass along the glistening water, and graced by the streams of sunlight pouring in through the overarching trees as the sun prepared to set. The two large speakers on opposing ends enclosing the stage began to pound out a fusion of nature sounds with hints of electronic vibrations. Entering from stage left was Daryl Dickinson, arms out swimming his way onstage wearing an elaborate head piece indicative of his salmon animal spirit (and who would come to hold more significance than the audience was set to anticipate).
The diversity of the cast was immediately made apparent; a mix of men and women, with varying ages and cultural and ethnic backgrounds. There were people of all different abilities; physical, cognitive, and emotional. It was a utopian amassment of actors, painting a picture reflective of contrasting human characteristics. Each actor gave a wonderfully high calibre performance, enhancing the already emotional and inclusive production.
Each tree trunk held various handmade masks that each presented exaggerated, yet simplistic animal faces, which were stylistically similar to the ones in Picasso’s “Guernica” painting. The salmon character took his seat on the front log, prompting a group of four individuals to break from their tableau stance and begin wandering aimlessly in exaggerated movements across the stage. They would occasionally pause to interact with both visible and invisible forms of nature, until they discovered a mask on a tree representational of their inner spirit animal. The assemblage of masks over their faces marked the official transformation into spirit animal, and with a sudden sharp shift in sound they began to notice the presence of one another. The interactions that followed suit were odd, yet amusing; some held hands running across the stage, there was the nibbling of imaginary food, and a couple with linked arms back-to-back were wiggling whilst moaning. These bodily gestures provided an abstract manner of portraying nuanced forms of communication.
This pattern occurred another three times, beginning with emphasizing the individuality of each character embarking on a path to self-discovery, displayed through interpretive movement, leading to the metamorphosis. Each spirit animal becomes willingly immersed in a community symbolic of a direction (east, south, west, and north), emerging into a collective identity and synergy by the mere act of embracing one another's characteristics.
It is interesting to note that during this process, there are absolutely no words spoken; all communicative language is displayed through sound, interpretive movement and body gestures. While a potential viewer might express concern over the ability to fully grasp the premise of the play, given the lack of words uttered, this actually enhances its intended healing and sharing components. Additionally, it leaves further room for the audience’s individual interpretation, which is the defining element of art in all its forms.
The power of the message in Hidden Stories must also be partly attributed to Daryl Dickenson in his role as the salmon, who essentially functioned as the transition between the scenes, narrating each directional group. That familiar nature-meets-electronic fusion sound from the opening scene would play, and the salmon would rise from his log making his way across the stage in his interpretive swim movement, gracefully and with serenity. The salmon’s final dance consisted of Dickinson wandering offstage behind a black wall, re-emerging within seconds and beating a drum. As he made his way back to centre stage, each beat of the drum awakened the remaining characters who had all fallen to the ground.
This led to the most powerful moment in the play; all the actors congregated in close proximity as Gloria May Eshkibok flawlessly recited Garry Gottfriedson’s poem “We Are These”. She began her Indigenous chant in a melodic, forceful and raspy voice that was echoed in English by Patti Palm. All four directional groups amalgamated into a single newly formed unit, breaking into Ian Wallace’s choreographed movements as they joined in the reciting of the poem.
It is at this very point that you begin to make the connection; the salmon’s transitions functioned as a means of connecting these groups. The collaboration with Aboriginal Front Door is made apparent, as the salmon is symbolic of livelihood within Pacific Northwest indigenous cultures. The annual return of the salmon was glorified, serving as assurance for the renewal and continuation of human life. I spoke with Uchatius about how the salmon of life in this particular production functioned as a reminder to all of humanity that despite all the differences presented both in the play and in daily life, the basic essentials--birth, love, sight, sound, dance, and death--ultimately represent how we are all connected.
Can empathy be taught? From what I witnessed in Hidden Stories, it most certainly could. Despite tackling such large and complex issues, Theatre Terrific challenged us to press for courage and grace over pride, as its characters knocked down their pretentious walls built as a means of defence against hardships, and were stripped to the core of their humanity, which they encountered to be the same amongst all spirit animals. It was this realization that in turn allowed for the ability to empathize. With that said, our struggles become collective issues as a human race, and we are all capable of healing together. However, this is contingent upon our willingness to submit to our humanity above all social and cultural hierarchies constructed throughout history. There could not have been a better theatre company to relay this message to its viewers than Theatre Terrific, and I look forward to their next life teaching through performance.
The last performance of The Hidden Stories Project will take place Sunday September 18, at two o'clock in the afternoon. Hope to see you there!