By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
You could do a lot of exhuming in the archives, in novels, diaries, war poetry, and never discover this striking and mysterious fact: more than four thousand Indigenous Canadians signed up to fight in the First World War.
Who knew? Not most Canadians, that’s for sure.
In the ill-lit reservoirs of Canadian history, unknown to most of the country’s citizenry, a pair of engaging and versatile young theatre artists who’d founded a Vancouver theatre company, would find the engine of the story they’d turn into Redpatch.
The Hardline production opening Thursday at the Citadel (co-presented by Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre) tells the story of Half-Blood (Raes Calvert), a young mixed blood First Nations soldier who leaves his home on Vancouver Island to be part of one of the bloodiest frays in human history.
It had all started with Calvert’s late grandfather, “an Indigenous man who fought in World War II.” Calvert, a Métis actor and theatre creator whose family on the Indigenous side comes originally from Vancouver Island’s Nootka Sound, was fascinated. Then he saw his friend and Hardline co-founder Sean Harris Oliver (they met in theatre school, Vancouver’s Studio 58) in a production of Vimy, the Vern Thiessen play about that nation-defining First World War battle, in which one of the principal characters is a First Nations soldier.
Calvert and Oliver had found the narrative drive for their 15th Hardline play. Four years of research began for the Hardline partners, currently the theatre company in residence at the Arts Club. Judging by the material they found, you’d have thought that the Canadian contribution to the war effort was restricted to Euro-Canadians. “There was just nothing about the Indigenous presence in the books,” says Calvert. “We had to really dig. And in 2012 when we started it was difficult to find anything,” says Oliver, who grew up in Kelowna and has a science degree from Queen’s in his pre-theatre days. “We were amazed at the numbers.”
“It was the Why? that required more analysis,” says Oliver, who directs Redpatch. Why on earth would Indigenous people fight for a country in which they were routinely marginalized? “To understand, it was very apparent we’d have to go to Nootka Island, the original home of my great-great-grandfather, to learn more about the history of my family,” says Calvert. He and Oliver met the chief and last two elders living there. “And we got permission to use words in the Nuu-chah-nulth language in the show.”
What would have motivated the young men of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation to leave the beauties of the West Coast to go to war half a world away? For one thing, “their world was changing, big time, receding….” says Oliver. Their options were narrowing. “You could either work at the lumber yard or the cannery. And that was it! OR go on an adventure, fight in a war, see the world.… It was the wanting to do something, to prove themselves, to be part of something.”
“Historically, they’d been warriors and hunters,” says Calvert. “And that was taken away.” The residential school agenda played its part too: “Forced assimilation, a program to wipe out an entire culture, every dance and song, to disenfranchise a people.” And the Great War was an opportunity “to be part of something big in a big new world happening out there….”
They had to relinquish their status to do it. “They weren’t allowed to enlist unless they did,” says Calvert. “And when they came back, it was to discover they’d been cheated: no land, no money, nothing. “They didn’t get what they were supposed to get, as veterans,” says Oliver. “It’s not part of our story, but there’s a story there, for sure. And someone will do it!”
It turned out that the wilderness skills of Indigenous soldiers in hunting and tracking were premium talents in World War I. They excelled at “getting up and out of trenches at night, sneaking through No Man’s Land, getting into trenches, and bludgeoning the enemy,” says Oliver. “They were fast; they were fantastic snipers (the most acclaimed sniper of World War I was Indigenous). They were great scouts, great trench raiders.” In fact, “the Canadians got so good at trench raids that No Man’s Land became known as The Dominion of Canada,” Calvert discovered.
They found the story that would propel Half-Blood to France. What then? The next question, as Calvert and Oliver developed Redpatch, had psychological traction: What would that constant killing do to a person? “What does this person want? More than anything? To get home!” says Oliver.
Which is why Redpatch travels freely through time and space, as Oliver explains. “We’re always going back to Half-Blood’s island,” says Calvert. “We weave time; it’s definitely not linear.… It’s one of my favourite things about the show, the transitions. It’s 1907, then the trenches in 1915, then we go back to times in between….”
The history of Hardline, now eight years old and professional, is a classic indie company narrative —“a lot of energy drinks,” money from hourly jobs to support their theatre habit, putting on events to pay the rent…. As student actors at Studio 58, Calvert and Oliver had bonded, first, because they both had to repeat a term (Calvert laughs) and then because of sports. “My high school (in Richmond) was a bit rough around the edges, always in the bottom 10 per cent of the province. I might have been a dancer but I guess I thought I’d be a target and get picked on.”
Oliver had been on his way to a career in medicine when theatre beckoned. His father, a surgeon who volunteered in Afghanistan, came around to the altered plan when his son wrote a play inspired by that stint. “Now Sean’s parents are our biggest fans!” says Calvert, whom Edmonton audiences saw last season at the Citadel as an aspirational swaggerer who lives “white” in Corey Payette’s Children of God.
“We both loved physical storytelling!” Calvert says of his Hardline co-creator. And Redpath, which started out as one-person show, then two, then as many as eight before settling on six actors (all Indigenous), reflects that. “It’s the most physically demanding show I’ve ever been in,” says Calvert happily. The actors, who play people and animals, are in perpetual motion. The cast starts every rehearsal and performance day with an hour work-out.
In casting “we were looking for the best movers, who could act.” They all happened to be Indigenous. Although there’s only one female character (Half-Blood’s grandmother), half the cast are women.
There’s dance, there are masks, there are magical transformations, there are soldiers, a Whale, a Raven who’s our guide through scenes. And, as Calvert points out, it happens on a minimal set with minimal props. Each actor has a ‘movement stick’: sometimes it’s a rifle, a trench shovel, a harpoon, a paddle.… “One stick, no shoes,” laughs Oliver, who, like Calvert and all their Hardline cohorts, sometimes directs, sometimes acts, sometimes stage manages, “sometimes sells the beer.”
“Movement is always part of our work,” says Calvert of Hardline’s signature physical style. “You can see the audience figuring out that they need to track the movement to follow the story!” says Oliver. “We treat the audience with a lot of respect; we don’t pander….
Calvert grins. “At the very least, they will leave saying ‘I haven’t seen something like this before!”
Created by: Raes Calvert, Sean Harris Oliver
Directed by: Sean Harris Oliver
Starring: Raes Calvert, Joel D. Montgrand, Taran Kootenhayoo, Jennifer Daigle, Chelsea Rose, Odessa Shuquaya
Where: Citadel Maclab Theatre
Running: Thursday through Nov. 11
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com