By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
To understand someone you must first walk a mile in their shoes. The old truism gets renewed and powerful resonance in the performance event happening at Workshop West this weekend.
In The Shoe Project, Saturday and Sunday at the Gateway Theatre, immigrant and refugee women share their stories of their journeys to Canada — the why, the how, their struggles to adapt to a new country, a new language, a new identity, a new culture — through a pair of shoes.
As Workshop West artistic director Heather Inglis explains, 11 years ago novelist Katherine Govier started a course for immigrant women. “Since the BATA Shoe Museum in Toronto offered free space, the venue inspired the central image that focused the course. The Shoe Project was born in that inspiration.
“It was a super-successful initiative,” says Inglis. In the decade that followed, companies — “not all of them theatres, not all with playwrights as mentors” — across the country took up the idea. She caught up with The Shoe Project in Calgary, at One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo in January 2020.
The experience was unforgettable, she says. “Something about the collecting of voices from around the world, stories about the extraordinary experience of coming to a new country, not knowing the language or the culture, the challenge of learning a language later in life….”
“It was so inspirational: the resilience, the perseverance” required to leave one life and be transported to another, says Inglis. “It was narrative, yes, but felt intrinsically theatrical. And I wanted to use the Workshop West platform to amplify it.”
The result was the Edmonton branch of the national project. And at Workshop West, the mentor has been star playwright Conni Massing. Refugee and immigrant women working on their English were recruited for “a free 10-week course, during which they would write a 600-word story centred on a pair of shoes. “The stories already have a sense of the dramatic; “having a playwright teaching the course gives them a (theatrical) texture,” says Inglis. And since most of the participants have never “performed” (with the exception of a Syrian singer), they got four weeks of coaching in performance by actor/director Alison Wells.
That was two years ago (“feels like 10!” sighs Inglis). Because of the pandemic, the 2021 participants were unable to have a public showing (they previewed online). They’ll be onstage this weekend, along with the 2022 cohorts (the schedule of performances, matinées and evenings, is at workshopwest.org).
The women come from around the world to be here, and arrive for different reasons, “a huge range of experience and stories,” says Inglis. “Some are fleeing totalitarian governments, or ISIS. Two came here because they fell in love. One woman came because her husband got a job….” Among the women you’ll meet are architects, electrical engineers social workers, a visual artist from Ukraine, a woman whose precipitous exit from Iran was facilitated by the Canadian embassy, a children’s author….
Actor/playwright Amena Shehab, a Syrian refugee herself with experience as a journalist and TV producer, coordinated the recruitment of the participants. “Stories of lives written by the women who lived them,” says Inglis of The Shoe Project. “There’s a poignancy to it: these are people living in our community with one degree of separation from the world news.”
They’re from Afghanitan, Chile, China, India, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Nepal, Nigeria, Palestine, Philippines, Spain, Sudan, Syria, Togo, Vietnam, Ukraine. They’ve had major journeys to find a life in Canada. And they’re part of what it means to be Canadian.
The Shoe Project
Theatre: Workshop West
Where: Gateway Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: Saturday and Sunday, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. each day