Unsung: Tales From The Front Line, real-life stories from health care workers in a new ‘performance installation’

Heather Inglis and Darrin Hagen, Workshop West Playwrights Theatre. Photo by Ben Franchuk, supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There are dramatic schisms in history that divide our lives into the Before and the After. 9-11 was one. The pandemic is another, says Heather Inglis. “It’s the defining moment of our lifetime.”

“Something significant happened and it changed our lives forever. And of us have been touched by it.”

That, says the Workshop West Playwrights Theatre artistic producer, is the inspiration of Unsung: Tales From The Front Line, the ‘performance installation’ created by Inglis and actor/ playwright/ memoirist/ queer historian Darrin Hagen. It opens Friday at the Gateway Theatre.

“Last spring, in this political climate,” says Inglis, it felt like the contributions of health care workers hadn’t been honoured — people who had risked their lives for months and months, the incredible trauma of that.… Many people had died, and there’d been no moment to mark what had happened: no AIDS Quilt, no Vietnam war memorial.” 

There are reasons to sidle around the subject of COVID in theatre, of course, not least because of the familiar weight of existential dread and anxiety we’ve pocketed. “‘O gawd, please gawd, don’t let it be about COVID’ … both of us had heard that mantra over and over,” says Hagen. And yet, “we kept coming back to the idea of COVID as our defining moment…. How do you not make art about that? WTF are we supposed to be doing as artists if we’re not making art about that?” 

“Our goal,” says Inglis , “was to create a space to process what people had given and what they’d lost.” And for this, Workshop West’s new Gateway was ideal for brokering interaction between people beyond the stage — an Inglis specialty, witness such immersive theatre experiences as The Elevator Project, Flight,  Anxiety, all in unconventional spaces.

In interviews of anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours Inglis and Hagen gathered the stories of seven health care workers, from a variety of professions, demographics, genders, socio-cultural backgrounds. And Hagen created monologues using their words. For the safety (of jobs and patient information) their stories are all anonymous. In Unsung, which you visit like a gallery, moving around, choosing the order of your five-minute connections, you’ll meet them up close, telling their stories in their own words — as performed by seven actors. An ER doctor, an ICU nurse and an ICU doctor, a hospital manager, a paramedic, a health aide worker in a seniors complex among them: “they were in the jaws of the beast, and their experiences were radically different.”  

“It’s the difference between politicians talking about a war, and actually hearing from someone in the trenches,” as Inglis describes verbatim theatre, a form in which she and Hagen are experienced practitioners. By using their real words, verbatim theatre “allows people to speak the way they speak,” without the intermediary of characters and dialogue. 

In structure Unsung echoes Viscosity, a 2018 Theatre Yes initiative in which Inglis and her team gathered the first-hand stories of oil patch workers, and created monologues using their own words, performed by actors. I arrived at the show figuring I knew about oil workers and how they would think. And my preconceptions were pretty much exploded by the variety in what I encountered.   

“That’s one of the things theatre offers us,” says Inglis, “the opportunity to explore nuance and complexity in a way that can’t (exist) on social media platforms … to contemplate things from different perspectives and to offer voices to people that see things in a way most of us don’t.” 

Curating verbatim text is something of a Hagen specialty, too (“I am a writer created by the AIDS epidemic”), not only in The Queer History Project, but in his plays too. Witch Hunt at the Strand, for example, is built on real court transcripts in its exploration of a sorry chapter in Edmonton queer history. The Empress and the Prime Minister uses Trudeau speeches and the real words of gay activist ted northe to imagine a 1969  encounter that changed Canadian law. Even in a roistering Guys in Disguise entertainment like BitchSlap! Hagen was at pains to use real words from Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. “There’s something about that kind of authenticity,” he says.

“My mind has been blown,” he says of interviewing people for Unsung. “We’ve heard things that are so much deeper, darker, more intimate, more personal than anything the media has portrayed…. I don’t like the way the media dumbs everything down.” Not only is it repetitive and lazy, it hands the human narrative over to politicians. Inglis adds, “it’s a  cautionary tale, warning us against considering that all blocks of people all think the same.” 

“I felt so lucky,” says Hagen of his experience listening to real-life stories from people. “While doctors were out there saving lives I spent the pandemic in my pjs composing music and writing a play, and learning to use Garage Band. I was so insulated.”

As health care professionals began to understand, and see first-hand, what was happening, “some of them said they re-wrote their wills…. They left for work knowing they might not come back. That’s war!” Or they lived in isolation from their families, in the basement. Many spoke to the emotional moment of The Vaccine, says Hagen, “the relief of it, of knowing they could be around their families again.”

The interviews happened this past October and November, and reflect the world events of that time, too. “It’s really current,!” says Inglis. “Theatre in this (verbatim) form lends itself to that; documentary theatre can be very immediate.” There was a lots to work with. The biggest challenge was parting with “brilliant dramatic material” in the interests of fashioning a workable, performable theatre experience. Will Unsung have a future as a series? a podcast? a book? Inglis and Hagen are considering. “It’s tempting and maybe unavoidable,” says the latter.

“I’m terrified for a world where we don’t have universal health care,” says Inglis. “It’s being undermined in Alberta now…. I’m angered that people who have chosen radical compassion have been derided, punished, their waged and conditions degraded, people who wanted to help people.…”

The idea of Unsung  is “to bring people into a world the aren’t familiar with,” as Inglis puts it, “and let them move around in it.” Arrive any time between 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., and choose your own path through the human gallery.


Unsung: Tales From The Front Line

Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre

Created by: Heather Inglis and Darrin Hagen

Where: The Gateway Theatre, 8529 Gateway Blvd.

Running: Friday through Feb. 12

Tickets: workshopwest.org

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