Icy waters, warm undertow Serious look at settlers’ conquest wraps with levity, optimism to appeal to kids

Kathleen MacLean pumps her fist in the air excitedly.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/02/2022 (397 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Kathleen MacLean pumps her fist in the air excitedly.

“That’s the first time I’ve done it from memory,” she explains.

It’s 10 days before the première of Frozen River and MacLean isn’t relying on her script as she reads with her fellow actors, Robyn Slade and Krystle Pederson.

On the half-assembled set in the high-ceilinged rehearsal hall, she and Slade run through the scene again, a light-hearted but possibly pivotal interaction between Wâpam (MacLean) and Eilidh (Slade is the understudy for Mallory James), two friends, one Indigenous and one Scottish, who are bonding as they learn each other’s language.

As Pederson, who plays Grandmother Moon, picks up the cranberries MacLean has been trying to aim at Slade’s mouth (extra tough considering everyone is masked), co-directors Anne Hodges and Tracey Nepinak have their heads together, conferring on ways to strengthen the scene’s body language, while co-playwright Joelle Peters looks on from the corner.

Theatre preview

Frozen River

Manitoba Theatre for Young People

  • Opens Feb. 25, runs to March 6
  • Tickets at mtyp.ca or 204-942-8898

If that seems like a lot of “co-s”, it is — Frozen River, Manitoba Theatre for Young People’s first indoor production in two years, is a testament to collaboration. It features two directors and three playwrights: Peters, Michaela Washburn and Carrie Costello worked together on the story of two 11-year-old girls who meet after being born under the same blood moon in different parts of the world.

“I find working collaboratively a gift, to have other people to figure things out with,” Costello, 45, says on a Zoom video call with Peters (Washburn’s internet connection from her location in North Bay, Ont., is too dicey to make the call). “And especially in this kind of work, because really, the conversations we’re having in the room trying to figure it out are often the same conversations that come out in the characters that we’re portraying. I really love it.”

Peters, 27, agrees. Frozen River is the actor and playwright’s first co-writing project and she calls it a treat to go back and forth working out the kinks of a draft.

“It was really the highlight of my pandemic,” says Peters, who was home at Walpole Island First Nation in south-western Ontario “with not a whole lot to do,” at the time.

In some ways, this kind of theatrical approach has been a long time coming, says MTYP artistic director Pablo Felices-Luna (who is also Costello’s partner).

“It’s not the way that we’ve created theatre in the past, but it seems like the right way to create theatre now, especially when it’s these stories about people meeting who come from different walks of life, who come from different cultures,” he says, seated in the sunny lobby of the MTYP building, which, too long dormant, buzzes with activity behind him. “So we’re trying to make sure that representation of voices is not just on the stage but also in our creative teams, our directors, our designers so that we can speak truthfully to what those issues are.”

Frozen River — which features stage design by Calgary’s Andy Moro (The War Being Waged, PTE) and costumes by Jay Havens — was originally intended to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the province and to open as part of Manitoba 150 celebrations. After moving to Manitoba, Costello, a history buff, was struck by how the province is at what she calls the epicentre of Indigenous issues in Canada.

“I was interested in going back in the history and finding out how it went here, because it’s different from a lot of other places,” she says. “The Indigenous people helped the settlers so much to survive, and then there’s this turn at some point.

“We were also interested in how the Scottish were displaced from their land and then came here and did the same thing, without any sort of parallel thinking.”

Costello and Washburn, an Alberta-born Métis actor and playwright, had previously collaborated on another historical play for children, Water Under the Bridge, set during the War of 1812.

Research for the project included trips to the Manitoba Archives, where there are ample resources — books, maps, letters — documenting settlers’ arrival in these lands. Information about the Indigenous people of the time is less likely to be written down, so the playwrights relied on knowledge-keepers and elders to help them flesh out their characters.

“We learned what it would be like here at the The Forks, the meeting place, during the summer… what things young people would be doing, would be learning, would have skills in,” says Costello, adding that they also visited the Manitoba Indigenous Education Centre. “It was quite incredible the wealth of knowledge we got.”

As they worked out a first draft, they realized something was missing. The characters they had created had no way to remedy their broken promises in the past. To find reconciliation, they needed a contemporary counterpoint set in the present day, so they reached out to Peters.

“We appreciated that Joelle is quite a bit younger than us and has quite a bit more knowledge of the current way you would say things,” Costello says with a laugh.

It was also important for the work to temper its serious message with enough levity and optimism to engage kids.

“That was a big goal of mine, to try to bring a lot of moments of joy or humour, to sprinkle them throughout,” Peters says. “We wanted to make sure that historical aspects were there and the teaching moments, but by the time I came along, it was like, OK, let’s make sure they’re also smiling.”

Felices-Luna says that balance is something children’s theatre strives to achieve.

“In the work that we do for young audiences, it’s always important not to shy away from the difficult conversations but we always want to leave a path into the light,” he says. “We want to leave a way for people to feel that there’s hope, that there’s a way forward.”

And speaking of hope, as public health restrictions are lifted across the province, the artistic director is veritably glowing at the prospect of finally returning to the stage tonight after having to cancel this production in the past. Amazingly, the entire creative team has remained intact thoughout the process, despite the many challenges the pandemic has thrown its way.

“There are some things we can work out with video conferencing, some things we can try to mock up while we’re in our little boxes, but a lot of theatre requires physical proximity,” he says, pointing to the scene MacLean and Slade are working on. “They still haven’t quite nailed that hug, but they’ll work it out this week.

“But on the flip side, it has allowed us to work with artists from across the country; two of our playwrights are not living in Winnipeg, so there was that positive side to it.

“I’m just so excited to see this actually happen… there’s such love for this work.”


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Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.


Updated on Sunday, February 27, 2022 2:32 PM CST: corrects age

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