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Youth will be served

Coming-of-age plays figure prominently at 15th annual FemFest

Winnipeg theatre company Sarasvàti Productions is mounting its 15th year of FemFest, an eight-day program of theatre by women.

It’s appropriate that the theme of this year’s batch of shows has the theme of “coming of age,” not just because the festival is in its teens, but because issues involving young people figure prominently in a couple of the plays that form the double-nucleus of the week-long cavalcade of theatre events.

Watching Glory Die, by Judith Thompson, one of two “presented pieces” in the fest, is a fictionalized version of the story of New Brunswick teen Ashley Smith, who died by self-inflicted strangulation while on suicide watch in an Ontario penitentiary for women.

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WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Actors Erica Wilson (left) and Melanee Deschambeault in a scene from Two Indians, one of two headlining dramas that are part of Sarasvati Productions’ 15th annual FemFest.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Actors Erica Wilson (left) and Melanee Deschambeault in a scene from Two Indians, one of two headlining dramas that are part of Sarasvati Productions’ 15th annual FemFest.

Winnipeg theatre company Sarasvàti Productions is mounting its 15th year of FemFest, an eight-day program of theatre by women.

It’s appropriate that the theme of this year’s batch of shows has the theme of "coming of age," not just because the festival is in its teens, but because issues involving young people figure prominently in a couple of the plays that form the double-nucleus of the week-long cavalcade of theatre events.

 

Watching Glory Die, by Judith Thompson, one of two "presented pieces" in the fest, is a fictionalized version of the story of New Brunswick teen Ashley Smith, who died by self-inflicted strangulation while on suicide watch in an Ontario penitentiary for women.

The other play, the designated "in-house production," is Two Indians by Ontario playwright Falen Johnson. Performed nightly from Sept. 19 to Sept. 22, it is a theatrical debut for filmmaker Sonya Ballantyne, who is taking her first shot at directing theatre.

"My film work is mostly focused on native women and girls in non-traditional film genres," says the effusive Ballantyne, a 31-year-old Cree artist originally from Misipawistik Cree Nation in Grand Rapids.

"I do a lot of superhero movies with native girls," she says. 

The play is a comparatively down-to-earth story of two Mohawk cousins, Roe (Melanee Deschambeault) and Win (Erica Wilson) who come to a reckoning with their tragic reserve past in a Toronto alley outside Roe’s workplace.

The play’s city/reserve dynamic of the two characters hits Ballantyne close to where she lives, she says.

"I grew up on a reservation in northern Manitoba in Grand Rapids," she says. "I always saw Winnipeg as a very magical place, which makes people laugh."

"I was a reserve native who became an urban Indigenous person," she says. "So I identify more with Roe. When I first moved here, I was like: ‘Yeah, I finally escaped the reserve and I’m better than everyone back home.’

"It’s a struggle I continue to face. How do I reconcile both sides of me? Because there is a difference," she says. "One of the biggest insults when I was back home was calling somebody a ‘white girl’ if you lived in the city.

"I’m always struggling with it."

Film helped, specifically framing real-world issues facing Indigenous women in fantastical stories.

"My latest film, which just wrapped, is about a little girl who has the power to heal," she says. "She saves her grandmother with the help of an eagle shapeshifter."

The experience of directing a play is deepening her experience, she says.

"When (Sarasvàti artistic director) Hope McIntyre invited me to direct this play, I was really nervous about it because I’ve never directed something I haven’t written before," Ballantyne says.

"Also, I’m terrified of getting a stereotypical native story, the sad stuff about how we’re barely hanging on, survival-wise," she says. "I hate those types of stories.

"So when Hope offered me this to me, and I finally read the play, I was overwhelmed with how similar it was to my own experiences."

Curiously, Deschambeault, the 22-year-old actress who plays Roe, says she has had difficulty relating to the character, though she too has transitioned from reserve life at the O-Chi-Chak-O-Sipi First Nation on the shores of Lake Manitoba to nearby Dauphin and eventually Winnipeg, where she studies theatre at the University of Manitoba.

"Although we have a lot of similarities, we’re also very different," Deschambeault says. "Roe holds a lot of resentment and heavy anger, and I’m a fairly happy person. I like to laugh.

"So it’s been kind of a challenge for me to find Roe in that sense, to get a hold of that anger."

The challenge has been diminished by working with Sarasvàti at FemFest, she says.

"I really appreciate Sarasvàti because one of their mandates is to make theatre accessible, and when I was in my first year, I had a hard time hearing about shows and connecting with them. Sarasvàti is a very welcoming place to be able to network and learn about those different shows going on."

To check out the FemFest program, visit femfest.ca.

randall.king@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @FreepKing

Read more by Randall King .

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