Thursday, 26 October 2017

Stories from the Professional Theatre Training Program: Michela Sisti

Our Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) offers financial support for unique and flexible training with a chosen mentor in any theatrical discipline (except performance.)

Michela Sisti trained in artistic direction with Ross Manson at Volcano Theatre in Toronto

Theatre for the Living

(September 23, 2017)

Odile Gakire Katese, known to the people who meet her as “Kikki”, is a professional dreamer. She is creating something called The Book of Life, a global artwork of letters written across 100 countries worldwide. These letters are written by living people to the dead. 

The reason why Kikki is creating The Book of Life is so that she can help her country Rwanda heal from the 1994 genocide. In Rwanda she has written letters to the dead alongside people who lost family members, neighbors, colleagues and lovers to horrific violent deaths. She has also written letters to the dead alongside the people who slaughtered and killed their neighbors, friends and fellow countrymen.

I met Kikki when she came to Toronto last spring to write letters to the dead with people of this country through an initiative by Volcano Theatre called Theatre of Upheaval. For reasons we the participants never found out, Kikki chose to call her workshop, “Theatre for the Living/Theatre of Dreams.” It began this way:
“Write a letter to your dead. You have twenty minutes. You can start.”
Immediately, hands flew up like condos on the lakeshore and Kikki was introduced to the Canadian tendency to need to qualify and receive approval for everything.
“How do you want us to write the letter?”
“It doesn’t matter to me. You can write it however you want.”
“Does it have to be someone I was close to? Or can it be someone in my family I never knew?”
“The person can be whoever you want it to be.”
“But nobody in my family died violently. They had very privileged lives.”
“All death is death.” 
“I’m not a playwright, I’m an actor.”
“You do not have to be a writer or an actor for this. Just speak in your voice.”
“Kikki, I don’t think I’ve found my voice yet.”
“Your voice is your voice.”
We wrote our letters. Then we sat in a circle and read them to each other. After that Kikki taught us a song in Rwandan, which we sang in faint hesitant voices. (“Don’t be so scared of the words. Sing them!”) Then Kikki told us we’d be putting the reading of our letters and the singing of songs together to create a performance that the public would view on the evening of our fourth day.
“What’s your plan for us? How will we do it?”
“There is no plan. We will figure it out.”
“Figuring it out” was a shock to our systems.  We came in on the second day with our letters, some songs and some instruments and promptly turned to Kikki for instruction. She merely said, “Ok, you can go.” What followed was Kikki sitting on her chair and patiently watching us as we struggled to find coherence among our group.

Most of us were strangers to each other. There was a small core of Torontonians among us who recognized someone from “that audition” or “that workshop we did last year”, but many people had traveled here from other parts of the province and other parts of the country. We were each from widely differing cultural backgrounds and life experiences. We related to death and spirituality in completely different ways. Perhaps if we had been creating a performance about kittens or crazy things we had read on the stalls of public washrooms the process would not have been so fraught or so painful. But we were reading letters to our dead. And there is nothing, as we soon realized, that can bring out divisions and differences in a group of well-meaning people like the way we understand and honour the dead.

We didn’t know what we were building. A performance, a ritual, a place of mourning? Were we trying to heal wounds or rip them open? Did we owe something to this group of strangers we had just met? Were they people who could help us, strengthen us? Or was the group a trap, a snare that would ask us to compromise our sense of who we are in this world and where our loyalties lie?

We soon found ourselves in varying states of frustration, mistrust and panic. There were also moments of intense connection, compassion and solidarity. Some of us found leaders to rally around in moments of difficulty, or became leaders, or decided we needed to go at it alone. Some of us shut down; we needed to. Others bravely insisted we soldier on. Some of us poured out our souls in great gushes, others held our letters protectively to our chests and surveyed the room with fearful eyes. There were accusations made that some of us weren’t showing proper respect or taking this seriously. There were counteraccusations: “How dare you say that we aren’t taking this seriously? Is your way the only way that’s allowed to exist?” There was holding hands, drawing in deep breaths as a group and collapsing into giggles like shy children who had decided to become friends again. There was, “Can we cut out this touchy feely bullshit and get to work? We’re going to have an audience in one day.” People went quiet for hours. People lay down on the floor and held each other. People walked out of the room in the middle of a discussion to pray for guidance. Some people left and never returned. Many of us cried, or laughed for no apparent reason, or were overwhelmed with great surges of love for everyone in the room and then moments later doubted that they had ever felt such a thing. None of us could escape being human and vulnerable.

From the moment Kikki let us loose, it took a matter of hours for all the politeness, the formalities, the professional codes that had been inculcated in us throughout our lives to be uprooted like stiches from a wound. These social codes could not serve us here where everything was too real, too raw, too close to the heart. And so we strove and strove to find new ways, authentic ways, to meet each other eye to eye, to listen, to understand. Except, we were in a true state of anarchy, and it wasn’t the leftist utopia many artists dream of. It was shit. It was going through the shit of the pain of ourselves, and the pain of this country and all of its dead. I spoke to my Catholic great grandmother with the sign of the cross, knowing that’s how she would have wanted to be reached in her heaven from Earth, while beside me stood someone who prayed to her ancestor who had suffered in a residential school. It seemed impossible that this room could contain all of us, the incongruities of all of our pasts compressed together, without blowing up like some chemical explosion. All the while Kikki stood there quietly watching us. At one point she shook her head and said, “I wouldn’t have expected this from Canada.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the group’s frustration eventually turned toward Kikki herself: 
“Kikki, we’ve had enough. We need you to step in and lead us.” 
“You asked us to do this. We don’t feel safe. When are you actually going to direct us?”
“We’re lost. Show us what to do. Show us the method you used in Rwanda.”
Kikki was silent for a moment. I don’t know what she was thinking. Then she sighed and said, “There is no method. There is only you guys.”
Those of us who chose to remain—most of us did—found a form for our performance and, along with the songs we had taught each other, offered up our letters together in front of a public audience in the Canadian Stage rehearsal hall on Thursday evening. It was incredible what we had achieved. In spite of all the legitimate reasons to step away and say, “I don’t want any more of this,” we chose to do the seemingly impossible: to see things through to the end so that we could be there for each other as we spoke to our dead.

I wasn’t there at the end. There was a poet from out of the country who would be performing that evening, whose words meant a lot to me, and who I had committed see months earlier. By Thursday I realized I was faced with a genuine dilemma. If I left before the evening I wouldn’t simply be missing out on the final part of a theatre workshop I would be leaving behind all the people whose ghosts I had held, and who had held mine.

Then I did something that came as a surprise to me, because I had never done anything like it before. I asked the group for their permission to go see this person. I told them it was important to me that I went to see her, but if they’d rather that I stayed here for the final presentation I’d respect their wishes.  It wasn’t a rule we had collectively decided on, to ask permission of a group like this, but I realized it didn’t need to be a rule in order for it to be necessary.  In four days we had built a community out of chaos, and acts of respect as well as our expectations of each other had not yet been codified. There was no rule one could assume for what was acceptable and what was not acceptable, for what would hurt someone, what would make someone smile, what could tear us apart all over again, or what would make us strong. All of these things needed to be understood live and anew in that space. Everything came out of the most basic, naked person-to-person relation in the moment. It was a constant negotiation between souls. And it was exhausting. Though, perhaps the world would be a better place if we chose to be this way with each other more often.

So I asked, and the group granted me permission to see Kate Tempest.

Before I left, on the afternoon of our group’s performance, Kikki decided we were ready for her to share with us letters that had been written by both survivors and perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. I think I had expected some kind of pathos from them, some elevated wisdom that comes with living through one of the most tragic events in human history and finding the words to speak about it. The letters Kikki read to us were the voices of people, just people, who had been through a lot of pain and who were trying to understand.

That night I dreamed something that I no longer remember. In the morning I lay alone in my bed and then wrote down the following notes:

The thing that happens between people

The thing that happens between people. It is an event, a negotiation between souls. It is the building block, the atom, the seed of everything that happens on a larger scale: community, a city, a country, the planet. 
I have it for granted, but it is so fundamental and so powerful and it is the consequence of so much. 
How we do it is a choice. 
We can relate to each other through a system of protocols, transactions and codes. Or we can truly see that person. 
Am I wearing a mask today? 

The strange thing that is a group

It breathes.  It vibrates.  It needs the time it needs for everyone to be seen and listened to.
If all the members of a group are truly listening to each other, the group can accommodate the needs of everyone without anyone scarifying their integrity. 
There are spaces within spaces. 
There is choice. 
See yourself. See the group. Never lose sight of either. 


Time is also a choice. (As long as you are in it.) 
We can choose to be governed by the clock, by deadlines, by the end of the workday, by the weekdays and weekends, by the numbers on the calendar. Or we can choose to take the time that is needed. 
How do I know how to be in time?
Look deep into yourself.  Look into the faces of people.
Look to the dead. 

The Dead

Kikki describes them as an army standing behind you.  Do I choose to see them? 
Are they in my blood?  Does it matter? 
Dare I speak to them?  Dare I relate to someone from the past, someone outside my time? 
If I do, might they dare me to cast my mind to generations in the future?
If I do, might my actions suddenly have consequences?  Might I see that I am part of a larger picture, that I am part of a whole?

Related Reading:

The next application deadline for the Professional Theatre Training Program is March 1, 2018.

Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program is funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.

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