A Little Space for Mystery: From the Rehearsal Room of I Call Myself Princess
Robyn Grant-Moran reports from the rehearsal room of I Call Myself Princess, a Cahoots Theatre/Paper Canoe Projects co-production of Jani Lauzon’s new play in association with Native Earth Performing Arts. This is the first of three “embedded” posts about I Call Myself Princess – for more information on embedded criticism, click here.
Having never been a morning person, it seems appropriate that I should find myself at Aki Studio at 9:30am to observe a rehearsal for a play about worlds colliding. It is an exceptionally hot day in the city, but the theatre space is comfortably cool as director Marjorie Chan (artistic director of Cahoots Theatre) and her production team carve out a fantastical space for past and present to intertwine in Jani Lauzon’s latest play I Call Myself Princess, a present day story that incorporates aspects of Charles Wakefield Cadman’s 1918 opera Shanewis: The Robin Woman.
More than just telling the history of the century old opera, Lauzon explores our relationship with the past through the history of Tsianina Redfeather, Charles Wakefield Cadman, and his writing partner Nelle Eberhard. They are brought to life as (fictional) protagonist William Morin begins research on Cadman’s opera in preparation for his upcoming school performance. I have been very curious to see how Lauzon weaves the all too real history and music into her work. With the support of Cahoots Theatre, I had the good fortune of being invited into rehearsal and permitted space to embed myself into their process. This is the first in a series of three pieces, as I Call Myself Princess prepares for its premiere on September 13.
When I arrive, actor Aaron M. Wells (Ehattesaht and Lax Kw’alaams First Nations) is sitting at a baby grand piano plunking out a few chords in good spirits. Wells is the first to arrive at rehearsal, Chan explains, as the play features his journey as Morin and he is on stage throughout.
“This is interesting to me!” responds Chan enthusiastically to Wells’ suggestion of having the area rug rolled up when he enters. It’s a small detail with an unexpectedly large atmospheric yield. A thoroughly modern young Metis man wanders into his new Toronto apartment, a room that perhaps hasn’t been touched in decades. For a short page in the script, there are so many details to be accounted for. The position of each book, a laptop, all contribute to creating space for the dialogue between the material world and that of the ancestors. “We’re offering a little more space for mystery,” says Chan.
One by one, the rest of the cast arrive. As Tsianina Redfeather, Marion Newman (Kwagiulth and Stó:lō First Nations) moves between the physical and metaphysical, inspiring Morin in his journey into history, his Metis heritage, and discovering where he fits as a gifted artist in the Eurocentric opera world. With a small ambulatory suggestion from Howard J. Davis (playing Alex Park), Newman transforms from an endearing spectre into an ancestor on a mission. Again, it’s those minute details. The whole ensemble works together through what might otherwise become tedium with the kind of humour that comes from good chemistry.
With Richard Greenblatt (Cadman) and Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster (Nelle Eberhard) rounding out the cast, I finally get what I’d been waiting for – that cheesy music. Early 20thcentury North American opera is something to behold. A number of composers at that time were trying to create a sound that reflected their landscape – and that included their impressions of the “Indians.” It was racist, sexist, offensive on every level really, but somehow it also has a strange earnest quality about it. As awful as they are, these operas were the style of the time, and I developed a bit of a soft spot for this period while studying opera history during my undergrad.
As the cast work through Cadman’s compositions, there is a lot of laughter. I hear someone (possibly Newman) exclaim between giggles that it is “so ridiculous!” It really is, but the cast sound great together. Their unique vocal styles blend into something that (dare I suggest it?) might be uniquely North American. I wonder what those early 20th century composers would think.
As the first few scenes are brought to life, the timely nature of this work overwhelms me. It’s just one year after the Canada 150 celebrations, and only months since Robert Lepage chose to, first, cancel his Indigenous-themed Kanata rather than consult with anyone in the Indigenous community and then re-launch it – again, with no Indigenous contributors. Lauzon offers a perspective on being Indigenous in settler/colonial theatre that is full of nuance and subtlety. As the cast work their way through the music, it is apparent that no matter how far we think we’ve come, the present day issues faced by William Morin are not significantly different than those faced by Tsianina Redfeather. The past and present, the physical and metaphysical, inform and impact each other as Indigenous artists continue to branch into an art form that is, at best, ambivalent to our existence and, at worst, fetishistic. As art imitates life, or perhaps the other way round, it’s clear to me that the ancestors are escalating and that Jani Lauzon is a skilled and gifted conduit.
Robyn Grant-Moran (Metis Nation of Ontario) is a classical singer, writer, and a jack of many trades who has recently met the requirements to call herself a Bachelor of the Fine Arts (thank you, York University and Indspire!). Along with her BFA, she has also completed the Performance Criticism Training Program with Generator, has studied with some beloved Canadian classical singers, and been in a opera or two. Robyn currently resides in Toronto with her tiny adorable rat dog.