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House of Sonya

Floyd Favel Starr writes about his recent adaptation of Uncle Vanya and his Plains Indian Winter Count-based dramaturgy

written by Floyd Favel Starr in June 1998

I wrote House of Sonya, or “Sonya”, as an adapta­tion of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Sonya was essentially an offering to memory, ghosts and childhood. It was an elegy to a time which is painful to remember. Pain seems to be the sentiment of memory. Anyone who has left their home or their culture to live in a foreign environment can recognize this.

I have been thinking for some time now on the need to bury all drama that we do in Canada into the sources of this country. We should not only perform plays that are exiles or colonials to this land, but actually transplant these classical dramas to the soil of this country. We are all from this country and we should accept this. This is not only for dramas but I would say also for technique. We need to develop dramatic techniques that are informed by this land. When we do this that we can begin to make our own contributions to theatre. This is why I have been experimenting
with a technique of dramaturgy based on the Plains Indian Winter Count.

The Plains Indian Winter Count system is a way of recording time through a series of images. Images which tell a story. Historically the chronicler of the Winter Count would create a key image embodying the central events of the year that had just ended, and that image would act as a catalyst into other stories depicting that year. Within the science at work in the selection and creation of the image lies the seed for a precise system of dramaturgy of action and text. I do not think that I understand this science, but it is the quest and search which is the process. Essentially, this system is the fruit of, and fodder for, memory.

Prior to the rehearsal period, I spent four weeks with the cast of Native actors exploring the text and ways of adapting it to our own experience. We approached Uncle Vanya as though it were a year that had just ended, first by breaking each unit down into specific images, and by
isolating specific images in the text that resonated with­ in our personal experience. (Some of these images were: Vanya in the garden, Yelena in the thunderstorm at night, Marina having tea, and the samovar, which repre­sented tradition for us.) These images acted as catalysts for other, more personal stories drawn from the actors’ lives and imaginations; from them we created new scenes or dances, or variations on the original scenes through solo improvisations.

Although the first couple of weeks of rehearsal were fruitful, initially there was much that didn’t work. Having the actors do their own solo rendition of the play, or a specific scene, integrating a personal story, often simply resulted in a simple recreation of Uncle Vanya. We found that these scenes were not truthful because they were not related to the actors’ own lives. We had yet to find the bridge between Vanya and our own
memories and reality.

A breakthrough came after two weeks of work. Doris Linklater created an improvisation that touched and spoke to all of us and came to inform the style of the play. She played an older Sonya coming home and remembering the events of the past. I remember the day she did this scene as I had to go outside and smoke, so affected was I. After this, other actors began creating scenes that spoke of their pasts, they began to remem­ber. This deep personalization helped us appropriate1he text. Uncle Vanya now related to our lives.

After two weeks of exploring the links between the script and our own pasts, I then went back to the original text and replaced Chekhov’s scenes with our new ones, maintaining the basic structure of the original text.

House of Sonya is set on an old abandoned house on a reserve. An older Sonya comes home for Uncle Vanya’s funeral. We learn that Vanya was found beaten to death on a Vancouver street and now has come home for the last time, in a coffin. Sonya returns to her child­ hood home which is an abandoned, destroyed house. She walks in, the ghosts and memories return, and she lives through a traumatic event in her life. The time she came to know the fragility of being a human; the time she fell in love with Doctor Astrov. This is how Sonya opens.

The abandoned house is a metaphor for remember­ing. I think that our bodies are much like an abandoned house full of evocative shadows and remnants, of past loves and joys. The movement qualities of the play were based on this principle. Once again it was about remem­bering. The postures of the body were based on half­ completed actions as opposed to clear complete actions. This was because the body was remembering and if you complete the action then we are not remembering, but illustrating. In my hand is the hand of my father, in my chest is the event of childhood. In the angle of the head is the memory of grandmother’s body on the day she said, “Don’t be afraid,” as I was leaving for school in the non-native world. There in a physical posture on the stage is the day the sun burned me as her words pierced my body.

By opening the play on the day of Vanya’s funeral I was expressing a reality that many native peo­ple are familiar with. Many have left the reserve to get educated, to seek opportunity, only ever coming home for funerals. That is, those of us who were not in jail, lost in the cities, or dead. We would come home and not want to return again because we always came back in hardship and would remember the hardships we had when growing up. It was a way for me to make some­ thing beautiful out of something tragic. The tragedy of people of my generation trying to make a living in the larger society yet longing for our home, homes which stir such strong feelings of nostalgia. Nostalgia was at the heart of the play and coloured every thought and action.

The music was selected to enhance and bring into relief these feelings. We chose Jewish Klezmer music as the base of our musical soundscape. Not only did this music express the proper pain, but I also feel
that this music helps to transcend a specific cultural expression of nostalgia into a universal expression that all can relate to.
These are some words on the emotional and spiri­tual process of the genesis of House of Sonya. The intel­lectual and theatrical process was informed by the emo­tional and spiritual and it is these intangible aspects which preceded all other actions.

Floyd Favel Starr is from the Poundmaker Reserve in Saskatchewan and works primarily as a theatre director. He studied theatre at the Native Theatre School in Ontario, Tukak Teatret of Denmark, and at the Centro di Lavoro di Grotowski in Italy. He works extensively across Canada and is also the Artistic Director of the Takwakin Theatre and the Red Tattoo Ensemble.