Students from three southern Alberta schools take the Empress Theatre stage Thursday, April 13 in a production about perspective and reconciliation.
Drama students from F.P. Walshe school, Kainai high school and Lethbridge Collegiate Institute present the play Iisohtsiik — Moving Forward at 7 p.m.
The idea of a joint production came when drama teachers Petluk, Ramona Big Head of Tatsikiisaapo’p middle school and Kelly Frewin of LCI were in Edmonton doing curriculum development for Alberta Education.
The teachers were discussing the work as well as the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and how that should be brought into classrooms.
“I thought that we could get a jump on it and just start now,” Petluk said. “It struck me that the three of us sitting at the table made a triangle, just like our three communities do. When we started to discuss doing a play together, we all got excited right away and started the planning right then and there.”
John Poulsen, a drama education professor at the University of Lethbridge, was asked to facilitate the creative process with the students.
“Ramona, Kelly and Duane are engaging in something important,” Poulsen said. “To have three schools work together is unique. More importantly these schools are seeking to examine how Canada can be more inclusive. Though the work is not focused on reconciliation I believe it will be a reconciliation activity. These schools are seeking to help indigenous/ settler relationships by working together.”
Poulsen said students drama productions are important as a way to give young people a voice.
“It is in schools that students find out that they have something to say and that they can say it through the arts,” Poulsen said. “It is in schools that students realize that they have something to say, that they can say it in an interesting and artistic manner, and that people will watch.”
“These students of southern Alberta are engaging in something brave and important.”
Iisohtsiik — Moving Forward has students from each school exploring the same motif — the horse as the focal point of relations between the Blackfoot and newcomers.
The question posed by the three drama teachers was: what would happen when students from the different schools used their unique perspectives to explore that motif?
“We don’t know, and that’s what’s exciting,” Petluk said.
Each school will present one act, then come together for the fourth and final act to create the final scene through planned improvisation.
“This will give the students a chance to find a common perspective and it will hopefully bring everyone closer together,” Petluk said.
Ramona Big Head was excited about the opportunity to collaborate with Petluk, Frewin and Paulsen.
“In all my 20 plus years of creating and directing plays, I have never worked with off-reserve high schools,” Big Head said. “This is unprecedented.”
Big Head, who is principal at Tatsikiisaapo’p middle school on the Blood Reserve, asked Blackfoot elders to explaining the historical and cultural significance of the horse.
Piikani elder and rancher Pat Provost sat with the cast and crew from Kainai high school and shared his experiences and teachings about the horse.
Provost and his son Ty hosted an afternoon session in equine therapy with the Kainai students.
Noting that LCI has a small population of First Nations, Metis and Inuit students, Frewin was intrigued to find out her students’ perceptions of First Nations people and their understanding of reconciliation.
“Being involved in this project would challenge them to look at, and explore their understandings about First Nations people and their culture,” Frewin said. “I believe that if we are going to work towards a climate of reconciliation, we need to know where our starting point is. This project has allowed us to see what we know, and more importantly, what we don’t know.”
Frewin said finding a starting point was a challenge for her students since they had limited understanding of First Nations people.
“Eventually, we realized that the not understanding was our show,” Frewin said. “We learned that our starting point is in realizing that we are culturally very unaware, and that in not having an understanding, there comes a fear of being labeled as ignorant or racist. So in our segment of the play, we decided to show the wide gap that exists in our understanding of First Nations culture, and the fear associated in the asking of questions to educate ourselves.”
Petluk is impressed with how his students have taken ownership of the play.
“On the first day I explained the idea and the process and from there the students ran with it,” Petluk said. “All the ideas you will see on stage have been generated and workshopped by the students. So I would say one of the biggest learnings of the students has been that they have realized their creative powers.”
In addition to gaining a deeper understanding of their creative abilities, students also learned about perspectives.
Petluk said his students come from diverse backgrounds and experiences, which shape their individual perspective.
“When people started to generate ideas about horses, we started to see common threads that connected us all despite our backgrounds. This is what I had hoped would happen with this project. On Thursday, we will see if we can find those connections between the three schools.”
F.P. Walshe students in the cast are Loretta Bad Eagle, Cassidy Cook, Jacob Williams, Sarah Foote, Billy Potts, Tyrell Scott, Tia Davis, Roy Fournier, Cassy Little Bear, Matthew Possin, Liam Scott-Whervin, Darci Walker, Tristan Black Water, Brooklyn Conrad, Makayla Cooper, Seth Davis, Walker English, Shelby Lyke and Zac Sup.
Kainai cast members are Mercedes Mountain Horse, Hayden Mountain Horse, Sherrilyn Yazzi, Carley Shot Both Sides and Jennifer Ivins.
Petluk said a large crowd for Thursday’s production is important.
“The students have already come together beautifully, now we just need an audience to share that experience with,” Petluk said. “Plus it would be great for the kids to see how many people from the community support them.”
Tickets are available at www.macleodempress.com.