The Rez Sisters by Tomson Highway
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Public Energy does not often co-produce original versions of full-length plays, but the 2009 production of Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters is one example and perhaps the most ambitious.* As the notes in the show program indicate (click the link above and you can read them – they provide a lot of good background info), it was Patti Shaughnessy’s idea. She thought it was wrong that Peterborough had never hosted a production of a play that forms part of the canon of Great Canadian Plays. In fact, we were quite sure there had never been a local production of any plays by Highway, one of the country’s greatest playwrights. So, with the O’Kaadenigan Wiingashk Collective (OKW), of which Patti was the guiding light, we set out to right that wrong.
The onstage artistic results were hugely rewarding – nearly all 9 performances were sold out; audiences recognized the exceptional quality of the show’s acting, directing and design. What was not so obvious was how the thing was put together by two organizations with very little track records in professional theatre. Financing original theatre productions is a huge challenge. It was partially solved when OKW secured funding from the Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts, but that still meant keeping costs super low so that we could meet the standards of a professional production under the rules of Canadian Actors Equity. The key to minimizing expenses was twofold: persuade the creative team to rehearse the show in as little time as possible; and spend as little as possible on a set and props. And this was a prop-heavy play: just look at the video here, featuring the World’s Largest Bake Sale, Bottle Drive and Garage Sale.
Keeping the rehearsal time to a bare minimum was accomplished by a) hiring battle-hardened veteran actors from across the country who had played the parts before and so could be rehearsed in quickly, and b) finding a director who could create an original vision for the play and mold it to fit eight performers, who were mostly strangers to her, in just 10 days of rehearsal, including some 12-hour days. Luckily for us, one of our greatest homegrown theatre talents, Susan Spicer – whose directing credits include productions for 4th Line Theatre and R. Murray Schafer – took on that immense directorial task, providing the guiding light and grace under pressure needed to mount the nearly two-hour production.
The solution to cutting costs on the set and props was Patti’s great stroke of genius: purchase one already made and ship the entire thing to Peterborough. That was not as crazy as it sounds. At the time, Patti was performing in the Magnus Theatre production of The Rez Sisters in Thunder Bay, Ontario, just 10 months prior to the Peterborough production. Magnus agreed to dismantle the brightly coloured Ted Roberts-designed set, along with most of the props, and store it all until we could arrange shipping. Then another stroke of luck: local shipping company McWilliams Moving had an empty trailer passing through Thunder Bay shortly after the Magnus Theatre production closed and agreed to pick up everything and bring it to Peterborough for a very good price. And store it until we could move it into the Market Hall theatre. Wow. The final piece of the puzzle was bringing Ted Roberts from his home in Vancouver to supervise putting the set back together. Roberts came for production week – he wound up designing lights too while he was here – and it was such a rewarding experience that he was brought back in 2012 to do the design for the OKW production of Highway’s The (Post) Mistress.
In the end – with apologies to actor James Whetung, musician Curtis Driedger and choreographer Bill James – the story of this Peterborough production of The Rez Sisters is the story of strong women, both the characters in the play and the artists pulling it off. On stage: the actors who went along with an abbreviated rehearsal schedule, and off stage: Susan, Patti, stage manager Patricia Thorne, production manager Esther Vincent,and costume designer Erika A. Iserhoff, among others.
*The folks who mounted the world premiere of Hungry: The Musical – an updated, musical version of the Hansel & Gretel story written for all ages by Kate Story – might disagree!
Did You Know: This production of The Rez Sisters had two connections – one direct, one indirect – to the very first production in 1986. The direct one was Gloria May Eshkibok, the marvelous actor who played Emily Dictionary in both productions. The indirect connection came as a complete surprise and revelation to almost everyone working on the play. The first production was directed by a graduate of Trent University, Larry Lewis, who developed his early theatre skills doing plays for the student theatre company and the Peterborough Theatre Guild. He later went on to play a hugely important role in staging the first plays of Tomson Highway, as well as other writers such as Drew Hayden-Taylor. Check out the short essay about Lewis in the show program.