The artistic director for Reconciliation Theatre, a Nanaimo-based theatre company, wants to build something with “fresh voices” and fresh faces.
“A lot of arts communities have had to come to terms with the fact that practices haven’t been inclusive,” said director Tom Rokeby. “I know a lot of theatre companies are moving in the right direction … But [Reconciliation Theatre] is an opportunity to start with something that doesn’t have to fix its old ways.”
Rokeby described his background of amateur “traditionally middle-class” theatre as “pretty segregated.” His response is for Reconciliation Theatre to start fresh with an Indigenous participation focus.
Approximately four years ago, before Reconciliation Theatre was a company, it was a play-reading circle that held readings at Rokeby’s farm. He first told a few friends about the idea and then created a social media post to invite other like-minded locals.
“It was a core group of about eight to 10 local theatre lovers who were just reading Indigenous-written plays on a semi-monthly basis,” he said. “And you can’t really sit around for that long with such great people and not want to do something.”
Members of the company are currently preparing for their inaugural production of True West by American playwright Sam Shepard.
Damon Mitchell and Daniel Puglas, the leads in True West, were both past drama students of Rokeby’s at John Barsby Secondary School and were also involved with Western Edge Theatre’s New Waves Festival, an Indigenous theatre festival held at Nanaimo’s OV Arts Centre earlier this year.
Spurred by the notion of the New Waves Festival, Rokeby said “it got the reading circle thinking they could do something similar on a more regular basis.”
Shepard’s True West follows two estranged brothers as they try to navigate Hollywood big business as aspiring screen writers. Secluded in their mother’s empty house, tempers rise as the heat and coyotes conspire to turn the brothers against each other, noted a release for the show.
Puglas, who appears as Lee, described the character as an everyday criminal.
“Not exactly the best person to be around … or even the best person, in general,” he said. “He wants better from his life, but he doesn’t know how to reach those goals in a traditional way. So he just keeps on doing what he knows how to do.”
Mitchell, who appears as Lee’s brother, Austin, described the character as the polar opposite of his older brother.
“He’s a straight-edge screenwriter trying his best to break into the business, but not with much success,” he said.
Joining them in the cast is Ward Norcutt, a local playwright and actor, who appears as Saul Kimmer, a movie producer, and Aimee Chalifoux, a local writer and community organizer, who appears as the brothers’ mother.
While Rokeby said he was the first to “ring the bell” and introduce the idea of producing True West to the reading circle, most members were already familiar with the work and agreed it made “perfect sense” as a debut for the theatre company.
“When I was a kid, Shepard was edgy … and now to know these guys [Mitchell and Puglas] and know how perfect they would be for the part – it’s really interesting to look at these classics with some idigeneity in mind,” he said.
According to Rokeby, elements of the story will read differently, given how they’ve cast it.
“Lines read differently now and relationships are more interesting and complex,” he said.
Reconciliation Theatre will show True West at the OV Arts Centre on Victoria Road from June 28 until July 2, 7:30 p.m. nightly. Tickets will be available at the door or online through www.eventbrite.ca.
Rokeby has also organized a fundraiser on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe (www.gofundme.com/f/reconciliation-theatre-presents-true-west) to raise seed money for the production with a goal of $5,000.
“Reconciliation Theatre could not exist without the support of our family and friends, and the wider community. Every donation regardless of size gives the artists the affirmation that after two years at home, our neighbours value our work and want to hear our stories,” noted the GoFundMe page.
“I don’t know where it’ll go, it’s just been a lot of fun so far,” Rokeby said. “There’s a wealth of Indigenous talent in the area and there’s a wealth of Indigenous writing that isn’t being produced. So I can’t see how those two things can’t mean a bright future for the company.”