School was always a place of refuge in our remote community. I almost always looked forward to going to school. I remember one special day in particular that changed my perception of Attawapiskat. Our teacher started every morning with daily announcements. This day got off to an exciting start with an announcement from our teacher, Mr. Fancy. This was a big deal because we were heading off for a general assembly in the gymnasium. That meant no regular lessons and the opportunity to mix with our friends and family en masse in the gym.
As we walked in single file into the gymnasium, we were surprised to find that one whole wall of the open space was covered over in white canvas and painted fabric. The sheets hung high in the air and they were draped over numerous square blocks of all shapes and sizes. We saw smiling strangers wandering around this simple set adjusting the blocks and arranging things. Younger students had already been escorted in to take their place in front of this set. My class and I sat down on the hardwood floor to form the fifth row from the front. We fidgeted as we sat cross legged waiting for the rest of the school to arrive. The gym began to fill with the different classes and age groups. A murmur grew into a loud buzz as more and more kids joined us on the floor. It was good to see brothers, sisters and cousins here and there. We were told to hush and sit quietly.
In the quiet din, a hidden sound system reverberated with a hand drum that was played lightly at first and then grew louder and louder. The Inuit hand drum pounded in a pulsing beat and we were all captivated by the strange sound. As the drum faded out, a character dressed in seal skins from foot to shoulder ran out into the middle of the set carrying a spear. The creature rushed around the sheet-covered blocks as if looking for something while aiming the long pointed rod to the ground with both hands. He jumped up on the highest block and said he was hunting for seal. As soon as he said this, our imaginations took over and we all seemed to be transported to another world. The white covered blocks transformed into great hunks of ice and we were sitting on the shores of the
Arctic Ocean as we followed the life of a young Inuit hunter.
We forgot our world and our community for an hour or so as we lived through the story of a young hunter named Tikta’liktak. It is a saga of one who gets lost in the ice flows of the Arctic. We became excited and shouted out in glee as he ran around the ice looking for seal. We grew quiet with fright as he realized that he had ventured too far out and was now lost at sea on drifting ice. His anguish and fear made us feel like we had drifted off into the ocean with him. It is as if we had become partners in some strange journey with this young man. Even though we did not fully understand the words he spoke or the ideas he conveyed, we were sitting on the ice with him, lost and confused. As we listened and watched the story unfold, we felt his moments of joy at gathering food, hope at finding help and relief at eventually surviving his ordeal.
When the play finally ended we were happy for our hero but at the same time we were disappointed in the change of character from Tikta’liktak to the actor. As suddenly as he had come into our lives Tikta’liktak was gone. He bowed down to applause and when he arose he was just another man. The set then returned to a pile of blocks draped over in white sheets. We woke from a dream and realized it was all just some kind of magic. There we were back in our school, on the floor in the gym in Attawapiskat.
The magic I experienced was my first taste of live theatre. I was amazed that an actor, a few props and a story could have such a huge effect on us. I now understood the power of a good story and a theatre production or play. This play made me realize that people have the power to transport each other to other places and worlds through sheer will and imagination. It also made me understand that as people we all speak a common language when it comes to good theatre. This day was a milestone in my life. It made me realize that I was no longer so enclosed in my own small corner of this greater planet. Our community was not as remote as I had thought. Instead, with a little imagination and the help of a good story, I was free to explore all kinds of worlds.