Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Read: First-Person Matthew Mackenzie on creating SIA

Full of Fire and Hope
A journey, cultural dislocation and a play
by Matthew Mackenzie (photos courtesy of Matthew Mackenzie)
In the fall of 2003 I flew from Alberta to West Africa, with a brief stopover in Toronto.  My plan was to go and research my play concerning the civil war that had recently torn the tiny country of Liberia apart.  Talked out of going directly to Liberia by my parents, I decided to go to Ghana, which was the most stable English speaking country in the region, where there was a significant Liberian refugee population.  Alarmed that I was travelling half way around the world without having done any kind of research, my Aunt Karen—who is a Librarian at the University of Toronto—hastily put me in touch with a Ghanaian student she knew, in the hopes that he would be able to offer some guidance.  As it just so happened, a member of the congregation the Ghanaian student belonged to back home, was the former Head Nurse of the Buduburam Camp—the largest Liberian refugee settlement in the world.

Touching down in the Ghanaian port city of Accra, I had not been in the country 48 hours before my gracious elderly Ghanaian contact had taken me an hour outside the city to meet the leadership of the Buduburam Camp.  Only 23 at the time, I informed the camp’s Governing Body and Head of Security that I had come to research a play.  It was clear to everybody that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.  Fortunately, a member of the Governing Body named Emmanuel Wonleh agreed to take me under his wing.  Over the next three weeks, Emmanuel helped me conduct over 75 interviews with young people living in the camp. Those I interviewed showed incredible generosity and patience.  Emmanuel believed that because I was a young person myself, interviewees spoke openly and candidly about what they had experienced.  The stories that were shared with me about life during the civil war in Liberia, and then their lives living as refugees in Ghana were gut-wrenching and heartbreaking, but mostly incredibly inspiring.  These were not nameless victims or lost souls, they were powerful individuals full of fire and hope. 
Sandra Lefrançois among friends

The effect my first trip to Buduburam had on me was immense, and while I continued to remain in contact with the friends I had made, the idea of writing a play in response to what I had heard seemed absurd.  To say I had difficulty digesting the stories that had been shared with me would be an understatement; I did not suffer from writer's block, I experienced total creative paralysis in the wake of some pretty extreme culture shock. 
Four years later in 2007, I was fortunate enough to be able to return to the Buduburam camp with my friend Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman.  It was on this trip that we met the remarkable Liberian Dance Troupe.  Using Dance and Theatre, the youth-run group performed extraordinary work in the camp, having an incredible effect on those traumatized by the war.  Addressing issues such as teen pregnancy, drug abuse, and AIDS, the troupe was reaching young people in a way that the small army of NGOs operating in the camp were not.  And they were doing it through Art.  Suddenly, the idea of finishing my play seemed possible, thanks in no small part to the encouragement I received from the Liberian Dance Troupe, and the bafflement of my friend Emmanuel who couldn't believe I hadn't written a thing after conducting all those interviews. 
Liberian Dance Troupe

Re-visiting the piece with Dramaturge Iris Turcott, I was able to finally finish the play I'd been trying to write, while at the same time forming a partnership between the Liberian Dance Troupe and the National Theatre School of Canada's student body.  Around the same time SIA received its first workshop, we raised funds to scholarship twelve members of the Liberian Dance Troupe, as well as buy them 100 new chairs for their performance space.
In the spring of 2010, SIA won the Alberta Playwriting Competition.  Subsequently, Director Philip McKee convinced me to mount a workshop production of the piece in the Toronto Fringe Festival.  The most memorable moment of that experience happened when a Liberian refugee approached Philip and I after a performance to thank us for keeping the events that took place in her country at the forefront of people's minds.
Last November, together with Cahoots Theatre Company General Manager Sandra Lefrançois, I had the opportunity to travel to Liberia for the first time. Cahoots held a workshop of an expanded version of SIA in partnership with the Liberian Dance Troupe.  My excitement of connecting with friends who had finally been able to return home was checked by my terror at having my play put to the test.  But again, the patience and generosity that was shown to me when I made my first poorly planned trip to Ghana (this time I brought shorts), was shown to me again.  Hearing remarkable insights about the piece from the very same people who had helped to inspire it was truly an amazing experience.  
Building on the partnership that was formed with the Liberian Dance Troupe, we were able to raise the funds needed to purchase land for a new home for the Liberian Dance Troupe.  We are now working to raise the funds needed to build a new home for the group.
Cahoots Theatre Company is producing the world premiere production of SIA on the occasion of their 25th Anniversary season.  With an exceptional track record of creating and developing work that investigates the complexities of Canada’s cultural diversity, they are the perfect company to bring this story to life in Toronto.

Down Stage Theatre Company is producing the Western première production of SIA. Dedicated to the production of provocative Canadian performance that explores socially and politically charged themes, Down Stage is the perfect company to bring this story to life in Calgary. Down Stage's production of SIA is running at the Epcor Centre's Motel space April 11 to April 21. 

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