by Kelly Norah Drukker
Students of the Working Class Public History class reflected on their experiences of representing oral histories of Pointe-Saint-Charles which are part of the archive at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling.
When we listen to and observe another person as they speak in front of a camera, what exactly are we seeing as we watch? When put in the position of having to portray that person in front of an audience, what aspects of them do we choose to “play back”? How can we arrive at a performance with which we are comfortable, one that compromises neither the interviewee’s nor our own integrity, but offers something vital, authentic, and engaging enough to hold the audience’s attention? These are the questions that I have been grappling with as I move through the stages of our “Life Stories” assignment—from my first acquaintance with interviewee June O’Donnell through listening to her interview, to the more intimate process of portraying her character and life experiences through theatre. I feel better prepared approaching this assignment armed with readings by Salverson, Buziak, Little, High, and Sajnani. Through their writing and work, these authors/practitioners point toward a path that will allow creators of theatre to act as witnesses to the “Other’s” testimony, while neither privileging the parts of the story that involve suffering nor collapsing the self into a portrayal of the Other that is fuelled by displaced feelings of melancholy. They eschew creating an overly literal portrayal of the Other that leaves no imaginative “gap” through which performer and interviewee can see themselves and their stories re-visioned anew. But reading about something and practicing it are very different experiences, and as a person with little training in theatre performance, I find myself in new terrain.
One concept that I find helpful in approaching this assignment is that of “The Bridge”, wherein theatre practitioners listen to another person’s testimony, and then “play back” experiences from their own lives that relate to the interviewee’s experience. Having not yet begun work on a short script, I am nevertheless trying to build a small, mental “bridge” toward June O’Donnell in preparation. In some ways, this feels easy, in other ways, not—I can touch briefly on experiences of hers that bear familiar traces, but I can never fully grasp them, and they will never be my own. Like June, my mother’s side of the family is from Pointe-Saint-Charles. Though my mother and uncles left with my grandmother when they were young, my extended family stayed, and I wonder if their children might have played with June’s in the street. June’s stories of the iceman delivering ice and leaving trails of shavings are like my mother’s stories, but told from a slightly different angle. When I hear her say the name “Doreen”, I am struck by the way that names have the power to conjure up certain eras, and I am reminded of Lorraine, Irene—names of people from my mother’s past in the Point, and the bits and pieces I know of their stories. June uses certain expressions, like “Oh, God!” spoken with a mixture of humour and irony, that my family and I also use. I have also worked in a factory—though only for two summers and to support only myself—and when June spoke warmly of her work in the chocolate factory at General Foods and of her preference for keeping the same jobs, I remembered the comfort of performing manual tasks I could master, the pleasure of singing over the whirring machines, but also the knowledge that I was returning to school in the Fall.
There are the facts that an interviewee relates, with which we can build a bridge, but there are also the emotions. When, in the interview, June mentions people she has lost, part of me rises up to try to comprehend what that must be like—losing a son, a husband of 53 years, a father she never had the chance to know. My own losses rise up in my throat, too. Comparisons also arise—I notice that I have less restraint, that I can lean toward self-pity, but I understand that people are built differently, so I try to let myself be while witnessing another way of being in the world.
Still more questions appear. Once a bridge is built, do we then have the right to move into another’s stories, to try them on like clothing? And what, in a string of words combined with tones, gestures, and silences, leaps out as “story” in the interview? On a basic level, it would seem that stories should have a beginning and an end, and a certain emotional charge that keeps the listener engaged. The part of June’s interview that most stood out for me as a “story” was her description of the nuns’ farm, framed by the question “How has the street changed…?” The “how” unlocked a series of memories about a place that has disappeared, but still hovers in the air for a moment when she describes it: the fresh carrots pulled from the earth, the horn calling the nuns in from the fields. Yet as vivid as I find this story to be, I’m interested to find out which pieces of June’s interview struck my classmates as “stories”. To return to the idea of the bridge, I can see the parts of the story I chose that resonate with my own experience: her fascination with the Catholic nuns, while remaining on the outside of their world; her sense of reverence for a way of life that offered a window into an even deeper past. Even as I write this, this I’m aware that I’m cycling June’s words through my own filter, changing them into something that is no longer her direct experience. And that I have yet to account for ways of listening when we can find no bridge to build. Still, it will be interesting to see how this process continues to unfold as we grapple with how to portray another person’s stories, and where to place the self in relation to them.
by Kelly Norah Drukker