This month a group of aboriginal youth screened a nine-minute film for their elders and the Red Deer public at the Hub on Ross — that’s the synopsis.
But the story behind this seemingly short burst of creativity reaches far deeper into the roots of the aboriginal community in Red Deer, and is the culmination of many hours of exploration by the Spirit Seekers Youth Theatre Project to better understand its identity.
“If you knew where these kids had come from, the gains we made were quite wonderful,” said Lucinda Sheardown, who has facilitated the theatre project from the beginning.
Since October 2010, Sheardown and her drop-in theatre group (usually consisting of a dozen or so youths) have been meeting at the Hub each Thursday, exploring concepts of identity and community using theatrical games and workshops.
“I really had to adapt the program as we went, and have no expectations; it had to be about the process, not the product,” said Sheardown.
The aboriginal youth group (ranging from ages 8 to 18) seemed tentative to express themselves at first, Sheardown said.
“I wasn’t really comfortable with it at the start, acting definitely was not one of my hobbies,” said Warren Simon, an 18-year-old member of the group.
Simon plans on graduating high school this year and becoming an electrician. He said his penchant to listen kept him showing up each Thursday night for the initially awkward theatre meetings. He came to enjoy the Spirit Seekers program and said it helped him learn plenty about his own identity as an aboriginal youth.
“The problems we all go through, we had a lot in common, experiencing racist comments and whatnot,” said Simon.
Simon’s transformation and is a shared experience the majority of the group now has in common as well. As the weeks turned into months, the project’s creativity grew beyond even Sheardown’s expectations, she said.
“Kids who never said a word at the start were getting up and doing live theatre by the end of the program,” she said.
Sheardown, who studied education with a major in theatre at the University of Alberta, used transformational techniques such as Augusto Boal’s (a revered Brazilian theatre practitioner) Theatre of the Oppressed methods to give her group a platform to express their feelings.
“The whole concept behind it is to take situations that would happen in real life, and rehearse ways to deal with them on stage,” said Sheardown.
Once the group reached a high level of comfort with Sheardown and each other, they started to explore concepts of discrimination openly — skits examined if the Spirit Seekers were being followed around stores by suspicious employees because they were aboriginal or because they were young, or both, Sheardown said. Using these real experiences as the basis for dramatic expression brought many pleasant and painful memories and feelings to the surface, Sheardown said.
As the process unfurled, Sheardown kept the group’s creative direction in its own hands, and when the young performers decided they wanted the theatre project to become a film, she happily obliged.
“That was the whole point of the project, to help them find their voices, and begin to use them, whether it was verbally or non-verbally,” Sheardown said.
Tanya Schur, executive director of the Red Deer Native Friendship Society, which operates the Spirit Seekers program, said the evolution of the project to include film was exactly what she’d hoped for.
“We had an idea of using theatre games to get our youth to express themselves, but in their work with Lucinda, they came up with the idea of doing a documentary,” Schur said.
“To me that is a success, to be able to stand up and say ‘This is who I am.’ is very significant in our culture.”
Schur said the volunteer effort of Kristopher Wedgwood, a film editor from Cast in Stone Productions in Red Deer, helped the Spirit Seekers learn many film production and editing techniques in a short period of time.
The rough-cut of Identity: A Perspective From Aboriginal Youth premiered recently at the Hub, and will hopefully grow to become a lasting extension of the oral story-telling traditions considered sacred in the First Nations community, Schur said.
“To capture some of the stories of our elders before they walk on would be a very important gift to leave the community.”
Schur also hopes the continually evolving Spirit Seekers program will become a more inclusive exploration of issues facing Red Deer’s youth.
“This has the potential to become a forum where aboriginal and non-aboriginal kids can come together and talk about what experiences they share being young in the 21st century.”