Archive for the ‘Stardale’ Tag

Committing   2 comments


I have written a rather unique book, titled Committing, which was launched recently at a special event at Mount Royal University. Committing features a short script and commentary dealing with the sensitive issue of teen suicide. If you know me and know my writing, this might be the last thing you’d expect from me. This is how it came about.

For a few years now, I’ve been associated with Helen McPhaden and the Stardale Women’s Group. (Please see my post Attention Must be Paid, December, 2012, which is actually included in the book.)

Not long after I wrote that post, Helen received funding to create a performance dealing with the problem of suicide among young people in the aboriginal community. She asked me if I would oversee such a project and I was intrigued and even flattered to have been asked, and so I took on the role of, in Helen’s estimation, the artistic director.

A year and a half ago, then, we began the arduous journey of creating a play – or at least a performance piece – dealing with this very sensitive subject. Being neither aboriginal or adolescent, and for the most part quite ignorant about suicide in general, my real goal was to help create a piece using the information and language the girls themselves would provide.

In this project, we were serving (at least) three masters. One was the creation of a meaningful and performable piece, through improvisation and other theatrical techniques. The second was to provide some training for the girls, who knew virtually nothing about the acting process. Finally, we needed someone to direct the play for at least one performance, which happened a year ago in Edmonton. (There were to have been more in Calgary last June, but then the flood happened and we all know what happened then . . .)

Because of the dark nature of the material, I thought it would be a good idea to go against the grain and hire a director with a background in clown and physical theatre. That person was initially Elaine Weryshko, a wonderfully talented performer from Calgary, but she was presented with the opportunity travel and so we lost her. The road beckoned, and who could blame her for following it?

And so the project was handed off to Geneviève Paré, another young and wonderfully talented performer based in Calgary, with what is certain to be a bright future and good career ahead of her.

Any credit for the work that was finally presented must go to Gen. In my mind she did the almost impossible, wrangling 25 – 30 girls to create a text in the first place and then directing them, all the while imparting the basic fundamentals of the theatre and performance – all in a very limited time frame.

While she was doing this, I sat back and took notes. When you hire the right person, there’s not much else left for you to do, unless you want to try your hand at micro-managing which has never interested me.

These notes I took form the bulk of the book Committing. This allowed me to include in the book many of the images and ideas that came up in our improv sessions, but that didn’t make it into the final version of the play. For this reason, I think the book would be of interest to those involved in dramaturgy and collective creation as well as to those who work with youth and for whom suicide is an issue of interest.

The book obviously contains the script of Committing as it was performed that one time in Edmonton, but I think it is really more of an archival record of what happened, rather than a blueprint for future performances.

Finally, the book also contains an introduction by Stardale Director Helen McPhaden underscoring the seriousness of the problem today in our First Nations communities and beyond.

This year, the Stardale girls have created a different performance piece, a dance in partnership with Alberta Ballet, titled Alesha’s Dream. This piece was performed at the Wright Theatre at Mount Royal University on Wednesday, May 21. Following Alesha’s Dream we launched the book Committing. I gave a short reading from the work and copies were available for purchase. All proceeds will go towards supporting the ongoing programming at Stardale.

It’s lovely book, designed by Vincent Joachim, and an important one on many levels. If you would like a copy but couldn’t make it to the launch, I’m sure Helen would love to hear from you. Books can be ordered by emailing her at Suggested price is $20.00.

Thanks for reading!

Here’s one of my favourite songs by the incomparable Robbie Robinson . . . .



Do No Harm   5 comments

Me and the girls. It’s always gratifying to see an action shot like this and realize that people were actually listening and paying attention!

It would probably come as a surprise to those not actually involved in the writing industry to know just how much time and energy we writers invest in teaching others how to do what we do. Teach may be too strong a word to describe this activity. Perhaps it’s only guiding. Allowing, even.

I’m guided in this activity by a motto that comes from the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.  I know that I can’t always reach every person in the room. I also know that despite their desire and hard work, some just won’t have what it takes. Fair enough, they will find that out with time. But at least I hope that nowhere in this process will I damper anyone’s love of writing and literature, or harm in any way their sense of self-worth.

People who enroll in any kind of class do so with a hope and a prayer, it seems to me. And no matter what they might seem, they are no doubt vulnerable and even fragile and I try to honour that. They may not learn to write as a result of their time with me, but at least they won’t feel any worse about themselves.

Do no harm. It’s a modest goal, but an important one.  Sometimes more than others.

Recently, I was invited to talk to a group of aboriginal girls who are part of the Stardale Women’s Group Foundation, being run in Calgary by the indefatigable Helen McPhaden.  Stardale, which began in Saskatchewan in 1997, offers a wide variety of services and programs specifically for aboriginal women and girls.

(More information can be found at their excellent website:

I met with the girls in a small community centre in the west end of town early one evening. A light supper was provided for the girls (and their instructor for the evening) and after they had taken care of some business, they were introduced to the great author (moi) and our goal was to explore the writing process together in a reasonable manner.

As I say, my goal is to do no harm. I was aware that some of the girls in that room had been on very difficult journeys in their young lives. In fact, Helen told me that the underlying goal of the group is to restore, in some cases create in the first place, a sense of self-esteem.

Anyone who has ever sat in a classroom knows how easy it is to be wounded by a teacher.  It can be deliberate or it can be accidental, but it happens. It has always struck me that some teachers, those we refer to as pedants, are in the habit of using their knowledge on a subject both as a weapon and as an extension of their huge but fragile egos. That is in fact the opposite philosophy of doing no harm.

I know that the idea of writing something doesn’t fill everyone with a feeling of radiant joy. In fact it scares the hell out of a lot of people. (Apparently public speaking is the greatest fear most people have.) And so I don’t ask much at these workshops. In fact, with these girls, I only ask for one word. I figure everyone has at least one word in them!

But that’s for starters. I had the girls write one word on a small recipe card and then I got them back and shuffled them and handed them out again so they could write a second word on a different card. Even a third or fourth or fifth if they felt up to it. And so in this manner we came up with the cards in the photo below.

“Love, hate, you only live and laugh once, hurt, happiness, I love you, I loooove you, joy.”

It’s just a beginning, of course. The cards can be added to,  shared or taken over by one person.  Two words together might be the basis for a poem, and from there it’s not too big a jump to open a notebook and start writing on one’s own.

The cards done by the girls at Stardale aren’t really a whole lot different from the cards generated by other students in other situations. Wherever we find ourselves, whatever hand we have been dealt in life, it seems to me we all hope for and fear pretty much the same things.

That these girls have grown to participate so well and so enthusiastically in workshops like the one I led and everything they do beyond this says a lot about their own courage and determination. It also says a lot about the volunteers and leaders of the Stardale Girls Program. It’s a very much needed and important program. It is changing the lives and expectations of these girls for the good.

I was honoured to be asked to take part in it.

Thanks for reading!

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