Entering the Mind’s Eye: Eeyou Istchee’s first play hits the road

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2014-02-25 00.48.27While most Crees grew up listening to their Elders tell them legends and tales of the old days, a new theatre play features an original exploration of Cree folklore.

Mind’s Eye is written and directed by Cree artists. According to Gaston Cooper, a communications and marketing officer at the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute (ACCI), the project started as a way to promote a book of the same name by Emily Masty and Susan Marshall. The book was launched when the play premiered in Whapmagoostui March 1.

The theatrical version – based on the first few chapters of the book – has since developed a life and spirit of its own.

Acclaimed Cree playwright, actor, visual artist and filmmaker Shirley Cheechoo wrote and directed the stage adaptation. It features Cree legends told by (mainly) Cree actors in a professional production that will tour all nine communities throughout the month of March.

According to Cooper, this is the largest project that the ACCI has ever undertaken. No other production has ever had its scope or potential to reach so much of the population. He hopes it will become a point of cultural pride.

“Some of these stories have been passed down from generation to generation and it is amazing how we have been able to keep them alive,” said Cooper.

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Brandon Oakes and Siikun Wapachee

“When you look back at this, we still have the same respect for the animals (culturally) and you see that in these stories. As a hunter, I often find myself asking, ‘What was this like a long time ago?’ When you read the script or the book, you get a clearer picture as to why things were the way that they were.”

With the exception of Cheechoo, virtually none of those involved with the play from Eeyou Istchee have any previous theatrical experience. This didn’t stop the ACCI from hiring as many Crees as possible to bring it to life onstage.

As a result, most of the performers are from Eeyou Istchee, with a few Native professionals pulled in from other First Nations in Quebec and Ontario. They include Una Cheechoo and Matthew Manitowabi, both from Manitoulan Island, Ontario, Mohawk actor Brandon Oakes of Akwesasne and Wayne Neegan of Constance Lake First Nation.

According to Cooper, these professionals gave those who were new to the acting world the opportunity to learn from seasoned actors. It works, as the production possesses a seamless quality.

“They seemed to click right away and became like one big happy family. It is amazing how well they have managed to work together and gain experience from one another. Our Cree actors have been teaching the others Cree words and in return they have been acquiring all sorts of valuable information on acting,” said Cooper.

The cast and crew that the ACCI pulled from the communities actually found out about the project through Facebook, Cooper noted. The social media site also helped create a tremendous buzz, getting over 2000 hits online within a few days.

Shirley and Greta

Shirley and Greta

Now after years of fundraising and several weeks of blood, sweat and tears, the hope is that the play will go far beyond simply entertaining the Cree audiences. Cooper said the real objective is to help these tales of yore live on in the hearts of the Cree people and continue to be passed on.

As the multilingual play starts its tour of Eeyou Istchee, Cooper is excited to see the youth reaction as well as the impact on the Elders who once shared these cherished stories with their children.

“We had a fun time with this because you can actually follow the whole play, whether you speak English or Cree from the way it is done. We used English and Cree because we wanted to spice it up and I think the audience will appreciate that,” said Cooper.

Another aspect that has made this experience unique is the fact that it has been developed within a museum, a rich resource for the historical and cultural research of pre-contact Cree life. But this location added restrictions in less obvious areas.

According to Ashley Manitowabi, the play’s production designer, any element from nature brought into the ACCI actually had to be quarantined to avoid contamination with the other Cree artifacts within the building.

Taking care of the production’s look, sound and feel, Manitowabi said he was initially a little overwhelmed as the play features 31 different characters. But having immediate access to so much Cree history helped him recreate that world.

“I am trying to use as many elements of nature as I can,” said Manitowabi. I have three structures right now: a shaking, a dwelling and a beaver dam. Typically I would have used a lot of raw materials for that but I actually used a lot of plastic piping for it. I have painted it and dressed it, and covered two of them in canvas.”

2014-02-25 00.43.55 2Manitowabi said working with people who live in their own Native language was inspiring.

Gearing up for the first show, Manitowabi was looking forward to seeing everything come together. “The first show is going to be a celebration. It is a spiritual thing. Everything on stage is a spiritual so it is going to be the greatest thing for me,” he said.

To ensure the production is authentic, Paula Menarick has been hard at work sewing costumes created from long-forgotten elements of Cree garb.

Menarick said the show’s costumes are replicas of what was worn between the 1600s and 1800s. Characters in Mind’s Eye will be decked out in beaded hoods and hide outfits. Women’s traditional dresses had detachable sleeves and men’s hats were almost pillbox-shaped with a point in the front and a tail in the back.

She also noted something very interesting about the leggings of that era.

“The women’s would be shaped into a curve whereas the men’s were shaped into a point. It was the flap that was shaped into a point or a curve and the reason that they would do this is because to differentiate man from woman, hunter from women and so that the good skull or the spirit of the land could recognize who a hunter is by looking at the leggings so that she (the spirit) could send him food or game so that he could kill for his family,” said Menarick.

As for the stars of the show, Mind’s Eye is an incredible opportunity.

Eastmain’s 22-year-old Alice Gilpin may be a novice to theatre but she is quickly gaining confidence and loving every moment of it.

“This is really exciting as it is my first time doing any acting but I am having a lot of fun. It’s a lot of hard work and I am really enjoying my work with my co-workers,” said Gilpin.

Among other characters, Gilpin plays the female spirit of the caribou. She said that playing roles that are so significant to Cree culture and history has been a “powerful” experience.

2014-02-25 00.44.28“I am hoping everyone who sees this play enjoys it. It is such an honour being a part of it,” said Gilpin.

Time on the set also seems to fly by for 18-year-old Siikun Wapachee, the production’s youngest cast member.

The Oujé-Bougoumou native said that being part of Mind’s Eye has brought her out of her shell. The self-described “shy girl” initially felt intimidated, but she said that her director and the other staff helped her connect to her character and transform on stage.

“I like how I get to be other people, other than myself. I am putting myself into another person’s shoes and it is fun to think about what would a mother do in this situation? I am not a mother and so it is fun to think how a mother would react to how her son turning into a caribou right before her very eyes,” said Wapachee.

Bringing decades of arts experience and cultural pride to the production, Shirley Cheechoo said she enjoyed the challenges that Mind’s Eye has presented as it has forged the way for all sorts of creativity.

The most exciting part of the production has been working with the acting newcomers and seeing them evolve, particularly where volume is concerned, she said.

“I have seen them come from a point where I could hardly hear a peep from them. When I asked them their names, I would hear whispers and now I hear them belting out a song or a chant. It’s overwhelming,” said Cheechoo.

Cheechoo hopes the play is a magical experience for everyone involved. She was captivated by the original manuscript and wanted to see its stories live on forever.

“When I read the stories, I was like ‘Oh, my God, I have never heard this before in my whole life, about the spirit of the caribou and the spirit of the animals and how they helped the people a long time ago.’ It was a history lesson for me. And I think that this will be a history lesson for everyone else who watches it,” said Cheechoo.


The tour date of Mind’s Eye: March 6-7, Wemindji; March 8 & 10 Eastmain; March 11-12 Waskaganish; March 13-14 Nemaska; March 16-17 Mistissini; March 18-19 Waswanipi; March 20-21 Oujé-Bougoumou; March 25 Ambassador’s Gala, Oujé-Bougoumou


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