Indigenous storytelling workshop has a profound impact on students

The 19 theatre students who took part in the Indigenous storytelling workshop

Early October, theatre students Kathryn Geertsema and Frank Chung were among a group of 19 students participating in a three-day intensive workshop focused on Indigenous storytelling with Aboriginal elders Muriel Miguel, Penny Couchie and Imelda Villalon.

Theatre students Frank Chung (left) with Kathryn Geertsema

Funded through a grant from the Office of the Vice-Provost Academic that supports the Indigenization of curriculum, the workshop introduced the participants to Miguel’s “story-weaving” technique, which integrates a form of movement analysis known as Laban with a creative, Indigenous approach to story creation and performance.

For Geertsema, the experience gave her a greater appreciation for Indigenous theatre. “The emphasis on storytelling in Indigenous culture is quite different from storytelling in western theatre,” said Geertsema, noting that in western cultures, there is often an emphasis on results. This workshop, she said, highlighted the importance of the journey.

Chung said the workshop changed his understanding and approach to how to tell a story. “In my education and reading there has been a consistent set structure of how to create and perform,” he said. “The workshop introduced the concept of story weaving and the possibility that the story itself can breathe like its own individual spirit; that it is malleable yet concrete at the same time.”

The 19 theatre students who took part in the Indigenous storytelling workshop

To prepare for the workshop, participants were asked to come prepared with stories. They were encouraged to abandon the strict structure they originally intended for their stories in favour of feeling how the story “ought to be told.” Improvisation was an important component and this form of Indigenous theatre merged the preparation for telling the story with the improvisation arising from feeling the story. Participants listened to each other’s stories and sought to find and feel the parallels between the stories.

As part of the workshop, multiple people told their stories, which were then woven, meaning the story was still told, but scattered and chopped up to make puzzles that were then put together. “The weaving made a brand-new creation that was formed from amalgamating two or more stories,” said Chung. “I had never seen new work formed so quickly before in a rehearsal studio. I have worked with my classmates for some time now, but when their work was woven, it was like taking in a breath of fresh air.”

From left: Workshop leaders Penny Couchie and Imelda Villalon with theatre Professor Eric Armstrong

Geertsema had a similar response to the process of story weaving. “It fascinated me how often the stories we told echoed one another – stories we had prepared on our own but were now weaving together,” she said. “Every time people had similar lines or referred to similar emotions, I wondered at how profoundly similar we are as humans, despite the different stories we tell. At the heart of it, we share so many fears and hopes.”

On the last day of the Indigenous Storytelling workshop, participants worked to weave their pieces together using their bodies and voices to tell the stories. One particular partnership involving fourth-year theatre student Sepehr Reybod and theatre Professor Eric Armstrong was particularly moving, said Chung. “To see Sepehr and Eric telling their stories and having moments when they connected was magical to see,” he said. “I began to look past who I thought my teacher was, and instead approached it as two people simply trying to tell a story, express themselves and be honest with who they are.”

“It is always important to learn about other cultures and to realize that the western emphasis on naturalistic theatre and performance is not the form of all theatre and performance,” said Geertsema, something she found particularly important when considering the current goal-oriented culture that focuses on careers and using one’s skills. There’s an equilibrium to be found, she said. “Simply being aware of other performative techniques can enliven one’s creative life tenfold, while also keeping non-western ideals alive.”

For Chung, the lessons learned in the workshop apply to other professions, not just acting. “I would highly recommend it [the workshop] to people who would like to know about Indigenous culture, mindset and simply how to be free and comfortable with who you are as a person. It made me realize the artistry and beauty behind being human, which I feel is something we all need to take more time to appreciate.”