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Performing Out of Gas

 

Northwest Territories: "Performing Out of Gas" is a series of letters which make the situation in Yellowknife increasingly clear. In the first, the writer, Charles Lenoir, a director of the Playing in the Snow, Yellowknife's theatre, apologizes for not being able to send more documentation to an Ottawa director who is interested in performing Neyelle Teya's political play, Out of Gas. The southern director is unaware of the constraints that people in the north ensure, and Lenoir tries to subtly apprise him of Waymart's takeover of the northern communities. In the second letter, Lenoir is slightly more explicit about why the second request for Teya's co-directorship is not possible. Finally, in the third letter, Lenoir explains what is really going on in the north and how his theatre is central to the resistance against the corporate forces.

This letter was recovered from the inside of a photocopier, and as such, was never meant to be sent to the southern director. It is commonly taken as a desperate appeal by an educated man in the north to a future southern audience. In that, at least, we fulfil the letter's original mandate. The letter is the centrepiece of Playing in the Snow's rebellion collection. We reprint it here with the permission of the fine anthology, Writing the Darkening of Society.

 

Dear Greg Taylor

I want to thank you for your interest in Yellowknife's Playing in the Snow theatre company and in particular Neyelle Teya's play, Out of Gas, that is famous, at least locally. I am sure that Teya would have no objection, and would indeed be happy to see her play performed in the southern circuits. At one time she dreamed that her work might invite the audiences of Ottawa and Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton to share her insight into both life in the north and the import of a southern trip in her conjectured world.

I am sorry that Teya herself cannot be part of the company that would make her dream possible, for she is not available at this moment, but I am attaching a copy of the script, and a cd of the audio play, as it was heard on the local radio network of the Northwest Territories out of Yellowknife.

To give you merely a brief précis, the play concerns a conjectured time in the near future when fossil fuels have run short. Rings a bit too true now doesn't it, in these days of tightening our collective oil belt? In Teya's play, an unusual family unit, made up of Tehmi, his ex girlfriend and sometimes lover, an orphan boy they pick up along the way and the Tehmi's elderly dog. This family travels into the south ostensibly with the idea of recognizance for foodstuffs, but with a secret desire to leave the harsh life of the northern towns in the desperate days of the post peak oil period. Various misadventures befall them along the way, but their true challenge comes as they arrive on the coast, when they enter Vancouver.

That great city, in Teya's imagined future, has become a urban wasteland of warring gangs, looters scrambling for scarce resources, and marauders intent on mischief. To this naïve family from the north, the city shakes their faith in humanity that has kept them going thus far, although they never lose track of their vision. I should warn you though, that misadventures is a very subtle word to describe the woman's near rape, the boy's fall from a crumbling skyscraper, and the death of the dog. The play ends with the family, more cohesive than ever, travelling into the British Columbia interior, where, it is subtly suggested, they find like-minded people and put together a tenable community.

The play was a big hit here in the north, perhaps because of its gritty city reality and the closeness of its impromptu family. It was picked up by the schools of the area, and toured all the way from Rankin Inlet to Igloolik in Nunavut and Coppermine to Whitehorse in the Yukon. Although it was grudgingly reviewed by the media, it played high schools to standing ovations, perhaps the first time such displays of appreciation have ever graced some of these schools. Local papers were ecstatic, but the corporate organs were more than lukewarm. That is perhaps not unexpected.

I wish you the best of luck in your effort to bring a Dené vision to the south and I look forward to hearing about the play's inevitable success.

Charles Lenoir, Director of the Playing in the Snow, Yellowknife's theatre.

 

Dear Greg Taylor

I must thank you again for your continued enthusiasm about Teya's Out of Gas. I am delighted that after you have perused the script you are still interested in the vision that it offers. I agree that it is a story oft told in some ways, for even Disney before the social deterioration of peak oil presented watered down tales of apocalypse.

Teya's vision is different in kind, however. As your letter perceptively implies, she has foreseen a future that is both stark and familiar. Many of the events her script alludes to have come to pass, such as military check points and gas rationing, while others, like the crumbling of certain social mores, if our news is any indication, might be in our offing.

Although I commiserate with your wishes, and agree with your need, I regret to dash your hopes of having Teya's personal input on your production. As I stated in my letter of last month, she is unavailable and is likely to remain so. I am sorry as well that I can't provide a video representation of the many high school productions. We have never had access to such video equipment, and it is only through my own purchases in easier times that audio equipment was possible. We always ran on a shoestring here in the north, and that affected the performing arts more than other fields.

I beg you to keep me informed as to the sure success of the performances and I look forward to reading some of the reviews, should you be able to send them to me. Here in Yellowknife some media is difficult to obtain.

Thanking you in advance,

Charles Lenoir, Director of the Playing in the Snow, Yellowknife's theatre.

Dear Greg Taylor

Although I have never received another letter from you, and such communication is now impossible, I feel the urge to write a final time in support of your efforts. As well, I'd like to explain what might seem like reluctance on my part to more fully support your production.

As you no doubt have heard, by rumour if in no other way, the north has undergone rapid and fundamentally damaging changes. I have only alluded to those social upheavals in the most general way in my letters, although that was not my decision, but I am more prepared now to make a clean breast of it. The Theatre has not been in operation for some time, and has in fact been facing its own struggle for survival.

You have heard, likely, that Waymart has installed itself on many of the northern reserves, offering employment and services at fixed and disadvantageous terms. That is also true in Yellowknife, despite its status as capital of the Northwest Territories. Our much beloved playwright, Neyelle Teya, about whose play we have already conversed, led the first of many actions against Waymart in a brave effort to ensure northern self-sufficiency. Although she at first seemed to be successful, and Waymart even pulled out of several local reserves, we found later that their show of weakness was farce. For a theatre director and a playwright to miss a farce is pathetic I know, but forced reluctantly into the roles of champions of the people, our more discerning academic skills are blunted.

In short, Teya cannot assist you in your production because she has been killed by Waymart security, and even now, if I were to venture a look out the western window, I could see her body hanging from her wrists over the main street. She was particularly vilified by the Waymart personnel for her direct actions, but also for the play which contained, as you are aware upon reading the script, many allusions to Waymart's brutal suppression of local governance.

The Playing in the Snow Theatre itself has not been in operation for two years now, although I was informed by the local resistance that I should perpetuate the artifice of its continuing operation. That said, I did not lie to you about the success of Teya's play, nor about our role in bringing her vision to the northern stage. But the theatre itself, has, however reluctantly, has become a "Way Station," as we cheekily call it, in a kind of northern underground railroad. We assist those who wish to escape the Waymart compounds back to their reserve, or in many cases into a south which promises so many other options.

In that way, at least, we are bringing Teya's play to life. We have funnelled hundreds of families away from Waymart's oppressive living conditions and totalitarian compounds, and set them on their way to what we hope is a better life. We have had few reports to compare to the play, however, so we merely have our hopes of success. The acting, of which the Waymart driven media was so derisive when their campaign to shut us down was successful, has stood us in good stead. We have managed to appear a struggling theatre staying open merely on the good will and donations of the local arts community, while we have actually been a central conduit of escape.

The days of crowing about our thespian abilities are past now. Waymart security have finally realized what lay in their midst, and even now have the building surrounded. Although I am more of a high school drama teacher than a revolutionary, I will soon take up my final role. I have chosen my costume. I am to be partially Richard the Third, an acknowledgment of my drive but innate inability with guns, and partially Tehmi, from Teya's play. Donning the rags of his long trudge to the south, I will endeavour to be a hero in a tiny drama that is happening now, I am sure, all over the world.

I pick these trappings deliberately, I assure you, although I can tell you our costume department is in slim supply. We have sent hundreds of pilgrims out of our doors dressed as King Lear and the Fool, and as Hamlet and Ophelia and a hundred others. But this last time that we tread the boards, most of us must go, perhaps, as we are.

I will hide this letter in our photocopier, where it likely will never be found until electricity returns to the north. Then, someday in a more bright future, someone with a wish to copy an old script will fire up the machine, and read what emerges, a palimpsest of Teya's story and mine. A story of the last days of the Playing in the Snow Theatre, and of a pocket revolution completely quashed by forces beyond our power to stand against.

I do want to thank you one final time, Mr. Taylor. You have made the last few months of farce more affirming. For your letters, arriving as they did from the sunny south of Teya's play, and inquiring about her greatest work, even as her body swung in the wind outside my office window, reminded me of art's higher purpose to which I was initially drawn. Thank you for your interest in our northern story, and I wish you luck as well, in your productions, and later, when the oil crisis comes south, in your own performances.

I go now to face my final act. Adieu.

Charles Lenoir, Director of Playing in the Snow, Yellowknife's theatre

 

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