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what i read: the rez sisters. (and thoughts on playwriting).

August 7, 2011

i forgot about doing this blog post and then last night i had a dream about living on a reserve and so i remembered again.

last summer, i read tomson highway’s kiss of the fur queen and i fell in love. it has everything i look for in a book – i feel like i can’t tell you any more without giving away major portions of the story, but if you know me (which i’m sure you do) you know what i like. ha.


i can’t say i’m a person who really likes to read plays. having taken my first playwriting class this year, and having seen my first play put on, i am blown away by the amount of interpretation that is used in each and every performance of any play.


see, i know i’m a type A personality. and i’m working on loosening that up. say what i will about vancouver, the city (or maybe just the experiences i am having in grad school in the city) is helping me loosen up my stays. obviously i still like to plan things and i still like to have control over things, but i’m working on it.

brave new playrites was a very good experience for me, but i know that it wasn’t that way for everybody. i lucked out. my director understood that i was a weirdo and that i was trying to write and put on a weirdo play, and while casting was hard and while sitting through auditions made me want to cry and while i definitely stressed over what the final product would look like, i loved it. as i said before, it was very hard to watch my material on stage, in the flesh, brought to life, but all in all, it was an amazing experience, and i’m glad i did it.

but many people were pissed with brave new. and with their directors. or directors were pissed with their writers. the writers tended to be overbearing and anxious and over-controlling – in that they wanted to have their fingers in all the pies (that is such a gross saying) and that they wanted to be able to control exactly who was cast in their plays and how each line was said with what inflection, and the timing, and the pacing.

i mean, it kind of makes sense – not that i’m condoning the behaviour of the writers – but if you’re writing a story (or a play, but since i mainly write stories i’ll stick with the idea of the story) you get to control all variables in your head. and that’s what you’ve gotten used to. doing that. i’m not saying this is the best way, or the healthiest way, but if you’ve been brought up writing like that, if you’ve produced great things writing like that, then of course you’re going to want to have control over your play.

anyway, that tangent was brought on by…. by what?

oh, by me reading the play and wondering at the mettle and flexibility of playwrights. because i don’t know if i would be able to write a play, something that i had in my head, something that i had created, and then see it put on it such a different manner.



but on to the story!

i have to say, i loved his novel more.

in kiss of the fur queen, highway has infinite space. and his prose flourishes because of that. he becomes lush and expansive and grandiose. he has time to evoke nuanced sympathy – and empathy – from his readers. because he has no time limits or space issues – no confinement, no responsibility to think about staging or blocking – he expands his prose laterally, and the web of adjectives and adverbs that he casts is fucking hypnotizing.

the rez sisters is more abrupt. now granted, he wrote this when he was quite a bit younger. and that has to be taken into consideration.

first off, i love the staging. the women – 7 of them – become a chorus, become an amorphous one-woman through their actions melding together at so many times. the cree twang – “ever nice, that” – that they all use makes it hard sometimes to remember who is who and who is speaking, despite having such distinct characters, and i think that that is done on purpose. these women are separate, and then they are not separate. these women are doing their own things, and then these women are working together on raising money, cleaning and sweeping to a frenzied drumbeat, and they become a whirlwind. the idea of one percussionist playing alongside a few of the scenes is a good one, as the sound of drums can mimic the cacophonous sound of birds, of a community that we never see on stage, of a bingo hall, of a chief. the sound of drums is also a direct mimicry of a heartbeat, and humans react to that sound even if they do not consciously realise it.

there is an 8th character – one man – nanabush (also known as the trickster, or wiisagejaak, or the anglicized whisky jack) who speaks little but moves a lot. highway marks out in his notes that the man who plays nanabush (who spends most of his time in white feathers as a seagull and black feathers as a crow) should be a dancer, someone who has training in modern or ballet. and therefore, it was extremely hard to get the feel for nanabush without seeing the character on stage. because he speaks so little but uses nuanced motions to get his points across, in print, i couldn’t understand this character. i couldn’t fully understand what he stood for.

some things in the rez sisters are rote. a rape, a death, a pregnancy. while i did not see the rape coming, it didn’t surprise me. the death was very predictable, the pregnancy somewhat. i don’t say that these things are trite because i am meaning to be insensitive – highway writes them pretty well, especially the death scene and the anguish leading up to it, and the rape is based off of an awful real-life story – but they are tropes representing the circle of life and death. it’s hard, because while i felt emotionally attached to these events, the writer in me sort of balked at their appearances – i knew it was going happen, and it sometimes felt wooden.


but overall, highway made me laugh, and then feel bitter, and then feel sad. he did what a writer is supposed to do – get something out of the audience or the reader. i still prefer his prose, where i can see exactly what he wants from his own head put out onto the paper. but maybe i need to see this on stage. no, i know i need to see this on stage.

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