When actor, playwright and performance art facilitator Laura Teasdale first came to New Richmond for an ELAN ACE Initiative project, both she, and the teachers, were unsure of what the project would look like. Everyone was instead concerned with the desired outcome: promoting unity in the community. The Cascapedia Bay is a region with long-standing Mi’kmaq, Acadian, Irish, Loyalist and Scottish roots, and encouraging shared citizenship was important, in an area where as Laura states, “every internet source shared a different story of who founded the place”. Laura’s passion and speciality are creating historical plays. In consultation with the teachers of New Richmond High School, she decided that it would be thought-provoking to create a historical play that celebrated the history of the founding of the community. With this in mind, she, and the students of New Richmond began to gather stories from the local Seniors and Elders of the community, which they turned into scripts and songs.
Though intercultural unity was the main priority for the community for Laura’s project, the intergenerational component has been important as well. Laura recalls that when she first visited some of the seniors and Elders, their eagerness made it seem as though “they had been waiting all their lives to share these stories with someone”. Connecting to the elderly in the community in turn helped the students connect with their own histories.
In addition to being drawn out of their selves by connecting to the larger narrative of the space, in the act of performance, students also became more confident to articulate in different ways. Laura recalls an example of a girl who was initially very shy, who would not perform. Through Laura’s drama workshops, she began to emerge from her shell, and now has a speaking role in the performance. Laura also reflects on how the students at large have softened through her workshops, so that both the louder kids and quieter kids now make space for each other to perform and respect each other’s performances. Such empowerment is the magic of art, Laura believes. While the students are empowered to connect to themselves and relate in different ways, the Seniors and Elders are also empowered to connect and relate to their community first through being listened to, and then through hearing their stories relayed back to them in ways that honour the uniqueness, skill and culture that each community has brought to the area.
Laura decided through observing the empathetic process of the students in documenting the stories and creating the performance that perhaps, ultimately, the goal of the project could be celebrating diversity, “making the students feel good for being themselves” rather than promoting unity. The unity would come instead from the shared act of development and viewership. Just as all human populations in the area are united in relying on the Cascapedia River, which bore witness to their economic developments, so all spectators of the performance would be united in witnessing the students re-enact the histories of their diverse ancestors. The students also decided to use the River as the narrative cherry on top of their performance.
Laura states that when she first came to the community, she knew nobody. She realized that to find connection, she would need to open herself up to the peoples of the Bay de Chaleur; documenting the stories of the locals was one way in which she achieved that. The willingness of the community to welcome Laura demonstrates their shared pride in their histories, and their willingness to be vulnerable. The community made space for Laura, as it also made space to listen and celebrate each other’s unique strengths and capacities. The community performance took place April 17th, and the performance and songs created have been preserved, so that the community can appreciate them in future years.