- Archival Performances:Collaborative Theater and Approaches to Indigenous History
In May 2014, the Toronto-based collaborative UnSpun Theatre premiered a new play at the Harbourfront Centre, a performing arts venue situated in the heart of the city's waterfront district. The Speedy was the result of a competition for new drama designed to commemorate the center's fortieth anniversary.1 In her opening monologue, Shira Leuchter (codirector of UnSpun and one of the play's four performers) referred to the occasion to reconsider the city's history. She reminded the audience that the area surrounding the center was once covered by water. She recalled the days when Toronto was known as York, when the history of North America was in flux and undetermined, and when the settlement (in 1804, a population of 432) might have been the capital of what was then the British colony of Upper Canada. After establishing this connection to Toronto's submerged past, she introduced another disremembered story that centered on conflict between Indigenous peoples and settler colonials. In 1804, the H.M.S. Speedy sank just off the coast of Lake Ontario during a storm. In transit from York to the newly constructed courthouse in Newcastle, the ship carried an accused person on his way to judgment: Ogetonicut, an Ojibwe man who had been charged for killing John Sharpe, a white fur trader. No one survived the shipwreck.
In bringing the Speedy and its archival wreckage to the surface, Leuchter reminded the audience, composed mostly of people who live in a global city that prides itself on its diversity, of its unrecognized connection to settler-colonial violence. The play pivoted on the assumption that the average North American knows few details [End Page 396] about the continent's Indigenous history. Merging the practices of contemporary performance with that of historiography, UnSpun Theatre used collaborative theater-making to engage an archive of Indigenous and colonial history alongside our contemporary relationship to this past. The play wove together multiple narratives: the retelling of an inaccessible past, the silencing of Indigenous voices, and the tendency to write these men and women into stereotypical representations. To create the play, UnSpun used a process that they call creation-based theater, a method that bridged forms of documentary theater with collaborative performance techniques. Sometimes called collective or collaborative creation, and at other times devised theater, this form of drama, when combined with research-based performance practices, provides a compelling avenue for the destabilization of hierarchies that would privilege text over oral, single versus polyvocal authorship, and cohesive, linear narratives versus episodic fragments.2
UnSpun reimagined a specific event, but the play and its creation also model practices that address the complexities of how non-Native and Indigenous people might approach the archives of their shared history. Creation-based theater is self-reflexive and driven by research, grounded in partnership and dialogue. Leuchter presented the opening monologue alone onstage, but The Speedy was the result of four different authors. Leuchter and codirector Chris Hanratty assembled a team with "a focus on diversity—and particularly diversity of storytelling approach" (Leuchter). The partnership included performers and writers who identified as both Indigenous (co-author/performer Keith Barker and actor Michaela Washburn) and non-Indigenous (Leuchter, Hanratty, and Jordi Mand). In addition to Barker and Washburn, UnSpun also sought the advice of Toronto Indigenous theater practitioners Native Earth Performing Arts, who answered questions, read the script, commented on rehearsals, and assisted with other resources.
In the following, I reverse the usual directionality of the relationship between archives and contemporary drama (in which historical texts and objects inspire dramatic retellings of the past). How can literary scholars use performance practices—especially those related to research-based and collaborative drama—to rethink our construction of and relationship to the archive? My reading draws upon Diana Taylor's foundational theorizing of the archive and the repertoire in hemispheric American and performance studies and Jo-Ann Archibald's study of Indigenous "storywork." Taylor works against the assumed "rift" between "archival memory," which is grounded in the material—"documents, maps, literary texts, letters, archaeological remains, bones, videos, films, cds, all those items supposedly resistant to change"—versus...