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Who Are We Now? Essays From A New World – Jenna Shummoogum

Brave Girl – Lunchbox Theatre
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Who Are We Now? Essays From A New World – Jenna Shummoogum

TURNING TOWARDS – Jenna Shummoogum

As I look around at what appears to be the second wave, the highest numbers of COVID cases in Alberta ever, new restrictions looming and medical doctors sounding the alarm, all I can see is grief.
I’m pretty familiar with the messiness of loss. My best friend died six years ago, and I was swallowed by grief. The truth is that it isn’t just sorrow, and it would be so much easier if it was. Grief is rage and resentment as well as deep sorrow and loss.
I think it’s time we acknowledge that.
We are afraid of getting sick, we are tired and frustrated of restriction against an enemy that we can’t see, we fear losing those close to us or our loved ones getting sick because of decisions we made. It’s easier to rage at the government or deny the seriousness of the virus or complain that society is taking away our rights. In the face of these hard truths, it is easier to turn away than to turn towards.
Theatre made you turn towards.
Did you know that your brain produces oxytocin when you hear a good story with emotional pull?
Theatre is the perfect way to tell stories. The dark room, the quiet, the ability to experience a story in several different ways with other people, led by some of the best people to do the job.
The very first theatre performance that rocked me to the core was Ghost River Theatre’s production of One, pushing forward this idea moving forward by letting go.
I can remember theatre pieces that I experienced years ago, I remember performances that inspired me, I think about theatre that changed me. The very first theatre performance that rocked me to the core was Ghost River Theatre’s production of One, pushing forward this idea of moving forward by letting go. I still think of Quiptake and Pandemic Theatre’s production of Daughter in the High Performance Rodeo, a theatre piece that was a glimpse into toxic masculinity. The stories that came out of Theatre Calgary’s production of Da Kink in My Hair haunt me at times.
I carry all these experiences and stories, and they have changed the way I see the world.
It hasn’t been perfect by any means. There is the fact that as a woman of colour it took me seven years to see myself reflected on a Calgary stage. The fact that whiteness is central in storytelling and that other kinds of stories were few and far between.
Theatre has some work to do.
When I was running the Calgary Theatre Critic’s Awards in Calgary, I saw up to 70 shows a year, for five years. I have been writing about and reviewing theatre for a decade. I hold this bizarre space in the Calgary theatre community, as both a member of and a visitor to the community.
The loss of theatre this year has hit me so very hard.
This time is when we need theatre and artists the most. We are losing connection to each other. In our grief, it is so easy to stay within our own narrative, with us at the centre of the story.
But in a time where it is so dangerous to gather, theatre cannot happen in the same way.
Since March, I’ve seen and experienced a variety of different ways that theatre has adapted. Podcasts, radio plays, theatre productions that are on demand or streamed at a certain time.
I haven’t been able to turn towards.
I’m still working through my loss. My heartbreak for my community, with no light at the end of the tunnel. The loss of not really being able to immerse myself in a story that changes how I see the world. And with things getting worse, not better, it’s hard to hold onto optimism.
But sometimes, as Bruce Cockburn once wrote, you’ve “got to kick at the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight.”
This is a great opportunity to start to address some of the problems.
Theatre has always survived and has always come back. Shakespeare survived various plagues and hunkered down and wrote some of his most brilliant work. This is a great opportunity to start to address some of the problems. Recently, the Canadian Theatre Critics’ Association hosted an anti-oppression workshop, facilitated by Edmonton-based artist Makram Ayache.
Storybook Theatre, Theatre Calgary, Vertigo Theatre, Alberta Theatre Projects, in Calgary along with the Citadel Theatre, Theatre Yes, Workshop West and Northern Light in Edmonton all are offering theatre performances of some sort, and it’s a way to plug in to connection with performance and community.
Theatre will come back, in its original in-person form, and it might have even more tricks up its sleeve when it does. But here’s hoping that it also comes back ready to take on the diversity, equity and accessibility challenges too.
I, for one, cannot wait for its return.

Jenna Shummoogum headshot

Jenna Shummoogum is a communications and marketing coordinator by day and a theatre and dance critic by night. She has been a theatre critic for a decade and has contributed work to LiveWire Calgary, getdown.ca, the Calgary Herald and Avenue Magazine online. She was a member and lead organizer of the Calgary Theatre Critics’ awards (The Critters) for 2 years and is a member of the Canadian Theatre Critics’ Association.

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