By Caleigh Crow
“I feel like I’m wrangling a carriage of ten horses and they’re all going in different speeds and directions!” Ulla Neuerburg-Denzer says affectionately. She is Associate Professor at the Department of Theatre at Concordia University. She’s referring to Dwellings, the multi-department, multi-disciplinary, multi-venue, multi-everything performance piece Concordia is presenting this weekend. “The piece itself is co-directed; directed or co-advised by the visiting artists, partially student created, with undergraduate and graduate students as supervisors, directors, or choreographers, partially collaboratively worked on,” she explains, “each of the roughly 10 pieces is put together in a different way and uses a different theatrical medium and is in a different space. The idea that the audience member journeys through a variety of environments and settings to broaden this idea of what is a dwelling and what is encompassed by that idea.” During our interview, Ulla referred to herself as a facilitator, organizer, sometimes director, checker and balancer, overseer, and joker; a scope as far-reaching as the project itself, which connects undergraduate and graduate students alike with local indigenous artists, speakers, and storytellers; and research laboratories like the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, Matralab, and SenseLab. That is a lot for anyone to wrangle, but the way Ulla speaks about the project, gently and fondly, it’s laborious and worthy work, and not just for Ulla, but also for the numerous collaborators involved in the project.
The undergraduate course presenting Dwellings is worth twice as many credits as most undergraduate classes and has a bigger time commitment to match. The term was divided into three four-week long phases; beginning with research, moving into four weeks of creation, and another four weeks to refine the performance. What they ended up creating was an immersive performance tour sojourning at several venues from the library to Guy-Concordia metro station, comprised of several theatrical pieces. “I like these types of immersive travelling shows,” Ulla remarks, “because it’s a different type of focus, you’re not sitting in a regular theatre space and in a sense, I think it heightens the sensual capacity of an audience member, you become more alert to small details and small changes, and I hope we are – and I believe we are – giving different tastes and flavors that people can pick up on and different levels of intensity.”
The intensity Ulla refers to is linked to the issues considered in Dwellings. The project was initiated in response to the alarming and dangerous housing situation on the Attawapiskat reserve, which has seen it’s fair share of media attention – for better or worse – since the issues were first brought to public attention in 2012. Since then, Floyd Favel, Cree theatre practitioner, writer, and Ulla have developed the project further. The title Dwellings reflecting this evolution. “We chose this open term to include all kinds of dwellings, not just houses or tipis, or traditional homes,” Ulla says, “but also the idea of the earth as a dwelling, our natural habitat as a dwelling. One of the pieces is called the womb,” she continues, “We know there are many issues about indigenous housing, not just in the country and up north but also in urban areas, including homelessness, incarceration, lack of housing on reserves, insufficient housing on reserves. It has contributed in its own way to the ongoing colonial structures in Canada that put indigenous people on the less supported side.”
Indigenous issues in Canada have seen more and more coverage not just in newsrooms or on the political campaign trail, but in the artistic world. “We chose housing as a lens to look at the Indigenous-Canadian relationship,” Ulla considers, “It’s not the only lens, there are many others, but perhaps because the Truth and Reconciliation Commission drew a lot of attention to the residential school issue, the current National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is drawing attention to that particular issue, it seems like housing is connected to all of these issues in a way.”
I feel compelled to ask the question of the suitability of Concordia for a piece like this. When Ulla mentioned ongoing colonial structures in Canada and the harm they cause to Indigenous communities, you can count Universities among them. “Different pieces look at it in different ways, with the very conscious knowledge of where we are, who we are, what we’re doing here, how we acknowledge where we are,” Ulla continues, “Many of the students are very concerned about these questions and have found different means of responding to them. Some of them have been proactive in learning some indigenous languages; we have been looking very hard for someone to do a traditional Mohawk opening, which is becoming more of a custom to have a traditional honoring of the land and the hosts. That is an attempt to acknowledge where we are.” The way this project has gone about mitigating some of the exclusionary aspects of a University theatre class producing an Indigenous themed performance piece is to put the effort into prioritizing collaboration with Indigenous people in the Montreal area. Ulla speaks of the contributions of this community with great respect and admiration. “The key is to be able to work with indigenous collaborators.” Ulla explains, “Having [Anishinaabe/French artist] Emilie Monnet and Floyd Favel is key to getting this to work. To have their generosity and openness and inclusiveness be a guide to us has been invaluable,” she pauses, and opens her palms in offering, “All my thanks go to them.”
Rather than brush off questions about authenticity and good faith, Ulla embraces the ambiguity of gray areas, and doesn’t fight against her material circumstances, for better or worse. “The play starts in the library which in and of itself is, if you want, a very colonial institution,” Ulla gives as an example, “On the other hand, nowadays libraries have a very different function, especially in remote communities, they allow access to computers, printers, and certain services that aren’t readily available on reserves, for example,” she continues, “So, the library seemed like a good place to start, both in its problematic and its positive function,” she says frankly, “There are pieces that are clearly evoking this tension between colonial institutions and Indigenous perspective, and other places where it isn’t as prominent.” The purpose is not to create a politically pure piece of theatre, I get the sense Ulla doesn’t believe that exists, instead the purpose is to make the attempt, and perhaps share some well-sourced stories that might not have a chance to be heard, especially by the audience at Concordia University, and settler audiences generally. “It’s always hard to say what theatre does in terms of actually changing anything,” she acknowledges, “I think it’s more making room for a story and making room for people’s awareness to broaden.”
Dwellings runs from April 20th-23rd at Concordia University. For more information on the venue and where to get tickets, click here.