Featured Member — Carrie Costello, Joelle Peters & Michaela Washburn
Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with the 2021 Tom Hendry award winning playwright team behind Frozen River, Carrie Costello, Joelle Peters and Michaela Washburn. Michaela is a performer, poet and a playwright who identifies as she or they. Born in Alberta, her Métis roots are a mix of Cree, French, English and Irish. Joelle Peters (she/her) is an actor and playwright from Walpole Island First Nation, Bkejwanong territory. Carrie is a theatre for young audience playwright born in Northern BC. She currently lives and works on Treaty one territory in Manitoba.
In Frozen River, Grandmother Moon guides us through the story of two eleven year olds, born under the same blood moon, but in different parts of the world. Set in a forest, destined to become Manitoba, this new play follows their stories as they meet, and that of their descendants who meet in the present day. A broken promise from the past can be righted when there is finally an openness to learn from those who have protected and honoured the waterways for centuries.
Tell us about how you each got started writing plays.
JP: I’ve always loved stories. It started out with a love of reading, then writing little short stories for myself. My first big move toward writing plays was in 2018 when I got into the Paprika Festival.
CC: I am interested in taking moments in history or parts of books and putting them onstage. I love challenging audiences to think about big issues in meaningful ways for young people.
MW: I’ve always been a poet, but it wasn’t until Carrie approached me to co-write Water Under the Bridge in 2009, that I first developed the courage to consider playwriting.
Tell us a bit about your play Frozen River, and how it came into being.
MW: Once again Carrie approached me with another exciting idea and the offer to write another play together.
JP: I met Frozen River as a first draft and really loved the world that Carrie and Michaela were creating. I’m super honoured that I was brought in to expand it and create with them. The shift from performing in TYA plays to writing them felt natural and fun for me.
CC: We started this play researching in the Manitoba archives and listening to stories gifted by Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers. We were struck by the parallel between the way the British treated the Scottish people overseas and how those same Scots treated First Nations people here in Manitoba. We then found a passage from Women of the Red River by W.J. Healy that got our imaginations flowing. Healy references a husband and wife who stayed behind during a journey because the wife went into labour. So we began thinking, what if that family had an older child? What if she stayed on the boats, but decided she needed to get back to her family? What if she got lost and needed help? What if she met someone her age who knew the land? That was the beginning of our story.
MW: And the final act came about when we realized that there was no way for our characters to reconcile in the past, but maybe, just maybe there was a way for it to happen today.
How did you find the experience of working as a collaborative team? What were the challenges, benefits, takeaways?
JP: I think the biggest challenge and blessing was working virtually. It allowed us to work together while being in different provinces. As a new playwright, I feel so fortunate to be working with folks that know their stuff and can teach me a bit along the way.
CC: The benefits were huge for me. Listening actively and allowing time to work together and to come to agreements together, nobody taking charge. In the writing process we were grappling with the very issues that we were trying to portray for our young audiences. What does reconciliation mean? How do we leave audiences with hope? Do we still have hope?
MW: Having had previous experience co- creating long distance, Carrie and I had developed a style of collaborating that works really well. Then when we added Joelle to the process, she fit in like a gem. Sometimes it’s a challenge to not be too product driven or be led astray by voices outside of the playwright circle. Dramaturgical input from the director or actors who help workshop it is invaluable, however, it’s important to stay true to the story you are aiming to tell and to trust that.
What did it mean to you to have your script recognized by the Tom Hendry Awards jury?
CC: Having Frozen River recognized has allowed us a bit more reach and has given us the opportunity to make it accessible on a broader scale.
JP: Because so much of this process hasn’t been in-person, it felt a little like a sigh of relief. You spend so much time looking at words on pages that you start to feel lost in what the world is, who these characters are, you wonder if you’re putting too much or not enough into them, and that recognition was like “ok…we’re on the right path. People get it.”
MW: This was a huge honour, especially given the caliber of writers we were in company with.
Why did you decide to write Frozen River as a TYA play?
CC: I have never written anything else. My world is full of young people. I don’t know how to write an adult play.
JP: It was already in motion as a TYA play, but I appreciated being able to offer something for the next seven generations, as youth are our future.
MW: For many folks, the first experience of live theatre is often in school. It is important to me to create relevant and intelligent stories that young people can identify with. It’s also important to me to create work that young people feel empowered by when they are exposed to it, both in terms of story and career possibilities.
You have mentioned that writing and producing Frozen River involved consultations with Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers, and the inclusion of a language keeper. Can you tell us about the importance of these practices and taking steps to ensure the creation of an authentic play world?
CC: The gift each knowledge keeper brought to the process was different and so important. Our language keeper, Cameron Robertson, brought such joy in sharing Maskeko-Ininiwak, that the entire team was inspired to take part in the sessions. His patience and enthusiasm brought so much to the process that we included much more language than originally planned.
JP: A few years ago, I performed in a touring TYA show that had some Plains Cree throughout. After the show finished, a child would ask about what those words meant, or say something about the language. Every single time. They were curious and wanted to learn. For me, that stresses the importance of making sure the language and teachings we’ve put into the play are as accurate as possible. Working with knowledge keepers helps make that happen.
MW: I am a firm believer in nothing about us without us. As an Indigenous artist, I have often found myself either the lone voice, or one of a few voices in the room to speak to appropriate representation. As I am not Maskeko-Ininiwak, it was especially important to me that we consult someone from that particular nation and dialect so as to be respectfully accurate. Carrie and I also took this approach when creating Water Under the Bridge, as we worked with Kanienʼkehá꞉ka language and knowledge keepers.
What are you each working on next?
JP: I wrote a short film with Bad Hats Theatre that should be released sometime this Spring! I’m also working with Burnt Thicket Theatre on an audio play called Do You Remember?
CC: The pandemic has been a hard time to be a theatre artist. I am currently working in another field entirely and I am not sure what my next project will be or if I will be back.
MW: Having left Toronto, I am incredibly fortunate to currently be working with Aanmitaagzi in a variety of capacities. I am also very blessed to be an Artist in Residence with Necessary Angel Theatre Company, an Associate Artist with the Stratford Festival, and a Mentor with Royal Manitoba Theatre Company; all while creating a clown show with Jani Lauzon, currently titled Buffalo Jills, with the guidance of John Turner.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays?
JP: Two Indians by Falen Johnson
CC: Danny, King of the Basement by David Craig
MW: Dreary and Izzy by Tara Beagan, This Is How We Got Here by Keith Barker, Almighty Voice and His Wife by Daniel David Moses, The Incredible Speediness of Jamie Cavanaugh by Chris Craddoc, Where the Blood Mixes by Kevin Loring.
Frozen River is scheduled to have its World Premiere at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People, February 25 — March 6, 2022. Find out more and purchase tickets here.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.