Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Métis multi-disciplinary artist and mezzo-soprano Rebecca Cuddy, recently acknowledged as ‘the next generation who are going to do incredible things’ (Newman, The Whole Note 2019).
This season she made her Canadian Opera Company debut in Voices of Mountains, sang in Commemorate Truth and Reconciliation at Koerner Hall. She is part of the Stratford Festival 2022 Langham Directors’ workshop and was Assistant Director under Alisa Palmer on their 2022 premiere Hamlet-911 by Ann-Marie MacDonald. As of 2017, Rebecca has sung in the premieres of several new Indigenous opera works across Turtle Island, including Two Odysseys; Pimootewin and Gállábártnit (Dora Award; Outstanding Ensemble), Shanawdithit (Dora Award; Outstanding New Opera), Flight of the Hummingbird and Li keur; Riel’s Heart of the North. Rebecca’s Theatre Creation and Directing credits include: inaugural artist for the Canadian Opera Company’s Land Acknowledgement Commissioning Program. Created The Maydee Box for the 2022 Festival of Live Digital Art. The Chair digital release with Musique3Femmes. Rebecca sits in council with the Canadian Opera Company Circle of Artists, the National Theatre School of Canada Indigenous Circle, Soundstreams and The Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance. She is the 2022 graduate of the Indigenous Artist Residency at the National Theatre School of Canada. She holds an MA in Voice from the Royal Academy of Music. www.rebeccacuddy.com
Tell us how you got your start writing plays.
I’ve always enjoyed writing but never thought it could be an art form I could pursue. For so long I have been busy honing my voice, and I neglected other areas of the performing arts that excite me. In opera, as in any arts practice, artists experience intense pressure to be “easy” for others to define. Be one “thing”, and do it perfectly. I find this way of thinking contrary to every instinct of an Indigenous artist. It is far more exciting to me to celebrate and invest in all the ways we are uniquely creative. I began searching to fill in the gaps. It wasn’t until my time in residency at the National Theatre School of Canada that I felt enough support and encouragement to express my creativity in different written forms. While there, I took an adaptation course with the wonderful Nick Carpenter and with his guidance I began to write. Along the way I took lessons with Jani Lauzon and Yvette Nolan, incredible mentors in Indigenous theatre, as well as many more wonderful teachers. Ultimately, the two year residency resulted in my first play and plans for another! I couldn’t be more grateful for my time there, especially during a global pandemic.
Your play Moon of the Crusted Snow is an adaptation of a novel by Waubgeshig Rice. Can you tell us about the creation of that piece?
I first read the book in August 2020… Actually I listened to Billy Merasty’s incredible reading of it on Audible. I was on my way to Montreal to begin the residency at NTS. The story hit me so hard, especially at that point in the pandemic. We were all still very scared. There was no remedy or relief; we weren’t sure how to keep ourselves or each other safe… I felt so many themes in his book strike right through my heart. It was a crisis in life as in Waubgeshig’s story. What moved me the most was Elder Aileen’s dialogue where she says ‘Our world isn’t ending. It already ended.’ She goes on to list the many times Anishinaabe people have experienced the end of the world: when their lands were stolen, when their children were stolen. She speaks of the shattering of Anishinaabe worlds time and again, but they always survive. She says ‘we’re still here, and we’ll still be here even if the power and the radios never come back on and we never see any white people ever again.’ I think I needed Elder Aileen to give me a stern reality check at that moment in time. I was so moved. I could see the whole play laid out in my mind. That had never happened to me before! I wrote a lot. I found a writing playlist Waubgeshig had posted online and made my own for MoCS with our tastes combined. (His selection ruled by the way) I just wrote, and created with plenty of help from Nick Carpenter, who helped me mould the story. Waubgeshig’s story is so incredible, I want the world to read it, see it, hear it in whatever vehicle works best for them.
What advice would you have for someone wanting to write an adaptation of a work?
Adapting a novel is hard because when Billy reads Moon of the Crusted Snow it comes out to about 6 hours, and we need to tell the story in about 100 pages. Finding the hinging moments and key activations that keep the story moving was so important and I’m still refining these elements. Nick helped me construct the play, and we worked together to find the necessary events to include. It’s such a massive story, we can’t possibly cover everything. Yvette Nolan reminded me that this is a play, not a lecture, and we can have fun with how we tell our stories. This is always a good reminder, because it’s particularly easy to forget this when you are working on culturally specific content. MoCS is by no means finished, we definitely have more work to do in honing the script. I am just thrilled that folks are as excited about Waubgeshig’s story as I am.
As a multi-disciplinary artist, how do you find your different art practices influence each other?
I think the best examples of different art practice influences in my work are my pieces where the water meets the land, co-created with Julie McIsaac, and The Maydee Box co-created with Murdoch Schon. In these works, I wrote the texts, designed and made the beadwork, worked with Troy Slocum on the sound design and did some voice acting etc. When I list it like that it sounds like I have creative control issues, but actually these pieces were all extremely collaborative with insight from really incredible artists. What I love especially is that both pieces have this yearning for interactivity from the audience. They beg you to walk around, lean in, and explore further. Pieces like this take a lot of energy and keep my brain firing in a million different ways which I absolutely love. They allow me to write, apply my musicianship, act, sing, bead, and direct a bit. My favourite things!
What are you working on next?
Murdoch Schon and I are continuing work on our augmented reality theatre piece The Maydee Box, a commission by SpiderWebShow, which had its alpha premier at this year’s Festival of Live Digital Art. I am also so honoured to be one of the grant recipients chosen for Native Earth Performing Arts 40 Seeds for 40 Seasons. I owe much to Native Earth and am so proud to be celebrating their 40th season with them as a playwright Jani Lauzon and I are working on this creation together but it is still very much in development. Without getting into crazy detail I will say it is a story of maps. A story of mapping horizontally and vertically. Mapping the mountains, the rivers, the land — and mapping a family tree. A slog through the muck. A source of endless frustration and recalculation. Of brutal truths and tiny victories. All for the chance at a name. A name of a place, a name of a person.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays?
My top 3 Canadian plays that I think about all the time are: Isitwendam by Meegwun Fairbrother, Bears by Matthew Mackenzie and Annie Mae’s Movement by Yvette Nolan. The recent production of Where the Blood Mixes by Kevin Loring directed by Jani Lauzon at Soulpepper was just breathtaking theatre created by consummate experts. I saw Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan’s premier of 1939 at the Stratford Festival and was in tears by the end of the Land Acknowledgement. It is absolutely striking, funny, heartbreaking and healing. These Indigenous theatre makers are doing such an incredible service to their community by bringing these stories to life on stage. Representation is so important.
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.