Frozen River Promises to Inspire Hope
By Ezekiel McAdams
November 19 2022
Frozen River (Nikwatin Sipiy) from Manitoba Theatre For Young People is currently playing at the Persephone Theatre at the Backstage Theatre from November 9th to the 19th. The play then tours to schools in Saskatoon and around the province until December 9th.
The story focuses on two twelve yr old girls in the past Wapam (Kathleen MacLean) and Elidh (Mallory James who befriend each despite their cultural differences. Wapam is from a local indigenous tribe while Elidth’s family immigrated from Scotland during displacement. The through line of the play is the narrator Grandmother Moon (Kystle Pederson). The play shifts through two different time periods past and present where the ancestors of the original characters reconnect seven generations later.
The play tackles multiple themes including displacement, reconciliation, environmentalism and interconnectedness.
Last year it won the Sharon Enkin Plays Award for Young People at the 2021 Tom Hendry Playwright Awards hosted by Playwrights Guild of Canada.
The Play was co-written by Michaela Wasburn, Carrie Costello and Joelle Peters. Washburn and Costello had previously worked together on Water Under The Bridge in 2013 at Native Theatre Company now Gordon Tootsis Theatre.
Washburn is a multi nominated and award winning actor. She won a 2018 Dora Mavor Moore Award in the Outstanding Performance Female category for her performance as Louis Riel in Confederation & Riel for VideoCabaret in association with Soulpepper Theatre Company.
A diverse actor, Washburn has worked in many mediums recently seen on SkyMed on CBC Gem and CBC’s Kraft Hockeyville reality series from 2006. She was also previously an Indigenous Arts Program facilitator at Paprika Festival.
Carrie Costello has both a love and history of puppets going back to founding Castlemoon Theate in 2003 in Winnipeg.
Joelle Peters is currently Interim Artistic Director at Native Earth and was given the Siminovitch Prize in 2020. Peters previously wrote Nish.
From the play’s very inception, it was important to the writers to ask questions, while inspiring hope.
“I love the idea of historical research and then trying to bring what questions we need to ask in a modern day. And how looking at the past we can reflect on that. I love history reflecting on in a different time. When I moved to Manitoba and started learning about the history here, what we really fascinated me was that the settlers really needed the indigenous people to survive and turning it on its head with oppression, systematic racism and displacement. How can that happen in such a short time? We were also interested in how the people from Scotland came here after being displaced and then doing the same thing here.” Costello said.
When the two playwrights started writing Frozen River (Nikwatin Sipiy) they had no idea where it would go but were interested in asking questions. Initially they wrote it for a younger audience, but kept reevaluating how to proceed as the characters are young teens.
“I kept saying to Carrie, this kid is a teen, she’s older. It just kept feeling like an older character then the young age we were targeting” Washburn said. “We kept working through how to interpret the questions, e really ran into some problems so they ended up being ten to twelve” Costello added.
Joelle Peters was brought onto the project later on after Washburn and Costello had worked on the first two acts of a few drafts. “We got to a place in the play, I was doing a lot of advocacy work at the time with Canadian Actors Equity Association and just became overwhelmed and talked to Carrie about bringing Joelle in to still have continuity of that ingenious voice. I’m such a fan of Joelle’s writing. Her personability and humor. It’s such a beautiful fit”
For Costello one of the most unexpected moments of the writing process, was not having the entire play set in the past. “If we made these characters reconcile in the past, it would be a lie. Michaela kept hearing a modern voice, and we have a hundred years of history and now we need to deal with this.” Costello said.
It was also puppets that helped cement the finishing touches being an essential key to the fabric and design of the production. Costello has a long history with puppet work, while initially they weren’t going to use puppets, it ended up a blessing.“I kept saying this is the one that won’t have puppets. Because we’re introducing Grandmother Moon who starts by telling stories and the shadow puppets really support those stories in a visual way for kids who aren’t able to follow the text as quickly.” Costello said. “And to build on that, I find puppets are an access point and there’s a freedom to it. I used to be a therapeutic clown for sick kids, there was one young person had an unfortunate physical trauma at five and I had a little frog that I called Hopper that squeaked and she would disclose so much to Hopper. There was incredible liberation,” Washburn added.
For the playwrights, they felt they had no choice to have the two time periods because they wanted to encourage and inspire hope. “It’s not the path forward but a path forward to try to help what’s going on in our world. They don’t have the tools to do with that.” Costello said “Whether its climate crisis or reconciliation and displacement, how do you contend with those big feelings and concepts as a little person? In the play some of the issues that come up with the present day characters are reflective and parallel issues with the youth from the past. We chose that particular time in history because that was an accurate time when those folks were being displaced from Scotland and coming over here.” Washburn added.
Both playwrights would love for Frozen River to continue for many years. “I would love that. I want it to have lots of legs and wings.” Washburn said with Costello adding “I agree. It’s an import story that can really ask interesting questions and create discussions.”
Going forward, Washburn is currently in early days on Ice Follies an Aanmitaagzi production which will be held in February on Lake Nipissing.
Aanmitaagzi is run by Sid Bob and Penny Coutchie and is an Indigenous multi-disciplinary artist-run company based in Nipissing First Nation.
“We will have four ice shacks and installations and performances on the ice. It’s still percolating but I want shadow puppetry and the theme is on thin ice.” Washburn excitedly said.
Washburn wants to have a dialogue, where culture and community are recognized. “Nipissing lost forty five people. None of them from Covid. All of them from mental health or overdose. There’s no discussions or being examined and no state of emergency. What we’re hoping is to reengage the youth. There’s been so much loss and trauma. Explore that theme of being on thin ice. That’s what I love about the magic of art. It can be so transformative and you can find yourself swimming in those issues.” Washburn said.
Costello is taking a break from theatre and is working at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute in research but looks forward to returning to the theatre at some point.
“It’s not just theatre for young audiences, its theatre for everybody. To remember to dream of possibilities of something other than what’s challenging us in the present moment.” Washburn said. Costello added “For me it’s about listening carefully.”