For a first-time playwright, Kevin Loring is making quite a splash. The Vancouver actor and writer’s debut full-length script, Where the Blood Mixes, recently won second prize in the Canada-wide Herman Voaden National Playwriting Competition. It will premiere on June 7 at Toronto’s Luminato festival—an international, multidisciplinary event—before coming to Vancouver for a run from June 11 to 14 at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival. But for Loring, the play has already had its most important performance.
“We did it in Lytton, my hometown, and it was the best day ever,” recalls Loring, a member of the Nlaka’pamux First Nation, as he sits in the living room of his Main Street apartment. The Lytton show—a staged reading of an earlier draft of the script—was part of a British Columbian workshop tour this past winter by the play’s producers, the Playhouse Theatre Company and the Savage Society, in conjunction with Western Canadian Theatre in Kamloops.
Lytton was a significant venue for the play, which not only is set there but takes its title from the town’s Nlaka’pamux name, Kumsheen. “The name comes from the name of my village, which is ”˜the place inside the heart where the blood mixes’,” Loring says. “And the play really is about that place.”
Lytton is also a place where two rivers meet, and they’re personified in two old drinking buddies, Floyd and Mooch. Both are Native men who have survived the trauma of the residential-school system, but both are deeply scarred. Floyd lost his wife and daughter, and Mooch is continually stealing his girlfriend’s money to pay for his drinking and gambling. Each man is forced to face the truth about his past in order to move forward.
Loring began writing the piece nine years ago, when he was an acting student at Langara College’s Studio 58. It started out as a solo show, The Ballad of Floyd, but Loring later added more characters, and in 2004 he had the play workshopped in Toronto, at Factory Theatre’s CrossCurrents Festival. One of his cast members was well-known Native actor Gary Farmer.
“Gary Farmer gave me the most useful note I ever got on this play,” Loring recounts. “It was the first day of rehearsal, and he comes in and takes the script and just goes smack!” Loring mimes thwacking a stack of papers onto the table, then quotes Farmer: “ ”˜Twenty-five years in the business and I’m still playing drunk Indians. So what? So what? So what’s next?’ I knew he was right, and I didn’t know what to do about it. I never touched it for two years after that.”
Loring resumed work on the play during a 2006 residency at the Playhouse. He workshopped it here with director Glynis Leyshon and in Calgary with playwright Sharon Pollock. And although the play still begins with a couple of Native men drinking in a bar, Loring has sought to go beyond appearances.
“I’m not afraid of the stereotypes,” Loring says. “They’re useful tools. I don’t mind presenting the stereotype right off the top, and then over the course of the play just stripping it away to reveal the depths behind it.”
One of the ways Loring deepens his characters is by having them tell their stories. Indeed, one of the play’s central themes is the healing power of storytelling. “That whole truth-and-reconciliation [commission] thing is a storytelling endeavour,” observes Loring. “We’re going to tell this painful story about our past, about what was done to us—that’s truth and reconciliation. And so Floyd has to tell this terrible story that is in him, and in telling that story, he’s freed. Mooch has to tell [his] story as well. They have to tell these stories because the stories are living in them already, and if they’re not given voice, they just stay there—nothing grows, they stay dead.”
So, despite the terror and excitement of seeing his play premiere on such a large scale, it was an even bigger thrill for Loring to offer his story to its most crucial audience back home. He remembers that performance in Lytton: “It wasn’t theatre that day, you know what I mean? It was something else. It was real. The people got to see themselves on-stage; they got to see a play about them. They saw their own story for real—for the first time, you know?”