World War I Indigenous soldiers and contemporary schoolyard bullying: multimedia magic weaves these two unlikely themes together in a major new commission premiering at the Vancouver International Children’s Festival this year.
The Canada Council for the Arts’ New Chapter program awarded the fest $125,000 to create and stage Iron Peggy, and they turned to B.C. Métis playwright Marie Clements to tackle the project.
In the story, a 10-year-old British–South Asian girl named Peg is struggling against three bullies at her boarding school. But when she opens a surprise gift of three cast-iron toy soldiers, they come to life as a trio of decorated, real World War I Indigenous snipers who help her stand strong.
For Clements, who’s known for hard-hitting adult plays like The Unnatural and Accidental Women and Burning Vision but has never written for kids before, the eras and ideas flowed naturally together.
“I felt we’re at a time when there are a lot of similarities to the years after World War I,” she tells the Straight over the phone from her home on Galiano Island.
“It’s a time when forces are separating us through our race and culture. And part of the question was, ‘What can we do to push forward in a good way?’ For some reason it feels like we’re in a bit of a war right now, and when you look at global politics there’s a lot of bullying going on.”
The theme of World War I came up in early discussions with the kids’ fest, as last year marked its 100th anniversary. As she delved deeper into her research, Clements was fascinated by the unsung Indigenous heroes of the war. They include her character inspired by Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow, Canada’s most decorated First Nations soldier, an Anishinaabe member who went on to become chief and Aboriginal-rights advocate.
“It often makes you sad, when you read about their careers—and not just what they sacrificed, but when they got back and what their realities were,” she says of her research into the Indigenous soldiers. “Many had to continue to fight for their rights after the war.”
Amid those realizations, she found more inspiration in the intricate old cast-iron toy soldiers kids used to play with in the war era, and the fact that they were always, of course, depicted as white. “We didn’t have these Indigenous soldiers cast in iron,” says Clements, whose Red Diva Projects is helping produce the play with the fest and Boca del Lupo.
Clements is famous for her unusual stagings, shifting time juxtapositions, and new-media elements, and Iron Peggy is no exception. She explains she wanted to show the world from a child’s point of view, including the towering, sinister shadows of the three bullies. Elsewhere, animation and video help the production flip easily between the histories of the soldiers and the present. Half-Cree cellist Cris Derksen brings it all to life with a haunting orchestral score.
“When you’re a child, how does it manifest? Things are bigger than you and you tend to look at the world with sort of dire consequences,” Clements explains. “We always feel, when we’re young, that everything is very heightened. And ‘Am I going to get through this or not?’ ”
“It’s like the world has two halves in this play,” explains Sherri J. Yoon, the Boca del Lupo artistic director who was brought on early in the process to direct the play, speaking in a separate phone call from a rehearsal break in Vancouver. “There’s Peg’s existence in the boarding school and then the shift really happens when these real historical figures come to life. The high tech and video add to the feeling of isolation in both. And then, what does bullying look like to a 10-year-old? The images are larger than life.
“What’s fun is a lot of the design will overlap each other: the projection informs the lighting, the lighting informs the projection, and so on,” she adds.
What Yoon enjoys is not just working the multimedia visuals to bring Clements’s imagistic storytelling to life, but also the fact that Clements and so many of the artists involved in the project are fairly new to “TYA” (Theatre for Young People)—an area Boca del Lupo has ventured innovatively into before. “It’s work that doesn’t speak down to kids,” Yoon says. “It’s a continuation of everybody’s artistry.”
“I think children are super smart and are dealing with huge issues, and just because they’re young doesn’t mean they’re not profound,” says Clements, who adds she’s approached Iron Peggy in much the same way she has her other work (“minus a few swear words”, she clarifies with a laugh). “I’m looking to, hopefully, give them something to hang on to when bullying happens. How can you fight against it? And what is your strategy?” In other words, she’s providing ammunition for those times when three war heroes might not magically appear to offer support.
The Vancouver International Children’s Festival presents Iron Peggy at the Waterfront Theatre from Tuesday to next Friday (May 28 to 31).