In 2017, musician and actor Laurence Dauphinais and radio documentary maker Marie-Laurence Rancourt decided to do something that most artists would never consider. The two women set out to make a theatre production concerning a topic about which they were completely ignorant: contemporary Inuit life in northern Canada.
“It was the 150th anniversary of Canada, and there were these very interesting grants at the Canada Council for the Arts,” Dauphinais explains by phone from Montreal. “They were basically programs inviting artists to take risks and get out of their comfort zone and dream big.”
Dauphinais and Rancourt quickly discovered that radio was an extremely important social and cultural aspect of everyday life in the North. Moreover, radio is available in Inuktitut—which is the language of Inuit communities—as well as in French and English.
People play bingo on the radio, share stories on the radio, and hold political and community meetings live on the radio.
“Radio is on all the time in Inuit houses,” Dauphinais relates. “It’s really, really the centre of community in a way.”
So Dauphinais and Rancourt decided to make this Inuit love of radio a centrepiece of their show, Aalaapi, which aims to convey what contemporary life is really like up North. They gave the microphone to Inuit women to share their realities in a “very antisensationalist way”.
“They’re for the most part extremely attached to their culture but also are connected to the global realities that we all know,” Dauphinais says.
The set is a façade of a house with a small window, through which the audience can see the women living out their lives. The exterior of the house functions as a screen, allowing Dauphinais, the director, to project multimedia images, live animation, and words and subtitles.
“I kind of knew that it was going to work,” she says, “because all of a sudden, we had the space; we had the sensation of voyeurism, of distance. People had to engage and be patient to get access to the culture they were watching.”
Through her research and the time she has spent with Inuit people, she’s learned that they have a different relationship to language than people down south. In Inuit culture, she maintains, there’s a lot of room for silence. The title of the production, Aalaapi, comes from the Inuktitut word meaning “creating silence in order to hear something beautiful”.
“You teach through what you do more than through what you say,” Dauphinais says. “So we thought that was pretty radical—the relationship to silence.”
She points out that Inuit communities have a slower rhythm, which she tried to mirror with a contemplative and poetic theatrical piece. The goal was to put the audience in a head space of deep listening, which is really the theme of the show, so they can appreciate a part of Canada that most of us don’t even know.
“We think we are a northern country, but 95 percent of our population lives in this tiny sliver in the south,” Dauphinais says.