Warona Steshwaelo and Mike Payette in New Canadian Kid
(photo: Ashley Belmer)
Upstage host Eric Sukhu spoke with playwright Dennis Foon about his play New Canadian Kid presented by Black Theatre Workshop as part of Black History Month. Below is an abridged version by Estelle Rosen, CharPo Editor-in-chief.
Tell us about New Canadian Kid.
New Canadian Kids started many years ago when I was working on a project with a school in Vancouver. Speaking with kids from 42 different language groups about their experience as a New Canadian was an eye-opener for me.
Even though I was an immigrant, I hadn’t given it a lot of thought. My own family were immigrants but hearing about what it’s like coming into a country not knowing anyone or even the language allows you to feel it from their perspective.
We don’t think about these things; you just deal with it. The heart of the show.puts you in the shoes of the immigrant and allows you to feel the experience.
The hardest thing for kids is seeing their parents in crisis. Seeing their parents trying to make a new life and often not able to maintain their positions as engineers for example is stressful for kids.
I helped them build their own play about these experiences. Doing that got me inside the skin of the whole problem.
How many kids were involved in this project?
About 30 kids. I helped them build their own play about these experiences. Doing that got me inside the skin of the whole problem. Then decided to do my own play. My Director suggested reversing the languages so that Canadians speak a kind of gibberish and the immigrants speak English. That way, we see it from their perspective.
I wrote the play so that everything Canadians said was accompanied by a gesture therefore didn’t need a language. Playing with that idea created an effect where we could do all kinds of word play; funny on its own. Working with skilled actors over time, the gibberish became a quite refined and elegant language.
Was it difficult to work that into the script?
I had to think about it especially from a physical point of view because everything was accompanied by an action. If I said, give that to me, the motion had to be included.
In one way the staging is simple; in another a good part of it is basically physical comedy.
So you were using a variety of theatrical ways to communicate.
I’ve always been interested in playing with theatricality. In one way the staging is simple; in another a good part of it is basically physical comedy.
When was New Canadian Kid written?
1978. I’ve been told it’s the most produced Canadian play ever. Every year there’s a production of it going on somewhere.
I’ve received many letters from kids who were sensitized to either their own behaviour or another kid’s behaviour.
What’s interesting is its relevance. Bullying issues today seem to escalate into different levels, especially with cyberspace.
Working with kids trying to reflect their experience, you find out a lot about society at large.
Is there any way to end bullying?
As an artist what I try to do is raise awareness. What theatre can do is make you feel. I’ve received many letters from kids who were sensitized to either their own behaviour or another kid’s behaviour. Getting people to talk about a play like this can do something. I’m not saying it can change the world but if we can be touched by it, that’s a start.
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