Spring Cleaning Finds: George Ryga Photoset

As we plan for our return to performances and to dive in to spring cleaning in our offices and the theatre, we, inevitably, have come upon a few treasures lost in the mess, or as we’d like to call it, “creative build-up.” One such treasure is this beautiful photo set of iconic Canadian playwright, George Ryga. Why do we have these shots was the question and it came up that we think they were taken when the Firehall was producing his one man show for his great friend, Dick Clements, called One More For The Road just prior to Ryga’s passing in 1987.

This was the beginning of the Firehall’s relationship with Mr. Ryga, who is recognized as an essential part of Canadian literary and theatrical history. Ryga was born in Deep Creek, Alberta to poor Ukrainian immigrants. Both the nature of his upbringing, and the variance of his cultural identity pushed Ryga to the margins of larger Canadian society, and it was from this otherness that he was able to draw inspiration for many of his works, including, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. Written in collaboration with Chief Dan George, chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe was one of the first plays in Canadian history to place at the forefront indigenous characters, plights, and realities, in a manner that provided both visibility and agency. The play does not skirt around structural and colonial violence being at the heart of its characters problems in its raw delivery through songs, montages, and tableaus.

First premiered at the Vancouver Playhouse in 1967, the Firehall Arts Centre had the pleasure of producing this unique piece twice, in 1992 and again in 2007, working with some of Canada’s most accomplished Indigenous artists in both productions. Artistic Producer and Director Donna Spencer directed both productions and notes it was the play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe which sparked her first interests in the theatre. “This was the first Canadian play I read that actually addressed contemporary Canadian issues which I could see happening around me in small town Alberta. Unfortunately, now working at the Firehall, we still see the impact of residential schools, the 60’s scoop up and racism towards Indigenous peoples. Things have improved in many ways but in others it has stayed the same or gotten worse. I recall George coming back from lunch one day ,when we were in rehearsal for One More For the Road, and saying ““ I can’t believe it – I just saw someone pulling food out of a dumpster – this in a country as rich as Canada? How can this be happening? “” And in remembering that, I wonder what he would have to say about the current state of affairs in the city with the ongoing Drug Crisis and its impact on the community. And now with the COVID-19 emergency compounding things – I imagine, after using some very colorful language, that he would write a pretty potent piece of theatre.”

Donna Spencer: Had/Has a Vision

In 1982, when this photo was taken, my vision for the Firehall was to create a cultural venue that would not only work in partnership with the resident companies at that time but, also, would be a producer and presenter of theatre , dance, and multi-disciplinary works reflecting the diversity of Canadians. And Firehall staff and board have worked continually to realize that vision starting in 1985-86 as one of only two professional theatre companies in Canada actively working towards inclusivity on stage.

But here and now in 2020, the theatre is closed and only the “ghost light” lights the stage at night and I contemplate what the new reality will be when we are safe to assemble in public once again. Will our audiences have gotten so used to being encouraged to watch all of their entertainment on screen return to live performances? Will they have any money in their budget to go out and enjoy a play or a dance performance? And what is it that we do or can do to bring them back to our wonderful intimate little venue for a performance?

And I return to the original vision of so many years ago and recognise what really was being envisaged was a place where people could gather to share in the witnessing and enjoyment of good stories and good storytelling through live performances, be it theatre or dance. The true goal was to create a safe space where people who might not know each other could gather and share laughter, tears, thoughts and experiences together. A place where artists and arts workers could share their talents with an audience that would breathe with them in the serious moments and laugh with them in the lighter moments.

And while the world has indeed been changed and will for some time continue to be impacted by this pandemic, when it is safe people will come out of their houses and they will want to share communal experiences. That is who we are as human beings – we like to be with and do things with others. So as we wait in anticipation of welcoming audiences back to the theatre, we are considering many ways to enrich audiences experiences at the theatre while also considering how we engage with the artists we work with and all of the different ways we can undertake live performances. And in the meantime, we will stay in touch until such time as we can meet again in the theatre.

Stay safe, laugh as much as you can, and remember you are not alone – we are all in this together.

– Donna