“Recovery from Trauma, The “R” Word & the Power of Being A Storyteller in This Moment” In Conversation with Actor Tamara Podemski on THE MONUMENT at Factory Theatre
Interview by Bailey Green.
We spoke with award-winning Ojibway actor, dancer and singer/songwriter Tamara Podemski about playing the role of Mejra in Colleen Wagner’s Governor General award-winning play, The Monument. The Monument tells the story of a soldier, guilty of war crimes and fleeing from a death sentence, who gives himself over to a woman who has endured the horrific trauma of war. Factory Theatre’s production, directed by acclaimed Métis director Jani Lauzon, frames the play within the context of the centuries long war against the Indigenous people of Turtle Island. We spoke with Tamara about recovery from trauma, ‘the R word’ (reconciliation) and finding joy in darkness.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bailey Green: What was your relationship to The Monument prior to beginning this production? Had you seen other productions?
Tamara Pondemski: It was a brand new experience. I had heard it referenced as it is a famous play but I had never seen it, so I didn’t know it well enough to know what indigenizing The Monument meant, when it was presented to me.
BG: Tell me more about your reaction reading the script for the first time, looking at the play through the lens of the war against the Indigenous people of Turtle Island.
TP: It’s very current. As an artist, an activist, and working in the Native community, this is the work I have been doing with Native youth, Native women, and conversations in my family. So there was nothing brand new but what was most exciting was that we would be able to explore this alternate method of storytelling. And through this transmission of knowledge, we would be able to shift this colonial narrative. The theatre just offers this beautiful alternative way to communicate really complex ideas without people feeling that it is stuffed down their throats. The power of the text is the power of the text, but what we are infusing into it is that different perspective, an indigenous injection into the work. The play wasn’t meant to be about war against Native people, but I believe it really does work and Jani [Lauzon] and Factory believes it works. It isn’t really a far stretch when you understand that a 500 year silent genocide has happened. When that is your experience, it’s not hard to see how The Monument fits. What is going to be really interesting is to see how ready people are to accept that that is what has been going on.
BG: Absolutely, I feel there’s a resistance among settlers to revisit this history, there’s willful ignorance there.
TP: Yes, and the sales pitch of Canada to the world is that we are this peaceful, equal, human rights focused and forward-thinking country. So it’s disrupting these notions to remind people that blood has been spilled here and it has been going on for longer than 150 years. We need to shake up their concepts of what it is to live in a country of war, the last place in the world people would say had participated in a war like this, and it’s an active war.
BG: Tell me more about your character, what about her do you identify with?
TP: Mejra is a mother whose daughter has been murdered. She wants answers, she wants a resolution, she wants to find a place in her heart where she can reconcile the pain, anger and forgiveness with the perpetrators. I relate to her on so many levels because mostly in her application of how she tries to get the answers. She is so emotionally raw, she is very triggered and I relate a lot to that trauma response. I don’t often have the advantage of well thought-out behaviour or response. It’s very reactive and I understand that very well. As the granddaughter of a residential school survivor and the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, they passed that knowledge down to their children and we as a second generation of survivors have inherited that trauma. And we have the luxury to talk about it, my parents didn’t have that. We have a safe space to be able to process it. Recovery is more acceptable now and that wasn’t the experience of my parents.
I’m slightly different from Mejra, as she is very isolated in her grief and trauma. And in that one sense [she] isn’t reflective of how we grieve as Indigenous people – it is very communal. In a way that allows Mejra to be even worse off because she doesn’t have her community and is cut off. She is going through the grief on her own, which is why the need of another person with Stetko and also why they are perfectly matched. There’s a form of reconciliation, oh there’s the “R” word, but it is a beautiful example of it. And it’s a lot uglier than people want it to be. It’s ugly and messy and very triggering.
BG: What has been the most challenging aspect of working on this production, with triggering subject matter?
TP: This might sound a little weird…but nothing. I had prepared for a very difficult rehearsal process but what Jani has created is one of the safest spaces of creation that I have ever experienced. We start with each day with a smudge, as we are working with spirits and we’re asking the murdered and missing spirits of our sisters to be with us onstage. We have a responsibility to do that work in a respectful and culturally appropriate way. We’re considering our role as storytellers, the connection with each other and with our Creator, however you may define that. There is a safety that is created and it allows the strength and security to go to those places. For me, I’ve never done a two-hander so the stamina required, it’s more lines that I have had to work with, more time on your legs. You’re going non stop for the whole play. But that is just practical. Emotionally/spiritually I have been very supported by Jani and by my brother Augusto [Bitter, who plays Stetko]. Every day is joyful and an incredible experience. We are really privileged to be actors at this time. It’s a critical time as story tellers, to have this other access point to people’s minds and hearts when people are zoned in to their phones, tuning out of a quite oppressive world. It’s our job to crack open people’s hearts and minds.
Written by Colleen Wagner
Directed by Jani Lauzon
Starring Augusto Bitter & Tamara Podemski
The Monument tells the story of a soldier desperate to escape death for his war crimes who agrees to give himself to the complete servitude of an unknown woman. A harrowing and visceral journey of two people forced to confront the atrocities of war, this Governor-General’s Award-winning play asks questions that remain painfully familiar on our front pages today.
Re-imagining the conflict as the silent 500 year war that has been waged against the people of Turtle Island since European colonization, Lauzon’s lens on Wagner’s classic play will confront many of the dark and uncomfortable truths of Canada’s complicity around missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Factory Theatre Mainspace
125 Bathurst Street, Toronto
March 15-April 1, 2018