A busy theatre season in Arviat

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Drama teacher and play director Gord Billard directed three plays during the 2018-19 school year – A Thanksgiving to Remember, A Charlie Brown Christmas and An Easter Story – and completed his 18th year as a teacher at John Arnalukjuak High School and Qitiqliq Middle School in Arviat.

The school’s drama club produces an average of two performances a year, although a number of years have featured three plays.

With such a high number of productions over the years, doing the same play a number of times becomes inevitable for Billard and his merry band of young thespians.

A happy ending is realized when Martha (Cidney Aulatjut), centre, awakens from a coma on Easter morning and gives birth to a son as, from left, nurses Lorraine (Belina Komak) and Laura (Pir Aulatjut), and family members Paul (Noah Muckpah), John (Russell Suluk), Sarah (Chasity St. John), Matthew (Andy Evaloakjuk), Mary (Selma Mukyungnik), and Albert, (Fabian Akatsiak) gather around her bed happily during the production of An Easter Story by the John Arnalukjuak High School Drama Club in Arviat in April of 2019.
Photo courtesy Gord Billard

In fact, all three plays this past school year had been performed previously in Arviat by the drama club.

Billard said his production choices were largely based on trying to produce more exposure for the Inuktitut language, which saw two of the three plays performed in Inuktitut and English.

He said A Charlie Brown Christmas was selected as the third play because of the short time frame between the drama club’s Thanksgiving and Christmas productions.

“When I was throwing around the names of other plays we had done in the past, the students showed a keen interest in Charlie Brown and I knew we could put that production together fairly quickly,” said Billard.

“So, it was basically a combination of practicality and time constraints that led to us putting that play together in time for Christmas.

“The first two times An Easter Story (a pregnant mother gets into an accident on her Ski-Doo and ends up in a coma at the health centre before waking-up to have the baby on Easter morning) was performed, we had real babies brought out at the end of the play to represent the newborn.

“In this year’s play, the lead character of the woman’s son was played by Russell Suluk, who was one of the babies brought out during our production 15 years ago, so I found that to be quite cool.”

John (Russell Suluk) pleads with God to help his mother, Martha (Cidney Aulatjut), wake up during the production of An Easter Story by the John Arnalukjuak High School Drama Club in Arviat in April of 2019.
Photo courtesy Gord Billard

Billard said the plays don’t get stagnant for the student performers as long as there’s a good period of time between their productions.

He said none of the students in this year’s An Easter Story would have remembered the play’s first two productions, with, in fact, a number of them having just been born themselves when the play was last performed in Arviat in 2004.

“It was new and fresh to them, and the Inuktitut version went very well, and that included everyone seeing a lot of improvement in my own Inuktitut.

“It’s always good to see the kids working in both languages, which has always been one of my goals I want to see reached with a number of our productions.

“A Thanksgiving To Remember was also performed in both languages this year.

“So, a couple of the plays may have been old to me, but they were new to the students and that kept them interested and involved.”

Billard said it was helpful to go over previous productions of the plays with this year’s cast by showing them photos and videos, while discussing ways they might make the set better or improve upon the entire production.

He said An Easter Story has a son the family lost the previous year, and his photo is up on the wall as they mourn his death on Easter morning, adding to all the doom, gloom and despair.

“I thought it was also very cool when we were able to put the exact same photo of the deceased son on the wall that we used 15 years ago, after I managed to dig it up out of the old files, and we all cleaned it up and put a brand-new frame around it.

“That picture was the only thing we used from 15 years ago because we created a whole new set for the production, building everything from scratch, but, really, what keeps these repeat performances fresh are the new faces doing the show.

“We have a TV on each side of the stage, and, during the transitions between scenes, I had slide-show pictures from the play 15 years ago going up on the two TV screens.

“There was a lot of interest in that because they were seeing people from the past, including some who are no longer with us, so that added more than a bit of nostalgia to the whole experience, as well.”