A passion for theatre had beginnings for Laura Michel in the Salmon Arm Secondary theatre department.
Years later, a focus on ‘social theatre’ compelled her to write a play exploring Secwépemc language and culture – past, present and future.
‘Echoes of the Homesick Heart’ arose from more than seven years and 40-plus interviews she did with people in the Secwépemc Nation. Among them were interviews from Williams Lake, Alkali Lake, Kamloops, Chase and Salmon Arm.
At the time Michel began writing the play, she said there were a number of powerful theatre productions regarding colonization and generational trauma. She had also observed language teachers, elders and students working hard to preserve Secwépemc and other languages, histories and cultures. However, she hadn’t seen a lot of productions about the current reality or what comes next, she explained.
“Basically bringing to light those everyday heroes that are working tirelessly to make sure those language elements are preserved for future generations.”
Read more: Elder teaches Secwepemc language
Western Canada Theatre, based in Kamloops, described her verbatim theatre project as a multi-generational story exploring one family’s connection and disconnection between language, culture and community. In order to rediscover what was lost, and to move forward in understanding, each generation must learn from the other with the help of wily trickster and teacher Sek̓lép (coyote).
“Echoes of the Homesick Heart is a story of hope, survival and overcoming the genocidal actions of the residential school system,” Michel said. “This play celebrates the resilience of Indigenous families, communities and culture.”
She explained that about 70 per cent of the script derives from the interviews she did, which were then crafted to make a fictionalized story. There were also a lot of anecdotal contributions, not necessarily recorded, some of which influenced what made it into the script.
“What made it into the script were things that multiple people commented on as their own personal experiences. It was wonderful to be able to hear.”
The title of the play reflects that it comes from many people’s perspectives, a lot who were echoing each other’s stories. It also provides echoes from the past.
All four of Michel’s grandparents were survivors of the Kamloops residential school.
“Obviously the discoveries of 215 were incredibly close to home. All four of my grandparents have stories of friends and classmates going missing.”
Michel, herself, attended kindergarten at Salmon Arm West Elementary and graduated from Salmon Arm Secondary. From SAS, she remembers theatre productions such as Brigadoon, Grease and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
She later earned a bachelor of arts, with a major in theatre and a minor in sociology, from TRU in Kamloops.
“It ties in to my focus for my theatre practices. My focuses have been social theatre based.”
One example of her power both as a playwright and as an actor is a mini production about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls she created for International Women’s Day through Western Canada Theatre during the pandemic lockdown. Just seven minutes, entitled When Did I Lose You, it can be viewed at the Western Canada Theatre website.
Michel currently works for Chief Atahm School on Adams Lake band land near Chase, a Secwépemc language immersion school. There, a certificate and diploma program are being administrated through Simon Fraser University, with plans for a bachelor’s degree as well.
Both of her sons attend Chief Atahm. Both are far more fluent in Secwepemctsin than she is, she said, as they have been attending the Language Nest there since they were nine months old.
Her grandparents are Joe and Anna Michel and Les and Lucy Williams.
Echoes of the Homesick Heart is playing June 2 to 11 at Pavilion Theatre, 1025 Lorne St. in Kamloops. It runs about 90 minutes with no intermission. Michel said it’s family friendly. A matinee is being offered for Secwépemc language schools in the area.
For tickets and information, you’re asked to visit wctlive.ca/echoes.
In keeping with the principles of community-based research, Michel will be giving back to the community. She will be starting a post-secondary grant from the production for Secwépemc language learners in Fall 2023.
Also, after production closes, actors will stay in town to record a digital copy, which will be disseminated to the community.
Michel thanked Western Canada Theatre for its steadfast support. The theatre company was equally complimentary of Michel.
“WCT is honoured to conclude its extraordinary 21/22 Season with a World Premiere from one of this region’s most compelling, local Indigenous artists.”
Director Eric Coates added: “With the premiere of Echoes of the Homesick Heart, Laura Michel looks fearlessly to the future, while cradling the unspeakable trauma of the past with her words and heart.”
Read more: Bringing stories to life
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