Nowhere du Nord

June 2013

Image courtesy of Tenille Heinonen.

“Pour savoir d’où on vient, où l’on est, où on s’en va, il faut savoir trouver le Nord.” This line is taken from Miriam Cusson’s script Nowhere du Nord, and roughly translates to: “In order to know where we’ve come from, where we are, where we are going, we have to know how to find North.”

This once-in-a-lifetime, multi-lingual theatre performance took place in the public spaces of Chelmsford—the church, the school and the tavern—which contain the deep heritage, community spirit, and public life of this town. Grounded in her research and experiences of Chemmy—the nickname given to it by those who call it home—Cusson wrote a theatre performance about a place in Northern Ontario where three distinct cultures and their urban mythologies co-exist: Anglophone, Francophone, and Aboriginal. By extension, she also wrote a play about the North and Canadian identity, a topic often scrubbed clean of its complexities when it is employed in the service of the idea of a ‘nation.’ This work imbued some of the most sensitive subjects and sacred cows with humour by maintaining a serious commitment to historical accuracy and lived experience. These techniques were leveraged with a dedication to the traditions of bouffon theatre by deeply and fully challenging the audience. More…

Nearly 400 people gathered at the foot of the church steps for the theatre intervention, which took the form of an outlandish reality TV-type game show. The game’s impish guides, the 7-person Bouffon Clump, wended their way around the concrete lot. Three pickup trucks rolled ominously into the lot in front of the gathered crowd, each carrying a bewildered contestant: a token Anglophone (John Turner), Francophone (Mélissa Rockburn), and Aboriginal character (Bruce Naokwegijig. It became quickly apparent that each contestant would need to outwit, outplay and outlast eachother in a fight to the death. Only by collaborating to defeat the larger power that enslaved them in the game did they all survive.

Nowhere du Nord featured ‘bouffon’: clowning and performance work focused on the art of mockery. This genre of theatre originated during the French Renaissance. Those who were considered to be excessively ugly people, lepers, and those with disfiguring scars or deformities were “banished to the swamp.” They were relegated to live in the swamp away from those considered to be beautiful people and people of power. Once a year they would be invited to perform for the public. During these performances, the bouffon’s goal was to get away with insulting or disgusting the beautiful people as much as possible, revealing the audiences most hideous qualities through jest. Typically, the bouffon would target their attack on the leaders within the mainstream of society, such as the government or the Church. More…

Collaboration was a fundamental quality of the production of Nowhere du Nord which involved eleven actors and fourteen production designers from all three communities: Aboriginal, Francophone, and Anglophone. This theatre intervention was a scathing critique of national pride and Canadian cultural stereotypes. Underneath the irony of the work were honest questions about how we can move forward together embracing our multiplicity as a country: How are narratives formed? How do their interrelations within a larger system have implications for cross-cultural work? How do we honour the complexity of cross-cultural work? In Nowhere du Nord, the performance traversed a landscape of important Francophone institutions: the Catholic Church, the local public school, and the town tavern. These institutions, which at times both subvert and support these stereotypes and narratives, were the backdrop for a performance that was both connected to and independent of these places. For organizations working cross-culturally, what are the implications of being linked to cultural institutions? What might we gain by working between institutions like these?