The first play onstage this season at the Shaw Festival marks a number of milestones for Keith Barker, the artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts, the playwright and director of “This Is How We Got Here.”
This is the first time the Shaw Festival has partnered with another theatre company to present its work. It’s also the first time the play has been produced since it won the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Play in 2020, just as the pandemic began.
And, it’s Barker’s last production with Native Earth before he moves to a new role with the Stratford Festival, taking on new play development. Barker says this transition is “bittersweet.”
“I’m excited to celebrate Native Earth in this space, and introduce new audiences to our work,” he said.
While this is the first time Native Earth has staged a play at the Shaw Festival, Barker is no stranger to Niagara-on-the-Lake. He and his wife Catherine met online, and had their first date here in NOTL in 2013, and they were later married at Grace United Church.
“This Is How We Got Here,” which is onstage now to Feb. 19, is about a family grappling with grief following the death by suicide of their son and nephew.
“It’s a universal story and people see themselves in it. When we lose someone our lives shatter. How do we support people and have conversations about the most difficult thing? It’s a vital conversation lots of people avoid because it’s so complicated and difficult,” Barker explained.
“I hear aunties and uncles in Northern Ontario families, echoes of people I have known,” in the play, said Barker, who is Metis and from northwestern Ontario.
He watched his own aunt and uncle go through it, and when he wrote the play much later, he gave it to them.
“I said, 'It’s not your story, but it has elements of your experience, and I want to honour that and have your approval.' ”
They approved the play and so have audiences.
According to Barker, “people say they enjoy the show, even though the subject matter is challenging. It’s an emotional ride, but there’s lots of humour too. Sometimes it’s found just in the absurdity of life.”
Actor Jenn Forgie, who is of Metis, French and Scottish descent, said the play is “so relatable. It’s a story of grief, a story of love and a story of finding our way. “
Forgie plays Liset, struggling with the death of her nephew. Her path to this role may have been destined.
“I loved the play when I saw it at its debut in 2016. I turned to my friend and said, 'I’m going to be in that play some day,' and so here I am! I like to believe that dreams can come true.”
Forgie thinks of her character Liset as “a combination of my own relatives in Northern Ontario.”
Liset deals with her grief by keeping busy. “She is just trying to survive, and for her to acknowledge her grief outright is not a possibility. She literally has to come undone to give her grief an honest expression.”
Forgie noted, “Liset is a hard woman, but I bring a softness to her. She really loves her people, in the ways of a small town, tough love, hard love.”
While Barker is the artistic director, playwright and director, for him it’s all about storytelling.
“We’re storytellers and we want the audience to become engaged. Stories engage us in a different way and challenge us in powerful ways.”
“This Is How We Got Here” is on now at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre.