Statement House
Theatre Trent 2022
Arthur News School of Fish
Jon Hedderwick performing 'Bubbe's Tapes' at Precarious3 Festival at The Theatre on King. Photo courtesy of Jon Hedderwick.

Bubbe's Tapes at Precarious Festival

Written by
Katie Pedlar
and
and
December 8, 2021
Bubbe's Tapes at Precarious Festival
Jon Hedderwick performing 'Bubbe's Tapes' at Precarious3 Festival at The Theatre on King. Photo courtesy of Jon Hedderwick.

For decades, Peterborough artists have worked tirelessly to cultivate a space and culture that fosters art. The Theatre on King is a physical testament to the adage: build it and they will come. Located in the downtown core of Peterborough, the theatre is an intimate space that has become a mainstay in the local art scene. With Ryan Kerr at the helm, The Theatre on King breathes life into Peterborough’s performing arts. In the grey abyss of mid-November, I met with Ryan Kerr (Artistic Director of The Theatre on King) and Kate Story (Artistic Director of the Precarious Festival) for a colourful discussion about the hard working creatives that have carved Peterborough’s unique arts scene.

Unlike its corporate counterparts, The Theatre on King is eager to give space not only to performers who have proven to be financially viable, but also to burgeoning and experimental artists. Ryan proudly states that The Theatre on King is “small enough that artists can afford to fail.” With low ticket prices and low rental fees, the space is accessible to performers and audience members alike. In corporate models, production costs often bleed into the art itself, leaving anemic performances. Expensive art needs to prove itself through ticket sales, which inadvertently turns art into a commodity. Art that is financially motivated often resembles the performance equivalent of a paint-by-numbers stencil. The Theatre on King is a space where artists can afford to take a big creative risk, with little financial risk. This is reflected in art that is sometimes incredible, sometimes uncomfortable, but always authentic. If you are looking for something familiar and trite then watch the Queen’s address on the BBC. If you are looking for something strange or extraordinary, come to The Theatre on King.

The artists in residency for the Precarious Festival in conversation at the Theatre on King. Photo by Andy Caroll.

The Precarious Festival, hosted at The Theatre on King, is an exhibition of local performing arts, held through late autumn. Dozens of artists from Peterborough create new pieces through an intensive residency program. Artists sequester themselves in The Theatre for varying amounts of time, developing their projects. Artistic Director Kate Story has a fierce passion for local art and she fights to scrape together funding from local sponsors and government grants. Austerity measures implemented by the Ford government have further strained their limited budget. Often fiscal conservatives will argue that these conditions are necessary to trim the fat. But after decades of lacerated budgets, it’s now to the point of trimming essential organs. Kate is quick to point out that Canadians handsomely subsidize corporations and resource extractive sectors, yet art subsidies are maligned. It is unequivocal that art funding advances local economic development, tourism and enhances community identity. Canadians value the arts, yet they disassociate artists from their skilled labour. The Precarious Festival ventilates a space where art is exalted, and artists are punished.

On November 20 and 21, as part of Precarious3 Festival, Jon Hedderwick performed his one-man long-form performance Bubbe’s Tapes. The structure of the show centered around Jon sharing family history with his daughter as he prepared matzo ball soup, a family staple. Jon told playful stories about his ancestors dabbling in bootlegging during the prohibition and raw anecdotes about his own brushes with antisemitism. As a child, Jon found two tapes at his Bubbe’s house. Fortuitously, he checked to see if the tapes had any important content and found this family secret; Jon discovered his Bubbe (maternal great-grandmother) speaking to her experience as a Polish-Jewish woman through the First World War. The tapes contained a harrowing story of her community being looted. Over several days, the situation escalated into a pogrom. Against the odds, a farmer warned Jon’s great great grandmother of the pogrom, she warned her neighbour, and they went to tell the town’s Rabbi. Working together, a small group of people— some Jewish, some Polish—they managed to stop the violence. Taking inspiration from the tapes, Jon illustrates the heinous and cyclical nature of hate and how it manifests in his life in Peterborough. The historical record is taken out of textbooks and personified through the voice of his Bubbe. Although the stories are chilling, Jon states these are good stories. This is to say that the health and existence of his family is predicated on the bravery of the people in the story.

Jon Hedderwick performing 'Bubbe's Tapes' at Precarious3 Festival at The Theatre on King. Photo courtesy of Jon Hedderwick.

I spoke with Jon over Zoom about Bubbe’s Tape, his creative process and the importance of storytelling:

How did you come to terms with telling this story that is so intensely personal and belongs to your family?

John Hedderwick: Part of what makes this easier is that this story is in the past, my great-grandmother has been gone for a long time now. What is important to me in telling this story is that she left it to us, so, on some level, even though she kept it to herself for her entire life, she wanted us to know it. Also, she didn’t just give it to us in a telling toward the end of her life, she recorded it in a way that would make sure on some level that it was stable, and it would persist for a period of time past her. So, I made some presumptions and I assumed that she wanted the story to be known. I read in her voice that there is quite a bit of pride about the decisions that the people in her community made. At that time, those stories existed amid a whole bunch of other trauma. It was raw and it was close, and this was something that they lived actively—and there were so many people who lived close to them that weren’t as lucky as my family was. In the end, it felt like a story that was accessible, that was okay to tell, and I received a lot of support from members of my family. I didn’t feel like I had to consult with everybody but given my desire to tell this story was to share a narrative, to celebrate history, and to shed light on the challenges we’ve faced while demonstrating the strength and resilience people find in the face of hate, the support I’ve had from family has been a blessing.

Moving forward, what are your intentions with the piece?

JH: My intention is to keep working on it and pick it up later. Part of being a spoken word artist, and especially a spoken word artist that comes out of slam, is you are always putting half-finished work on your stage. Often, I finish poems through the performance experience. So, I’ll go up and I’ll modulate and shift poems as I put them in front of an audience based on what resonates and what kind of feedback I get. One of the beautiful things about a slam stage is that everything feels in-process… This is the first extended monologue, theatrical piece I’ve ever written. So, to have the opportunity to do this work and have that energetic exchange with an audience, felt like a wonderful opportunity in evolving this piece. Hopefully I will get the opportunity to rehearse it and refine it and further develop it and then possibly tour it. Or at the very least, try to show it again in Peterborough. I would like for it to see a larger audience if it’s deserving.

Can you speak to your relationship with the audience?

JH: There is an energetic exchange between people. Whether we are picking up on each other’s non-verbal cues or we are exchanging something on an empathic level, there is an energetic exchange between performer and audience. You become a focal point and you draw people's attention to you and that’s a gift… It’s such a gift when people give you their time, their attention, and their space. To use that as an opportunity to become better at your craft and to better connect with those people is part of the process of creation for me… If the goal is to communicate an idea or an emotion to people through the act of performance, the only way to know how effectively you are doing that is to be in performance and in community with people that you are performing in front of on a regular basis.

Can you speak to the set and effects?

JH: I like simple, elegant sets. I wanted to create a sensory experience. The soup in and of itself was integral and not arbitrary. I come from a culture of storytellers… and there is a long history of storytelling in my family. That soup was on the table for almost every story I heard in my Bubbe’s house. I actually have a poem that I wrote in which I say that she could say more with a single bowl of matzo ball soup than I can with every word of poetry I’ve ever written. That soup in itself is a story and it’s so central to my culture and the way we gather and share meals and the way in which we tell stories around the table together. Because the history that I’m talking about does involve trauma, there is something soothing about wrapping that in the smells of home cooking. The nourishment that food provides us is a way of nurturing people while they are receiving these stories. It was lovely to be able to offer people cups of soup at the end of the play. In addition to using a basic kitchen set-up, I wanted to use projected images in photo frames to literally put the stories on the wall. I had hoped that having my family photos shift and morph to reflect the parts of the stories I told, would illustrate the ways we live with the narratives that shape our lives every day, including those that have all but been forgotten.

Theatre-going folk are so often the same demographic: white, retired wealthy people. On the creative side, how can you make performance art more accessible?

JH: Decolonization is more than just words. You have to build these ideas into your practices. That’s essential. I speak of this humbly because of whatever else I might be, I am a white dude and I am still learning. None of us come into these situations fully formed and we all make huge mistakes. But if we come to the work and we are humble and willing to be accountable to make changes, that’s the goal for me at this point. We are at a place in time where we need to do what’s not been possible. We need to be disrupting and changing and shifting. The key for me at this point is to create spaces and tell stories that are open and accountable and empower others whose stories are not often heard to be able to do the same. My goal is to create spaces where people feel welcome and want to express themselves. I will say that The Theatre on King is doing some wonderful work to diversify their practice. It’s an ongoing process for many of us.

Is your art influenced by the pursuit of fame and success?

JH: I make art, first and foremost, for and with my community. That’s a huge part of my practice as an artist. I’m making art that speaks to people that I care about and with people that I care about. I love it when my art is in conversation with the works of other artists in my community. That’s the best for me. The work that I’m developing with my community are also pieces that I want to take further. I think that there is merit in this work and the learning that we are doing together is valuable. Art is a lifelong process of learning. I’m constantly interrogating the world around me through my artistic practice and learning with the world around me. I can’t say I’m not motivated at all by wanting to be on a big stage, but I’m motivated by it much less as I approach my art now. I’m much more interested in my creative process, my community, in sharing and exchanging work with members of my community. And if that work has resonance outside of my community, that’s a blessing, that’s a gift. It’s an honour to be recognized and have your work speak to people. As an artist, we think that sometimes we have to speak to the big themes in big places and that’s what’s important. But I often find that in talking to your very personal, particular narrative, we come closer to universal themes and ideas and meaning than by reaching and speaking to things broadly. If we root things in our experience, it’s amazing how this very unique, personal experience of mine suddenly becomes resonant with someone else. When I look at someone else's story and I suddenly see myself in it, that is a magical place for me because we’ve triggered a moment of empathy.

How do you approach long-form performance and slam differently?

JH: In poetry every word matters. You have so much less time to connect with people and leave an impact through your performance. It’s a complex and challenging task to create a piece that is meaningful and impactful in three minutes or less. It becomes this interesting process of how I quickly and effectively connect to somebody with a magic combination of words. On some level, spoken word is akin to spell craft. I am literally whispering intention into the universe and hoping that it will find sympathetic ears and affect people. It’s a magical process. By comparison, in theatre, you take people on a journey with you. The magical effect is produced through the shape and the quality of the journey. It’s a very different process of creation and also very challenging. You’re asking different things from your audience and you're working with people’s attention in a very different way and sustaining it for much longer.

Why do you think the historical themes of your performance are so pertinents in our community? 

JH: I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’ve read some really interesting stuff on the cyclical nature of antisemitism. There’s a paper done by JFREJ (Jews for Racial and Economic Justice) called Understanding Anti Semitism: An Offering to Our Movement. This is an attempt to clarify what is real antisemitism in the world and what are the real risks. How do we characterize this threat? This question is especially important right now, in light of the Canadian Government's recent decision to adopt the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism. This definition includes clauses that are a thinly veiled and backhanded way of trying to prevent criticism of systemic racism and apartheid in the State of Israel. This attempt to insulate Israel from criticism for their treatment of Palestinians is deeply troubling both for the ways it erases and legitimizes racism in Israel towards Palestinians, and also for how it risks making it harder to identify real antisemitism. Real antisemitism exists. It is cyclical in nature, it endures quietly and then grows rapidly. It serves as a release valve. It’s a scapegoating system whereby power can deflect attention away from itself at moments when it’s critically vulnerable. Part of that means that it is likely going to cycle back around. On some level, everyone who escapes an incident of antisemitism hopes that it will be the last and we won’t see it again, but antisemitism like other systems of hate has served systems of power in this way for a long time. We are in a period of time where, relative to the Second World War, we are experiencing less of it. But then again, we see it on the rise again today. We see things like the Charlottesville protests and the shootings in Pittsburgh, even the anti-immigration rally that was planned by a neo-Nazi here in Peterborough. These are disparate and separate incidents, but on the whole we see a rise in this kind of hate again, which I think is a warning that systems of power are intensifying their grip on the public and the wealth divide is increasing. It’s important that we understand those systems of power to trace their impacts. I experience antisemitism living as an adult in Peterborough today. Alongside that, other forms of hate and oppression are intensifying and actually becoming more active, too. Anti-black racism is reaching a fever pitch. We are seeing all kinds of anti-Indigenous racism; including the Canadian government engaging in bad faith negotiations and militarizing police in places like Wet'suwet'en and Fairy Creek, and other places where they are pushing through economic projects that are bad for Indigenous people and bad for the environment. It’s important to acknowledge that this stuff is not currently in the past. I don’t, in the play, talk about future instances of antisemitism or other kinds of hate because there is a small part of me that is hopeful that we will figure all this stuff out. But, the reality is that it’s happening around us presently and these systems of hate are getting bolder. They are propping up systems of power that are dangerous. Not just dangerous for the individuals who fall in the categories of people who are hated—though this is dangerous for marginalized people—but it is dangerous for all of society and the planet. One thing that gives me hope is communities of youth reaching across these old borders in ways that past generations did not. I’m hoping that creates more tolerance, but we all have a role to play in standing against this stuff.

A final note from Jon:

In telling these stories of trauma, there is a tendency to just tell the traumatic experience, but people are more than the trauma that they experience. It’s important for me that we show a variety of sides of a story, not just to fixate on the trauma. Especially as white people, we are often guilty of trying to alleviate our own guilt by consuming stories of trauma and that can create one-dimensional images of victims. I felt a responsibility in telling this family story, to not just harp on this horrible thing that happened, but also to show how funny and resilient and smart and nuanced the people in these stories were.

Statement House
Theatre Trent 2022
Arthur News School of Fish
Written By
Sponsored
Statement House
Theatre Trent 2022
Arthur News School of Fish

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