By Melissa Murray-Mutch

The following posts are highlights of Melissa Murray-Mutch’s time spent assisting YPT’s Resident Artist Educators (RAEs) as they provided workshops connected to the play We Are All Treaty People at different schools, and facilitated YPT’s PA Day – Play in a Day program. To learn more about YPT’s RAE program, click here.

February 2019:

School Workshop with Darwin
My first day working as an ARAE (Apprentice Resident Artist Educator) for YPT felt like Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure. I had no idea what I was in for, as this was my first foray into the city of Toronto. It was also my first trip on the TTC (keeping things real). Everything seemed pretty straightforward, but I was a little unsure that I could find the stop I needed.

Thankfully, the gods of transportation looked upon me with favor. As I stood on the platform, completely perplexed, I heard a voice call my name. It was Darwin Lyons – a fellow RAE!!! She had spotted my confused face – what a relief. We literally trudged through the snow (no sidewalks to be seen) to the school, which seemed like a world away from civilization.

It was great watching Darwin work with the 1st, 3rd and 4th graders. My favourite class was the 1st graders. They were a sweet, cooperative group of kids. The school had the terrible luck of missing We Are All Treaty People (WAATP) due to the snowfall the day before, but Darwin did a wonderful post-show class. All the students created a buffalo and learned how all the parts of the animal were used, and how it was “thanked” for its usefulness. The 3rd and 4th graders were more challenging, but I think this is true for kids that age around the globe – the idea of sitting still and focusing is either a struggle or just not happening. Darwin, however, kept them together and patiently taught these classes and held everyone’s interest. Miigwech Darwin.

We Are All Treaty People Production photo

School Workshop with Leslie
Having the opportunity to observe YPT RAE Leslie McCue teach was truly a gift. She spoke in Ojibway first by saying “Hello”. When she had me introduce myself I decided that I would say “Hello” the way my Nigerian ancestors (at least according to 23andMe!) said “Hello” in Yoruba, which is “N-le” or “N-lo”. Since this was a French Immersion school, I thought it was great to introduce other languages to the students as well.

I loved Leslie’s exercises – particularly the “Keep it Under the Rug” game. First of all, this rug had the design of a turtle, which symbolizes Mother Earth in many Indigenous cultures. It was cute and meaningful (and I want one!). Leslie had words printed on separate sheets of paper and placed them face down under the turtle rug. Words and phrases included ‘Land Extraction’, ‘Humility’, ‘Love’, ‘Wisdom’, ‘Respect’, ‘Racism’ etc. She then put this question to the students: “Should we talk about it or sweep it under the rug?” Students took turns pulling the words out from under the rug and voted as a group on whether or not to discuss each topic. I thought this was an innovative way for them to think about these words on a deeper level.

One of the Grade 4 classes really felt connected to the exercises. One boy whispered in my ear, “My Grandfather still says ‘Indians’, but he’s from Romania.” I whispered back to him, “Now you can tell your Grandfather all about the show!” – to which he gave me an enthusiastic “Yes!”.

It was just wonderful hearing Leslie speak from her own experience about the treaties, Indigenous languages, Residential Schools, etc. As an African American I was particularly struck by the issues relating to the “whitewashing” of history. I thought Leslie’s style was very engaging and she was extremely successful in getting the poignancy of her words across to the students.

There was one teacher who – while praising Leslie’s teaching – seemed rather taken aback by this “new” information. My takeaway from this is that learning can extend to everyone in the room. Miigwech Leslie!

School Workshop with Erica
There are schools that have a pulse, but I got the feeling that this third school has much more – a conscience. It is a very diverse school, with extremely bright students who really connected with WAATP. To start things off, RAE Erica May-Wood had us all touch the ground to bring awareness to the land and everything that was here before we arrived. She also gave me the honour of reading the Treaty 13 Land Acknowledgement out loud to the class.

Erica was kind enough to let me try out a game of my own with her students – an exercise for groups of 3. One person stands in the middle and has to remain silent while the people on either side of them talk to him/her simultaneously. The two people on either side can say whatever they like (even speak an entirely different language) for one minute. When the time was up I asked the students in the middle what they were able to hear. Some understood a lot, while others couldn’t keep track of what was said. I asked them if this exercise reminded them of a scene in WAATP – the signing of the Treaty. I think the exercise worked!

I also loved Erica’s way of tying everything together, demonstrating the qualities of a leader and having groups discover the things they had in common. At the beginning and end of class she made a point of asking the students how to say “Thank You” in their own languages. So Miigwech Erica!

School Workshop with Andrea
Next, I worked alongside RAE Andrea Houssin. I told her about the game we played in Erica’s classes (involving two people speaking to one person at the same time). We decided that we should change it up by adding gibberish. We had a messenger go between the gibberish speakers on either side of the room to relay what he or she thought the other was saying (based on physicality). This was a lot of fun. Some of the kids got really frustrated – in a good way – trying to figure out what the other was saying. They were clearly able to recall the scene in WAATP where the Trickster is relaying messages between the Newcomers and the Indigenous peoples signing the treaty. Also, the teachers were active participants and made us feel like their students really benefited from having YPT guide them.

PA Day – Play in a Day
YPT’s Play-in-a-Day program was great fun, as I had the pleasure of working alongside Andrea again with Grades 1-3. Andrea prepared an excellent lesson plan, and I chipped in with a Nigerian fable, The Tortoise and the Baboon. Both characters – a trickster baboon and a tortoise – end up seeking revenge on each other. Andrea thought it would be a good idea to have the participants come up with a better resolution, rather than end the story with bitterness. The kids decided that both characters should see the error of their ways and become friends. We also added other animals to the story so that all the kids had parts.

The thought of trying to get young kids to create an entire play in one day seemed a little daunting, but it all came together quite beautifully. Even when they lost a little steam (tired, hungry, cranky) Andrea patiently worked out any minor setbacks. There was an older kid in the group that really wanted to include humans and hunters and so forth in this animal fable. Yikes! Andrea once again handled this by honouring their ideas even though they wouldn’t fit in the story. I thought this was a great takeaway from the day: everyone’s ideas are worthwhile, even if we aren’t using them at the moment. And yes, by 3PM we had a “Play in a Day”! I was very proud of us. Miigwech Andrea!

At all of the schools I visited, each classroom agreed to the Three R’s: Respect Yourself, Respect Others, and Respect Your Environment. These rules seemed standard to the students. Watching the RAEs reinforce this idea was extremely valuable, and made a great segue into having the students define the word “Treaty”. I left these classes feeling very inspired, and grateful to have had this opportunity to observe and play. Miigwech for this month of working with all of the RAEs and staff at YPT.

Melissa Murry-MutchMelissa is a professional actress and teaching artist from the New York Metro area. She has worked at Manhattan Theater Club (MTC), in their Education Department for more than 17 years. There, she worked with high school students, connecting them to the understanding and experience of live theater. In addition she worked with NYU’s Dramatic Writing Department and with the American Slavery project, a theatrical response to slavery in New York City. Off-Broadway: Death of the Liberal Class (The New Ohio Theater), Playboy of the West Indies, and Babes in Boyland (Lincoln Center Theater) and This by Melissa James Gibson at the Shaker Bridge Theater in New Hampshire. Film and T.V. credits: Hungry, We Became the Enemy, Law and Order: SVU, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Sesame Street. Proud member of CAE, AEA & SAG-AFTRA.