God's Lake: Powerful and empowering

Shayli Robinson / Showbill Canada

“We forgive, but we don’t forget. We’re taught not to hate.” – Ida Wood, member of the fly-in God’s Lake Narrows First Nation located in northern Manitoba.

Kevin Lee Burton, also a member of the nation, is a filmmaker associated with the National Film Board of Canada and co-created God’s Lake with Castlereigh Theatre Project’s co-artistic director Francesca Albright in Castlereigh’s signature style of documentary theatre. In an interview with Showbill, Burton revealed that the piece was originally focused on the murder of 15 year-old community member Leah Anderson, but through the dozens of interviews conducted for the project, it quickly became apparent it was more about how her disappearance and subsequent death affected the community.

Under the direction of Britt Small of Atomic Vaudeville, actors Nick Benz, Nyla Carpentier, Taran Kootenhayoo, and Erica Wilson skillfully portray 24 characters across different genders, ages, and community roles. The people of God’s Lake Narrows introduced to us range from an anonymous male student aged 15 to Goldie Healey, owner of the local Healey’s Lodge, who is in her 70s. Under the dramaturgic direction of Gordon Pengilly, they move across a beautiful set (by James Insell) with truly perfect and practical projection (by Guy Segal) and lighting (by R.J. Peters) in a 1-hour show with no intermission. Thankfully, the ages, genders, and community roles of each character are included in the show’s handbill to make it easier to keep track of so many folks.

The purpose of documentary theatre is to use words from those interviewed for the piece verbatim as the dialogue and to portray their personalities; the artistic choices are which excerpts are used and how. Benz, Carpentier, Kootenhayoo, and Wilson obviously understand this, as you can feel the voice and disposition of each individual character in their representation onstage. The people they’re depicting are real, and although their relation to Leah ranges from acquaintance to sibling, it’s clear that her murder has jarred them all.

For indigenous viewers, the piece hits close to home, as nations across the country are all too familiar with the slow and often ineffective ways of the RCMP; their communities often being impoverished and dependent on their legislated funds from Ottawa as they fight for self-determination; and disappearances of their women and girls shocking and hurting their communities, sometimes found while others continue to be searched for after decades.

For non-indigenous viewers, well, it’s likely that they’re exposed to raw emotion and an inside look at an epidemic unfamiliar to most – especially for those who live in large and/or urban areas. Given that, it’s an incredibly important and eye-opening piece to witness as Canadians claim their dedication to reconciliation with indigenous peoples.


God’s Lake is a powerful piece that both empowers the voices of those who too often go unheard and wrenches the hearts of those witnessing it.

God’s Lake tells the stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women

Sheila Martindale / Monday Magazine

God’s Lake is a collection of monologues, taken from interviews following the murder of a teenager in a small lakeside community in northern Manitoba. These pieces are spoken by four young people, who represent a wide variety of community members, and we never quite know who is who. But the words themselves are sincere.

To the rest of the country, this young woman (her name was Leah) is just one of the many missing and murdered Indigenous women about whom we have heard so much; but to family, close friends or mere acquaintances she was special and talented. And much missed.

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When murder came to God's Lake

Sarah Petrescu / Times Colonist

Victoria theatre figures, helped by Manitoba filmmaker, shine light on remote Cree life

Francesca Albright was scanning the news when she came across a story about an unsolved murder of a Cree girl in a remote Manitoba community.

“I’d never heard of God’s Lake or knew much about fly-in First Nations reserves or ice roads,” said Albright, co-founder of Castlereigh Theatre Project, a Victoria theatre company that produces documentary-like plays with dialogue from real interviews.

This week, the company will stage and workshop God’s Lake, a four-person play that explores the mysterious death of Leah Anderson in 2013 and addresses safety issues for young women and girls in remote Indigenous communities.

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God's Lake - Interview with Castlereigh Theatre Project by Shayli

Shayli Robinson / Showbill Canada

God’s Lake is an original piece of documentary theatre from Castlereigh Theatre Project that promises to make you feel, learn, and think critically. Co-created by filmmaker Kevin Lee Burton (a member of the Gods Lake Narrows First Nation) and playwright Francesca Albright (Castlereigh’s founder and co-artistic director) and directed by Britt Small of Atomic Vaudeville, the piece explores how Gods Lake Narrows was impacted by the mysterious death of a 15 year-old girl in their community. To get the whole story, we sat down with Kevin, Francesca, and Britt to talk about the show’s background and process.

Shayli: Francesca, was it you who was inspired to write the show, or was it more of a joint idea?

Francesca Albright: I read about Leah Anderson from Gods Lake Narrows about a year ago through a CBC report and that’s how I heard about Gods Lake. I reached out to Leah’s aunt Josephine from Gods Lake, who invited me up to Winnipeg last January. During the same trip, I was researching God’s Lake Narrows and ran across an interactive piece from the NFB that Kevin did a few years back called Gods Lake Interactive. We started talking and then I met Kevin on that trip and we decided it was something we wanted to collaborate on, as Kevin had an interest in it. So we decided to work on it together as a documentary theatre and conducted interviews on the community level. We made three trips to God’s Lake Narrows and five trips in total over six months. He recorded the interviews and transcribed them.

Britt Small: Didn’t you say it was 2,000 pages?

FA: Yeah, it was approximately 2,000 pages of transcripts. That was with dozens and dozens of people. I would interview them for the most part, ongoing, every time we went through. Most were over the course of the trips but some were one-time interviews. Kevin can speak more to that because it’s his community; his dad is the chief and his mom is a teacher, and he’s a filmmaker based out of Winnipeg.

S: Kevin, is there anything more you want to add to all of that?

Kevin Lee Burton: No, there seems to be lots of details about me there (laughs), I think she got it all.

S: How big is your community, again?

KLB: 1800 registered on-reserve and 2300 in total. It’s a northern, fly-in, bush reserve. We’re Swampy Cree and a small people with limited resources.

S: I can appreciate that; my nation is only about 200 registered people and we all live off the res. We have 3 reserves located on Valdes Island that are all far from each other, no infrastructure or transportation, and there’s one dirt road that you can drive a strong truck on at maybe 10km/h.

KLB: Yup, dusty, dirty res roads.

S: So this style of documentary theatre is pretty new to me, and from what I’ve seen it’s a pretty unique format. Britt, could you talk to that?

BS: Documentary theatre started in a way by a Brazilian man named Augusto Boal who did a lot of documentary theatre to help different communities that he felt were oppressed to tell their own stories, tell them to themselves and their own communities to liberate themselves a little bit. In the ‘60s and ‘70s people started doing more theatre that was told by the members of a group to tell people where the stories were coming from. Since then, people have done pieces about all sorts of subjects, not always social justice-based and sometimes just story-telling. It definitely gives voice to a community without someone else’s interpretations. I hope that’s helpful!

S: That’s a great history lesson, thank you! Francesca and Kevin, how did you decide this was the format you wanted to use to tell this story?

FA: Well, my company specializes in documentary theatre and with Kevin’s work in film; it’s not too much of a stretch to do this together. Kevin’s from the community and knows everybody and their narratives. I did the majority of the interviews, which I think was easier, being an outsider. I think if Kevin had been talking to somebody he was related to, they’d have said, “Why are you asking these questions? You know this.”

KLB: I knew for sure it was good to throw her to the wolves, because with me, they would start to tell a story and then be like “oh, you know that” and then cut off, which I’ve seen happen over many different interviewing techniques. And also, I could call their bullshit (everyone laughs), especially with how a story happened.

BS: That’s so true and so interesting, about maybe not telling the whole truth: it’s still someone telling it like they see it. In some ways, I guess it’s more democratic playwrighting in a way, because you’re getting a more prismatic story with different views and you know there’s not just this unreliable narrator; there’s maybe a whole bunch of unreliable narrators.

KLB: There was also this kind of process, where the stories were massaged in because Francesca went back 3 times. So there was this thing where at first people didn’t know her and held back, but with each visit she’d ask different questions with more context, because she learned more. By the end of it, it had segued away from the case and became more about the community, which, for me, was of the utmost importance, because it was about the ripple inward and how they were specifically affected by the case.

FA: and it was finding about how reserve systems work, because I’d never been to a reserve or even Manitoba for that matter. It was a lot of learning about people, education, funding, and policing. Just how it all works and what people can get through and the limitations they face, like there are no streetlights there.

KLB: I think it was very important to understand perspective. People are like “Oh my god, that’s so devastating,” and I’m like “That’s every Thursday.” The social injustice of what the reserve system is, and the social understanding of what that is. People are horrified but for us, that’s every day. It’s great that people feel emotion, but what are they going to do about it? I think that’s what the goal is, to humanize relationships in terms of understanding us, and not just pitying us and recognizing that they’re still part of the problem even if they’re not actively oppressing.

BS: I think sometimes, we just haven’t heard some stories. As a woman in the community, when I first started song writing and writing for myself, I realized how little there was. There are a lot of people in this community whose stories have never been told. I think it’s a positive thing for us to share more with each other and tell the stories of people who don’t get heard.

S: This is obviously an emotional story, and carries more weight for you, Kevin, as this is about your community. I’m wondering what has been most challenging for you all in that regard?

KLB: I would say it’s less weight for me because it’s my every day. It’s a different kind of weight, the trauma, the pain, and the shock value of what led to this. In terms of the subject matter, it carries an emotional weight that’s different for Francesca and Britt; it’s brand-new and shocking for them whereas I’ve lived through it. I think for me, it’s like a weight being lifted off my shoulders, but I don’t think one is heavier than the other.

FA: I think a big part of this was getting people to communicate, to speak, because people don’t share their stories.

KLB: What was a big part of that is that there are four actors but 24 characters, so each one plays multiple characters, so they really have to differentiate how each character would say something, use their body, and how they would each hear it. A lot of it is about hearing each other.

BS: I think, not really a challenge but a thing that was reinforced for me, is that it’s really important to listen. Listening is so important, and I think sometimes I can get caught up feeling the need to do something but need to remember that listening is doing something.

S: What has been your favourite part of this project, what do you find most rewarding about doing it?

BS: Rehearsal! Just being together and creating, exploring how we’re going to do this. You can kind of imagine moments and Kevin brings a visual background, and then some of the actors are dancers as well so there’s a lot of different creativity being poured into the project.

KLB: This is my first foray into theatre; documentaries, interviews, and storytelling is kind of where I live. It’s been learning new art and styles, kind of bumbling my way through the theatre process, which is exciting. I work specifically in the Cree language, I speak my tongue, and I’m just titillated to see my language being used. The cast is on the younger side and it’s exciting to see them embody people who are older and not fall into clichés, there’s some accent and characterization work, and they’re playing across different genders. That’s been rewarding, that there’s movement and exploration and not so strict on portrayal.

FA: Meeting the people in the community over time, building trust and value. It felt that it meant something. Yeah, the people. I felt really honoured to be in that position and it felt mutual. We also got to meet young people because there was a youth camp going on during one of the visits, so talking with them was great.

KLB: And there were people who came up to me throughout the process and were like “I get it now, Kevin. I get what you’re doing,” which felt really good because it wasn’t my first project there, and when people got it they felt cathartic.

S: What kind of future do you see for this production?

BS: A global one! (everyone laughs)

FA: We’ve been working on that kind of stuff, taking it elsewhere, and have hopes for other stages this summer.

BS: Yeah, and taking it right to Manitoba even.

S: Do you have plans to take it right to the community?

KLB: That’s probably not very feasible because it’s hyper-expensive to go. It would be really good to go there, but I don’t know.

BS: Or maybe even bringing them all to Winnipeg, or doing a reading there instead of a full production, because there’s no theatre structure there. It’d be good to find a way to do it in smaller communities.

FA: This is the first presentation, four shows here, with funding from the CRD and BC Arts Council. We haven’t received any development money but our intent is to bring it to more places in Canada. We can’t really go into that stuff yet because those are conversations we still need to have, but that’s our intention and we’re really proud to show it in our hometown. Especially because you don’t see many Indigenous performers on stage here and I find it to be a really colonial city. We’ve put a lot of work into it and our performers are from across the country and have taken three weeks from their holidays and time with their families to be here and work, and people should definitely come see it.

S: I absolutely agree. I got to see 2 shows in Victoria that were Indigenous created and performed, and it blew my mind that we had 2 in 1 year. I’m so excited for this one!

Kevin, you talked a bit about aiming to humanize Indigenous people and our experiences, and talking about the issues we face across the country. Is there anything else you want people to take away from it?

KLB: For people to be humanized and to just make it awesome. I want to challenge the way people view Indigenous storytelling and address the hard issues that affect and cause trauma. I think now we’re beyond feeling the need to address white people and that now we can just express ourselves fluidly as creators. The goal is to express it in a different way.

God's Lake: a preview

God’s Lake by Castlereigh Theatre Project January 4-6, 2018.
A preview.

Janis LaCouvee / janislacouvee.com

Anyone who follows my writing knows how difficult it is for me to select a list of top shows in the year. It’s the same thing for work that I am looking forward to in 2018.

However, I am making an exception for God’s Lake, produced by Castlereigh Theatre Project and appearing at the Metro Studio Theatre January 4-6 2018.  Due to its very nature — documentary theatre — and the topic — the safety of young Indigenous women and girls living on isolated First Nation reserves — this production will be riveting, and is worthy of any discerning theatre-goer’s attention.

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Castle in the Sky by Castlereigh Theatre Project April 23-29, 2016. A review.

Janis LaCouvee / janislacouvee.com

It’s the tenth anniversary year of a horrific triple murder of father, mother and son that rocked the small Alberta city of Medicine Hat—the accused the 12 year-old daughter J.R., and her 23 year-old boyfriend Jeremy Steinke. In the carefully constructed Castle in the Sky, writers Francesca Albright and Jude Thaddeus Allen, of Castlereigh Theatre Project, bring to light a town under extreme duress and in the national spotlight. Venturing to The Gas City in the year following the murder, they were granted unprecedented access to family and friends of the victims and the accused, as well as townspeople, politicians and media. From hundreds of hours of material, the researchers have culled and woven a mesmerizing docu-drama told with great detail, and—above all—compassion and restraint.

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Castle in the Sky - Charming Stranger Review

Caitlin Baird / The Marble

Castle in the Sky is an excellent example of verbatim theatre, meaning that the actual words of the community were carefully adapted for the stage. Over the year following the slayings, members of Castlereigh Theatre Project interviewed family and friends of the accused and the victims, journalists, and city residents. These intimate revelations are woven together in a rumination on grief, loyalty, and violence. Castle in the Sky is about a community in crisis in a case where blame is difficult to assign.

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