I recently read an article about Pig Girl, a new play by Colleen Murphy, which premiered at Edmonton’s Theatre Network last month. The play chronicles the events of Robert Pickton, a serial killer in British Columbia. Throughout this play, the audience watches a woman being tortured and eventually hung in the middle of the stage while the events of her sister and a police officer look for her. This woman is a sex trade worker from the downtown east side of Vancouver. She is also of aboriginal descent, and this is where the article addresses an important point raised with Pig Girl.
This is undoubtedly a gruesome and bold piece of theatre, told with much courage and truth, but is it Colleen Murphy’s story to tell as a white playwright?
What furthers this question is that the events of the play are based on true events that occurred in the not-so-distant past (he was convicted in 2007).
This question came about in a question and answer session with the playwright, cast, and director.
Some who were present at this session and spoke include RCPM Cpl. Joe Verhaege, who set up the task force in 2004 who began to investigate the deaths and disappearances of women in high-risk lifestyles in Edmonton and northern Alberta (Project KARE), and an aboriginal playwright whose relative’s death is being investigated by Project KARE. This playwright was moved by the events in the play, but also angered at the title of the play and that this story was being told so recently after the events, by a non-aboriginal playwright.
After much well-articulated back and forth in the article between freedom of speech, artistic/cultural responsibility, and story ownership, Paula Simons, who wrote the article, comes to a very important point; “Words of power can also cause immense pain.” That is what I feel we need to focus on when these conversations come up during the creation and presentation of work. No matter how articulately the matter is discussed, there is no black and white answer. If someone decides to tell a story, that is their right, but I encourage them, as Simons does, to remember the power of their words and how people may be affected if your story parallels their life or cultural.
Theatre without an audience is nothing at all, so we must have our audience in mind while creating theatre. Oftentimes, the best art will walk this line, or even step over it, but to do so effectively we must be aware of where the line is for our audience.