Between 1914 and 1918, close to four thousand Indigenous men volunteered to fight for Canada in World War I. It is an extraordinary number given the limited civil rights accorded to them at the time. By the war’s end though some of these soldiers reached legendary status as scouts, trench-raiders, and snipers, drawing on their pre-wartime experience in hunting and wilderness survival.
The story of one such soldier, from his childhood home on Vancouver Island’s Nuu-chah-nulth nation to the battlefields of France, is explored in the upcoming production of Redpatch.
The spark for Redpatch began back in 2011 during a conversation creators Raes Calvert and Sean Harris Oliver had while Oliver was performing in Vern Thiessen’s Vimy, another play focusing on World War I.
“There’s a First Nations soldier in that story, and I mentioned to Sean that my grandfather, who was of Indigenous descent, had volunteered to fight in World War II,” says Calvert.
Taking the initial idea, conversations continued between the two around the history of Indigenous people who fought for Canada in the past. Diving into the history books to learn as much as they could about those who served in the Canadian Forces, the groundwork for Redpatch had begun.
“Eventually, we decided that we wanted to focus on the Great War, and tell a story that comes from the perspective of an Indigenous soldier,” continues Calvert.
As Oliver had just finished his work on Vimy, he was tasked with much of the military research. Calvert went personal, with a focus on his ancestry.
“My ancestral line traces back to Nootka Island, in traditional Nuu-chah-nulth territory, and so Sean and I took the time to go out to those lands to get a true sense of the homeland of our main character in the play,” he says.
With the research complete, Oliver and Calvert felt the challenges in distilling the information they had gathered into a two-act play structure, while adding more traditional elements to help tell the story.
“The biggest thing in Redpatch is the movement through time and space,” explains Oliver. “We’re asking the audience to track us as our hero moves back and forth between Nootka Island and the battlefields of France. We use this great convention of following Raven, the Trickster, who acts as the guide for both the characters in our story, and the audience members.”
A remount of their premiere in 2017, for this upcoming co-production Calvert and Harris’ independent theatre company, Hardline Productions, teams up with Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre Company, and Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre.
And while the earlier production did have some assistance from North Vancouver’s Presentation House Theatre at the time, their small company largely produced it themselves.
“In this 2019 version, we have support from the two largest theatre companies in Western Canada,” says Oliver. “This means the scale and scope of the project has dramatically increased.”
With all new props, masks, costumes, and actors, plus the time and space to rehearse and deepen the show, it has gone from what Oliver calls “let’s get it up on its feet” in 2017 to this 2019 version he describes as “the best possible version of this play”.
While Redpatch uses a combination of dance, myth, and masks, it is the movement in the show that Calvert is most fond of.
“I think audience are really going to be amazed by the physicality and choreography that Genevieve [Fleming] and Sean have orchestrated, he says. “As an actor, it’s so inspiring to do this kind of work. I think the other actors and I must be burning 10,000 calories every performance, so being able to do that kind of a high-level physical fitness is what I love best.”
Redpatch continues at the BMO Theatre Centre (162 West 1st Ave, Vancouver) until March 31. Visit artsclub.com for tickets and information.