How Star Wars Save My Life gives witness—and could save lives

Some Assembly Theatre Company is presenting How Star Wars Saved My Life.

In his solo show, Nicholas Harrison confronts forces more evil than the Death Star.

How Star Wars Saved My Life is an important personal witness. Structurally, it could be stronger, but that almost doesn’t matter.

Nicholas Harrison is a well-known Vancouver fight choreographer. He’s got a PhD in directing from UBC. He lectures at Capilano University. And, for four and a half years, starting when he was in kindergarten, he was brutally physically, emotionally, and sexually abused by several priests and a lay teacher at the Catholic elementary school he attended.

In this solo show, Harrison makes a compelling case that it really was Star Wars that saved his life. Starting when he was nine, the movie franchise gave him a way to understand his experience: the black-robed priests became the black-robed Darth Vader; as Luke Skywalker learned how to channel his fear, anger, and aggression, so did the little boy from northern BC; and, very movingly, Harrison carried a toy version of Luke’s loyal friend, R2D2, around in his pocket.

The physical production of Some Assembly Theatre Company’s mounting of How Star Wars Saved My Life is impressive. When you enter the theatre, the Death Star rotates majestically on the huge circular screen that backs John Webber’s set. And Webber elegantly defines the playing area with another circle, a raised walkway that surrounds a pit of sand—like a sandbox or an arena of combat.

As the story advances, other imagery accumulates. When Harrison discovers kendo as a young man, for instance, the bamboo sword he wields looks like the precursor of the light sabre—which it is.

From a technical point of view, the writing itself could be stronger. One of the tricks of compelling storytelling is to give the protagonist a goal and then allow them to engage several strategies as they try to reach that goal. In a story that ends happily, the insight that the hero gains from his or her successes and failures allows them to prevail in a climactic confrontation.

The two Star Wars movies that I’ve seen work this template to maximum effect. Star Wars Saved My Life is a different beast. In this version of his script, Harrison essentially reports sequentially on events. And, for a long time, the hero of his story—Harrison as a young child—is trapped in passivity because of the cruel threats of the priests: they said that if he told anyone what was going on, God would kill him and his family because of what he had made the priests do. In terms of Harrison’s history this is horrifying; on a narrative level, it means the story gets stuck in description. Harrison might have been better advised to frame his experiences more clearly in terms of his adult attempts to deal with his past, to situate his childhood experiences as obstacles to achieving a goal of present happiness.

As things stand, Harrison’s search for present peace is still implicit in the evening, of course. In the talkback after the show the night I attended, we found out that he wrote How Star Wars Saved My Life partly because he never got his literal day in court: he had no witnesses and none of the other abuse victims from his school would come forward. And, as I watched his solo, there were several times when the trappings of theatre disappeared and I could see the real, present struggle of the man. At the end of the performance, he looked a the audience and said, “May the force continue to be with us all always.” That was Harrison with his guard down speaking directly to us and his wish was so sincere that it was heartbreaking.

HOW STAR WARS SAVED MY LIFE By Nicholas Henderson. Directed by Valerie Methot. Produced by Some Assembly Theatre Company. Seen in a preview performance at Performance Works on Wednesday, December 6. Continues until December 10.

Get your tickets here.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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