Gather: Stories in Nature — room to grow

publicity photo for Gather: Stories in Nature

Sharing stories outside is a good idea.
(Photo of Shayna Jones and Cameron Peal by Kathryn Nickford)

Maybe the best way to see these two short scripts is as seedlings.

In Gather: Stories in Nature, Shayna Jones and Cameron Peal both perform solo plays they’ve written about their relationships to the earth. In a (mostly) productive decision, their work is being presented beneath the trees in Queen Elizabeth Park.

Jones’s work is currently the sturdier of the two. It’s about a woman named Miriam who’s struggling in an oppressive marriage to a guy named Clinton. Early on, Clinton complains that Miriam is getting too independent: “That’s what I get for letting you discover yourself.”

Because Miriam’s life looks idyllic to her— she lives in a small town, she has a big vegetable garden, and Clinton knows how to appear supportive — Miriam reasons that she must be the problem. “I feel like I’m doomed or something”, she says. “Like there’s something defective in me.” Race is a factor: Miriam is Black and Clinton’s white. Frustrated at her inability to find happiness, she’s almost in tears when she says to her counsellor: “I have thrown myself against all that is good and pure and white!”

The script’s central metaphor is fruitful: the soil in Miriam’s vegetable garden, the symbol of her domesticity, is riddled with shards of glass: the previous residents seeded them there to kill slugs.

What the script lacks at this point is the kind of detail that would make for a more satisfying progression. Clinton is a two-dimensional villain: we never see what made Miriam fall in love with him. And, when things start to fall apart, we don’t know what strategies Miriam employs other than seeing a counsellor. Even though the happiness of the couple’s children is a big part of what’s at stake, those kids aren’t even minimally developed as characters. I hope Jones fleshes out her script in later iterations.

It’s already worth seeing, partly because Jones’s performance is so charismatic, so vivacious and emotionally naked: cajoling and raging as Clinton; striving, terrified, and joyful as Miriam.

Cameron Peal, whose monologue opens the evening, is also a friendly performer and his writing is intelligent, but it’s still trying to find its shape.

Exploring the relationship between his indigeneity (Peal grew up in Nisga’a territory) and his life in the city (Vancouver), Peal tells us about the traditional Nisga’a way of harvesting cedar bark, he describes Nisga’a naming practices, and he explains his understanding of the Buddhist approaches to longing and presence.

One thing he does not do is tell a story. He mentions the grandparents who gave him his Nisga’a name, which translates as Little Drummer Wolf, for instance, but he doesn’t evoke those grandparents as characters, and he doesn’t describe any of his interactions with them. There are no evocative, personalizing anecdotes. As a result, Peale’s contribution feels more like a lecture than a play.

The night I attended, he was also fighting traffic noise. The cedar tree under which he was performing, is too close to West 29th so, when Peale repeatedly asked, “Can you hear the earth?”, the honest answer would have been, “I don’t have a chance!” Maybe that’s the point, but it was still alienating. (Jones’s playing area is quieter.)

Both of these works show promise. Both have room to grow.

GATHER: STORIES IN NATURE Written by Shayna Jones and Cameron Peal. Directed by Lois Anderson and Kelsey Kanatan Wavey. Presented by Pacific Theatre and Neworld Theatre. In the picnic area of Queen Elizabeth Park on Thursday, August 5. Runs until August 14. Tickets.

 

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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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