Miss Katelyn has been up all night preparing a lesson plan for her class and she’s ready to teach it at Canoe Theatre Festival during the Chinook Series. Your classroom is the PCL Studio Theatre and classes (okay, performances) are January 30, February 1 and 5.
Playwright and performer Elena Belyea gives us a sneak peak of the lesson taught in Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare for the Inevitable: “Miss Katelyn doesn’t believe her students are properly equipped if a school shooter comes because the principal of the school doesn’t allow any kind of lockdown drills or anything like that, so she’s created her own DIY lesson plan about how to survive. The audience plays the class and the play is literally her teaching the lesson.”
Elena had the idea for Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare for the Inevitable in her second year of the National Theatre School’s Playwriting program where she stumbled across a statistic on the number of women who are mass shooters. While there have been mass shootings by female shooters, Elena found the shooters are significantly more likely to be male. Elena says, “It got me thinking about violence and fear and how gender plays into that and the statistics and information surrounding how and why mass shootings happen, especially recently. What I’m really curious about is how the media talks about instances of really large-scale violence and the effects on communities receiving that information and the effects on the individuals within those communities. In this case, what are the effects of talking about school shootings and how the world is unstable right now and saying we should all be afraid? Miss Katelyn is someone who has really internalized those messages.”
All of those questions about what happens when someone internalizes messages of fear helped create the character of Miss Katelyn, who Elena describes in rich detail. “Miss Katelyn is a grade three teacher who has been at her current school for seven years. She has a sister who she was really close with but has recently been feeling more distant from since her sister has had a baby and she really loves her job and her kids. It’s pretty safe to say that teaching is the best thing in her life right now. On the flip side of that, she doesn’t have a lot of other people in her life. She’s single, she has kind of a strained relationship with her family and the other staff working at the school. She’s kind of an alarmist and a lot of the other staff at the school are often trying to tell her she needs to calm down and things are not as bad as they seem, which I think only serves to further agitate her. She often feels like she’s not being listened to. One of the directions I received from Jon Lachlan Stewart, my director, was ‘This is a person who doesn’t often get to talk very much and be heard and now she gets an hour to talk, so what does it look like to see someone who’s not used to getting air time getting air time?’ ”
The performance of Miss Katelyn at Canoe will be the fourth time the show has been performed with an audience – so far, it’s had two showings in Montréal and one at last year’s Edmonton International Fringe Festival. While the two cities have very different relationships and histories with shootings, the humour integrated throughout Miss Katelyn helps make the topic accessible so that audiences have access to this conversation-starter about shootings and messages of fear. That naturally opens the door for the question of how Elena was able to integrate humour into a play about such a serious topic and why that was the best approach for this play. Elena says, “If one wants to go after really dark topics, it’s like going really deep underwater – you can go down there and if you write it right, people will follow you, but you can only stay down there so long before people need to come back up for air. To me, humour is how that happens theatrically. In Miss Katelyn’s case, the humour comes from the fact that she is so dry about it. She has no time, so she’s cutting through the bullshit. She’s not sugarcoating anything. A lot of it is like, ‘Nobody wants me to tell you this because they think you can’t handle this, but I know you can.’ As adults we’re hearing this shit she’s saying to grade threes and going, ‘Oh my God, this is totally crazy. This is really heavy!’ The fact that we’re observing it as adults is where the humour comes in.”
At the end of the day, Elena is interested in opening up that same conversation that inspired Miss Katelyn with audience members. “What are the effects of living in a culture that tells us we need to be afraid of everything all the time? And what are the effects that living in that culture has on the way we as a community make decisions? Making decisions out of fear as opposed to out of love and what we know is best and most nurturing for the people in that community. What are the sacrifices we’re willing to make for the sake of a threat whether it’s real or not?” Elena describes one of the most gratifying audience talkback sessions she’s had as being at the recent Wildside Festival in Montréal. “One of the people speaking was a playwright/poet/actor named Travis who was at Dawson when the shooting happened, and one of the things he was saying was that his reading of the play is that there are bad things out there and while there are certain things we can do to equip ourselves to that we’re not intentionally putting ourselves into a dangerous situation, at the end of the day we can’t know what could possibly go wrong next, so all we can really do in the meantime is take care of each other and love each other and be good to each other. In terms of how the narrative works, to me the play is really about Miss Katelyn’s love for these students even though she sometimes doesn’t behave the best, it’s always with the best intentions.”
Miss Katelyn’s Grade Threes Prepare for the Inevitable plays at the PCL Studio Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns January 30, and February 1 and 5 as part of Canoe Theatre Festival during the Chinook Series. Tickets are $20 for students and seniors and $25 for adult tickets through Fringe Theatre Adventures.Evening passes for all shows in a particular evening are $50 and for $75 you get a Five Pack Festival Pass.
Get to the show early, because the first 20 participants get what Elena calls a special experience. “I call it gentle audience participation. I’m not inviting anyone up on stage. It starts at the beginning of the play and it goes right the way through. There’s never a part where the audience gets to sit back. In general, you’re right there with me. I might call on you on any moment, or I might ask you something.”
On February 1 at 5:30 in the ATB Financial Arts Barns Lobby Board Room, Workshop West presents a special salon where Elena, a school teacher, a parent and a police officer will discuss safety in Edmonton schools.