When Charles Ketchabauw and Lisa Marie DiLiberto rolled into Whitehorse late last month, they weren’t your typical rubber-tire tourists.
Sure, they had two small kids and a teardrop trailer in tow, which made their eight-day journey from Toronto what DiLiberto terms “epic and absurd.”
But they weren’t here to drink in the sights and sample Yukon hospitality. They came to create the next chapter in the sprawling, ambitious story-sharing adventure called The Tale of a Town – Canada.
Documentary theatre. Dramatized travelogue. Oral history on steroids and wheels. The Great Nostalgia Roadshow.
No single descriptor perfectly captures a project that has propelled the Toronto-based couple onto Canada’s freeways and byroads – even onto an Arctic adventure ship – for the past three summers.
“In its absurdity, it’s super fun and exciting,” DiLiberto says. “The challenge to do the whole country in three years and do a show in every province and territory was a crazy idea. We just had to commit to it.”
The project’s origins trace back to 2007, when DiLiberto had been on tour with a “docu-comedy” called Tale of a T-shirt, about the origin of clothing.
“As I was coming back, I was really excited to go and visit all the downtowns along the way, and see how they would be different,” she says.
Instead of uniqueness, what struck her most was a sense of uniformity.
“In all these communities across Canada, there are all these big-box stores surrounding the edge and all these sort of dying downtowns in the middle. And that made me a little sad and nostalgic for my own downtown.”
As a theatre-maker with a background in clown and community-engaged arts, her first instinct was to do a show about “how amazing downtowns can be, and all the memories they hold.”
She hoped to encourage people to “frequent their downtowns, and continue to develop that kind of community downtown.”
DeLiberto began with a one-woman show about Toronto’s Parkdale district, where she and Ketchabauw have lived for the past nine years. It later got picked up by Theatre Passe Muraille, and Tale of a Town – Queen West was born.
Ketchabauw’s work as an audio producer and engineer offered a natural complement to her theatre skills when they conceived the idea of interviewing people across the country to capture “the collective community memory” of Canada’s main streets.
“We started to record them and embed the audio into the performance, and from there the form and style has developed to what we do now, which is sort of a combo of audio and performance. We call them performance installations,” she says.
Operating under the company name of Fixt POiNT, they travel to selected cities and towns and set up shop with their teardrop trailer serving as a storymobile.
Community members are invited to share their memories about places, people and events from their own Main Street experience. Themes and even specific stories often overlap, with variations from speaker to speaker.
“Even if they don’t think they have a story to tell, there’s something extraordinary in their ordinary, everyday lives,” DiLiberto says.
Within a few short weeks, these recollections and reflections are woven into a performance piece that may be staged in an abandoned store or some other locale that reinforces the theme of the piece.
Local designers, actors, musicians and other artists carry much of the freight in each show. But while the style and content may differ radically from one community to another, humour and the storytellers’ actual voices are consistent elements.
“It’s really cool to bring all the people we interview back together, to hear their voices in a collection of stories – to hear how their ordinary stories are quite extraordinary when they’re combined with everybody else’s story.”
As the project’s artistic director, DiLiberto understands the common desire to hold onto the past, but her attitude toward change has altered somewhat.
“As we started the project, I thought, ‘Oh, we need to bring downtown back,'” she admits. “But the more we do it, the more I realize the town’s never going to be the same as it was, so we have to think about how we can re-invent our downtowns. What can we offer in the downtown that we can’t get somewhere else?”
The upcoming shows in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories will put the last two territorial pegs into the national cribbage board of Tale of a Town.
To celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary next year, DiLiberto and Ketchabauw will travel from coast to coast to coast again, with a compilation show called Re: Main Street, featuring stories and voices from across Canada.
The preview of The Tale of a Town – Whitehorse will take place Thursday, Sept. 15 at the Old Fire Hall, beginning at 8 p.m. There will be three performances on each of the subsequent three days, at 2 p.m., 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.
For the project’s story map and daily interview updates, check out The Tale of a Town on Facebook.