Natalie Sappier finds her Wolastoq voice

Written by Sophie M. Lavoie on March 7, 2018

Natalie Sappier – Samaqani Cocahq. Photo submitted by Theatre NB.

The NB Media Co-op interviewed Wolastoq artist Natalie Sappier- Samaqani Cocahq about her new play, Finding Wolastoq Voice, premiering March 8, 2018 at Theatre New Brunswick in Fredericton and touring the province thereafter. 

What is the origin of the play, Finding Wolastoq Voice? Where did the idea come from?

As a young girl, I always dreamed of putting stories to life with dance, movement and songs. I never knew that road was theatre though. I think that’s because I never grew up with theatre. In Tobique, there wasn’t a theatre or in any of our local towns. We didn’t really have theatre in our schools. So, this world was very new to me. During my grad year, in 2012-13, I started doing a lot of reflection and affirmation work. It came down to trying to find true happiness with my artistic path and as a person as a whole. I kept visualizing myself in that place again, the place where I shared music and story. I always daydreamed about that place. And I thought more of how I could make that daydream world part of my creative path. Why not share the songs I’d been creating? Why not bring to life those stories in my paintings?

I started working with musicians and more theatre people. I just sent it out to the universe and I had a conversation with Tania Breen about helping create The Eighth Fire for Theatre New Brunswick’s Young Company. And, that’s when I stepped into the process of what it took for stories to come to life on stage and performance. I fell in love with it; I fell in love with every part of it: the creating of the story, the collaboration, seeing it all come together, building something beautiful with all types of artists, from all types of background. Tania asked me if I still wanted to learn more about theatre and said that if I hadn’t thought of it, I should! I was so excited and said, yes. I needed to. Something woke up in me. That’s when I had the opportunity of meeting with Thom (Thomas Morgan Jones, Theatre New Brunswick’s Artistic Director and Sappier’s mentor). He wanted to share the theatre world with me and support me in writing and bringing some of my ideas to life.

I had lists of ideas, I have stories, so many stories. Every painting that I’ve painted, which are hundreds of paintings, have stories in them. I sat down and did a lot of reflecting. Since I paint with things I relate to, it was hard at first to unravel that world into writing. During the early part of writing Finding Wolastoq Voice, I was in a position with ArtsNB as the Indigenous Outreach officer. I was doing a lot of engagement, a lot of talking circles, a lot of expressing the voices of Indigenous peoples here. I knew my struggles were also their struggles and they too were trying to find their voice, speak their voice and honour their voice. What is my place here? What is my place as a Wolostoquey indigenous young woman here? This was the longest I had been away from my community. How do I incorporate my indigenous way of being here in this fast-paced moving world?

I started writing Finding a Wolastoq Voice. I was sharing it with Thom who inspired me to keep pushing and developing the story. I tried to learn about my own creative process that was developing as my own natural way of telling stories. I am comfortable with painting. Because I’m not a reference painter, I do a form of chanting and meditation to remember the visual images and colours that I paint. While I was creating the stories and the words, I was also creating the paintings and the music so by the end of it, I had my first draft and a body of music. And, it just went from there. It was a lot. I was so immersed in something that was coming out of me that was so new, a new way of feeling, a way of expressing myself. I felt I was a child again.

What were the things you most and least appreciated about the creative process? 

I honestly liked every bit of it. I really did. I was very insecure about my writing in the beginning. I’m a creative writer but my grammar and punctuation are horrible. I speak and write how I feel. I was very insecure about how I was expressing my stories through my work. Because of my insecurities, I was going to those comfort places: the drawing, painting and describing the characters and the atmospheres. I really wanted to describe the emotion of this dancer too, and the place this young woman was in. All I could do was express it through songs at times, so I started to push myself vocally and tapping into Indigenous chanting. That is the place that I can’t wait to always go back into: the music and performing the music. That has brought me a lot of joy. It is a very spiritual place where you want to give so much love, honour the opening of a space or share a space and a moment with people. Right now we’re here together; let me share a song with you. It’s a very powerful feeling. I just want to express as much as I could that I’m honoured to be in the presence of everyone who’s there with me. It’s a very spiritual space for me and it’s the truest place for me in feeling present with people and what surrounds me. I love it. I really enjoy it.

As a creator, what do you think people are going to get out of the play? Did you write it specifically for an indigenous audience or is it the same message for everyone? 

With my work, I never think: who’s this going to attract? When I’m painting soulfully for myself, when I’m singing, letting whatever’s inside me out, I do it because my spirit needs to do it. When I create something, I don’t think “what is my market?” I could never think that way because I’m not doing my work in a commercial way. It’s a healing way for me, it’s a medicine. So, when I was writing this play, I was doing it entirely for myself. It was a process of letting go and getting my thoughts out. What came out of it was a story, a lot of stories that wrapped into a journey, into a play.

Reading it now, I know it’s a story for everyone, whether you’re indigenous or not, whether you’re a man or a woman. It’s a story that I know people can relate to in some form. That makes me very proud. It’s human. It’s a story from the point of view of an indigenous woman. I never thought about an actual audience, I just wanted to honour the story I was creating through my own truth and my own feelings.

Is there anybody who has inspired you in particular in your work as a writer and creator? 

My mother is a big inspiration when it comes to my writing. I think she brought out the writer in me.  She always had this way with words. She would write notes. I still have some of the notes that she would write me. She would be the one who would take the time to write on all the pages of your birthday card. That one little message in the birthday card was not enough, she had to say more. I think it was because she might have had a hard time expressing herself by saying it. Her comfort was writing words. That allowed us, as siblings, to be able to say the things we needed to say, even if it was hard for us. We would write letters to each other. That doesn’t really happen too often nowadays except in texting and things like that. My mom really showed me a way to express myself through writing. And, also she supported everything I wanted to explore that would allow me to express how I felt. I believe that’s why all my siblings are artists. I have so many people that inspire me. But, when it comes to the writing and even the storytelling, it was my mom. She was a great storyteller. She would always find a way to relate to what I was going through with a story. If I was asking for advice, she would always find a way of naturally bringing a story out of her own experiences as a young girl. She’s a big reader, she has books all over the place at home. I was never much of a reader, even though I’ve always liked to write. I would write things, but I would rarely read.

What will the future bring for you as an artist?

I didn’t know early on that Theatre New Brunswick was going to take on this production. When I was finished my draft, I remember Tom saying: “Who knows? Maybe you’re going to be on the next season?”

I was just excited to have the opportunity to learn. I always had a hard time going into schools to learn; I’m a hands-on learner. I was going into that residency just to learn the world of theatre. Now that I’ve had this opportunity to be part of the season, I’m amazed. Instantly, when it started happening, from the beginning and the launch of the season, so many indigenous people, not just young ones, indigenous people here in the province were coming up to me to tell me: “You know, I always wanted to do that! That’s amazing!”

I hear about more theatre happening in communities, people coming together and doing more theatre. I’ve done a few workshops and I realized that it can be as simple as us coming together in a circle and just creating a story together. It just lit this flame right up.  I never wrote this play just for me. The story came out of me naturally but when I think about this going on stage, it’s not just for me, it’s for all of us. I hope that it inspires our people to want to put their stories on stage whether it’s in our schools or in our communities, around the province, the nation, or internationally.

Having [indigenous dancer and choreographer] Possesom Paul going into the residency with me at Theatre New Brunswick, shows the wave is continuing.  I’m really proud of the work he is doing and I am happy to be part of it. I am going to continue to create to plays and I want to help others to do the same, I want to help them put their stories on stage, whether it’s through us collaborating or me supporting them somehow to make what they need to happen, happen!

Sophie M. Lavoie covers arts and culture for the NB Media Co-op. She is also an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op. 

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