Excerpted from Toronto Star article by Sarah-Joyce Battersby, Published May 31 2016.
Standing in a darkened theatre on a sunny day, Harold Dougall turned from the bar and drew his imaginary bow.
Almost 50 years after leaving the Huronia Regional Centre, the 67-year-old breaks from conversation to fire arrows at its image when it’s projected above the stage, his feelings as strong now as the unforgettable day he left.
It was a theatrical expression, but Dougall feels at home on stage, he said. He’s a toastmaster and a poet. And on this day, he is one of eight former residents performing the Recounting Huronia Cabaret at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times theatre.
In the making for about a year, the show is part of an ongoing project based at Wilfrid Laurier University that aims to give voice to the former residents, a vital opportunity for this group, said Kate Rossiter, the project’s lead investigator.
“It is a group that is so consistently left out of public discourse that you almost never hear these stories,” she said. “I think that’s why people are shocked when they hear this stuff, because it’s not known histories.”
Some of the histories on display in the cabaret include a tribute in song to survivors, an explanation of punishment by floor cleaning, and a sketch that casts former resident Carrie Ann Ford in the role of her tormentor.
The skit sees Ford on stage, screaming at her friend Pat Seth, playing the role of a young Ford.
“Bug eyes,” Ford hollers before forcing Seth onto the floor to “dig worms,” a popular punishment that required the children to lay face down on the floor with their hands clasped behind their backs.
“It was like I was living in hell. Up there just brought back the flashes,” Ford said after the show.
Ford, Dougall, and their fellow performers lived at the Orillia, Ont. institution, opened in 1876 as the Asylum for Idiots, during their childhoods.
Since its closure in 2009, former residents settled a class-action lawsuit alleging abuse and neglect against the province for $35 million.
Despite the subject matter, moments of levity did break out. In rehearsal, Seth collapsed into laughter as Ford berated her in character, the bonds of decades of friendship for a moment holding stronger than the deep-rooted memories.
Again in rehearsal, Antoinette Scharlebois, beaming after a last-minute request from her half-sister Marie Slark to join in an interpretive dance number, received gentle direction from Rossiter off-stage: “We’re keeping it serious.”
“I really enjoyed it,” Scharlebois said after the show. The stories can be upsetting, she admitted. “But I know it’s true.”
Bev Houston found the show hard to watch, as her husband David told the story of his escape from the centre and her daughter, Jessie, 26, performed a song for her dad.
“To actually see everybody up there, and say it to the world. It’s hard. But I’m glad they did,” Houston said.
Some may associate cabaret with ribaldry, but Alex Tigchelaar, a cabaret artist and research assistant on the project, says it has always been primarily a space for marginalized groups to share their stories and carve out space in the public discourse.
“It is a space for people who are outsiders. It has always been,” said Tigchelaar, who founded and performs with The Scandelles burlesque group.
The form, often short sketches with few lines alongside musical and dance numbers, accommodates people with different abilities, she said.
Though this performance was limited to select friends, families, former residents, and advocates in the disability community, with another year of funding left for the project, Rossiter hopes to remount the performance for more audiences in the future.
For Slark, it’s imperative.
“Even though it’s hard, we gotta share it,” she said. “So that the people in the community will be mindful and make sure that they don’t do that to people with disabilities ever again.”