Building Community through Clowning and Indigenous Teachings on Manitoulin Island

An interview with the director and members of the Debajehmujig Theatre Group and Storytellers

Preparing for The Quest, photo © James Douglas

In August 2019, James Douglas traveled to Manitoulin Island to view Debajehmujig’s production of The Quest. The production was performed in the ruins of the Holy Cross Mission, formerly a residential day school. There James interviewed company director Bruce Naokwegijig and members of the cast about the troupe members’ training at the Manitoulin Clown Farm, the company’s collaborative artistic process, the genesis of the production—and the importance of water.1

At the clown farm, members from Debajehmujig cultivate common ground by working in a commune-type environment, sharing techniques they have learned in developing their characters and exploring how they impact each other. In 2019, they chose to form a collective “quest” as their story theme, so they could help one other and, in turn, help the greater community reach their goals. This production also involved sharing the ideas of the Seven Grandfather Teachings with a broader audience. 

The Debajehmujig Storytellers, also known as the Debajehmujig Theatre Group or simply Debaj, is a First Nations theatre group and multi-arts organization based in the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island in Northern Ontario. Debaj is one of the longest-running Indigenous theatre organizations in North America.

The following interview has been lightly edited for publication.

Cast in Debajehmujig’s production of The Quest, photo © James Douglas – From left to right: Richard Ashley Manitowabi, Samantha Lynn Brennan, Steven Bradleigh Trudeau, Sheldon Mejaki, Daniel Recollet-Mejaki, Sheila Trudeau

Interview with Debajehmujig’s director, Bruce Naokwegijig

James: Can you share the history of Debajehmujig and how the Ruins became your performance space?

Bruce: Debajehmujig was originally founded in the next reserve, M’Chigeeng First Nation, just west of Wiikwemkoong, by Shirlee Cheechoo. It was theatre for young people, and over time Shirlee realized that the adults wanted to perform, too, so she started to include adults. The idea was to help the youth have their voices on stage. The youth weren’t seeing Native actors on stage, not even on TV.   

Then they moved to Wiikwemkoong because they needed a bigger venue and more administrative help. I don’t know exactly when that was, actually. I started a summer job with them as an actor when I was 11 years old,  and they were already here in the [Wiikwemkoong] community at that time. 

All that time, Debajehmujig didn’t have a venue to do their theatre.2 When they came to Wiki, they used an old schoolhouse as their office. It was like a nursery school with small rooms for the kids to learn in. We used one that looked like a large living room, where all the theatre rehearsals would happen. When the show came up, we would either be in the school or in the arena. 

Because we had no venue, I remember my first show being played in the nearby community called Buzwah. It was set up in the bush. That’s where my first show was, out in the bush.

I don’t know how Debaj got the deal to perform on the ruins of the Holy Cross Mission. I think the church asked us to perform the Passion of the Christ play every year for them and in exchange, we could use the ruins for our shows. Ever since, we’ve been here almost every year performing at this venue.

This site was once a girls’ school, and another building up there was a boys’ school or a residence, the Holy Cross Mission, so we call this the Holy Cross Mission Ruins. It wasn’t like a regular residential school. I think it allowed students to stay in the residence as long as they needed to, and then if they wanted to go home, they would go home.  

Where did you get the idea for this show, The Quest?

I didn’t, I guess. One of the things that we do is work in collaboration with all of our artists. We generate our materials through collaborating and coming up with ideas, trying them out. For this show, John Turnerand I knew that there was no time to actually write the show before the students went over to the Manitoulin Clown Farm. So, while they were learning, they were also creating the show. When they finished their training at John’s—he does an open public showing of all the work that they’ve done—I got to see the collection of pieces there. I had a few days to think it through and connect everything. They were all individual pieces being performed by different players in the Debajehmujig group and some of John’s students who are not part of Debajehmujig.

When I first [met with the players], they had to come up with a pitch for a show idea, basically to fill in all the blanks about what their scene was, and talk about it for a bit. Then we took notes about what the character would be or what that story would mean. They were creating their own individual scenes with all the actors in the show, using one another to make the show. They were also learning how to build props from natural materials, found materials, boxes, plastic bottles. And while they were learning that, they had to go on a quest and figure out three things for their little stories. That is where they started to generate what you’re going to see in the play.  

As they created, they developed these scenes. They’re all on a quest to find something. Each quest is nutty, of course, and as they went through their quests, they started going with the seven values of the Anishinaabe people: love, honour, truth, trust, compassion, patience and humility. That is where their quests started to go. And then at the end, they found that their quest was to be truthful or have the truth. They took a look at that, just thinking it through, working it through, and basically having to come up with a top and a bottom for the show, to give it a bigger message.

The Quest, photo © James Douglas – From left to right: Sheila Trudeau, Samantha Lynn Brennan, Sheldon Mejaki

A story arc? 

We only had four days to get up to show mode. I knew what they were wearing and I’d seen what the scenes were, so it was just a matter of creating that overall umbrella. As we were workshopping, they were using the words truth, trust, honour, compassion, love and humility, the seven values. There was only one value missing—patience—because there were only six performers.

I asked myself what were some of the over-arching themes, difficulties in the world, or issues? What popped into my head was the idea of water. Right now, a lot of Native communities are having water crises. Our lakes are getting more polluted. So, that just started to connect with all of it—protect the water. 

There’s the issue with Attawapiskat First Nation, which is really in need of clean drinking water. We’re working with a group right now called Swim, Drink and Fish—that is, for clean water, drinkable water, and swimmable water. 

Most of the show-building process happened using their discovery of their clowns. Is that how the overall show took shape?

Yes. Originally, I wanted to have the clown characters come out and be in duos or trios and have fun with the characters. But the show started to become too long, so I just tried to make it smaller.

Back at the rehearsal studio, I asked them to get into their clown. I would interview the clown and have each one tell me about the character of their clown. Do I have brothers and sisters? Where do I live? Do I live in a hut? Do I live in a house? Do I live between the rocks?

Sort of like a backstory? 

Yes. We try to develop the script with the clown so that they can come out and have a conversation about real-life issues and not just be up there using their clown energy, because when you do that, you can get an in-depth idea about who your character is.  

So, it was me just coming up with stuff to generate ideas with. That’s the ideal of using those clowns and trying to find a way where they could mesh. Because, when I was at the clown farm, I don’t think the clowns had met at all with each other. It was like, “I’m working on my piece— you’re in this piece but I’m the main clown.” And they would create that way, and just get to their scenes. I don’t think it was actually Clown 1 and Clown 2 on stage figuring something out together.

So, was it like developing chemistry between other characters?

Very much so. And again, it wasn’t going to help what was already created. I wanted just a little bit more camaraderie between each character. They’re very much individual pieces. 

You’ll see all of the clowns on stage, but there’s only one main character going through the scene, going on their quest. So that’s what I wanted to try to develop in the actors: having all of these clowns being able to mix and mingle. The more backstory I was getting, the more it was like “it is going to be too much now and we have four days to create dialogue, to create script and then memorize that.” 

One of the things I did with that was just create the “beats.” And the players are all great improvisers. We teach them improvisational theatre. Clown and improvisational theatre is a good combination. Of course, our clowns are always open to the audience, reacting to the audience, knowing the audience; we’re giving them eye contact and having fun.

Daniel Recollet-Mejaki enthralls the audience, photo © James Douglas
Daniel Recollet-Mejaki enthralls the audience, photo © James Douglas

Who is the production more aimed toward?

Basically, everybody. It’s not really focused on an individual such as a politician, or the chief, or people like that. Part of the message is to think again about the traditional values and how you own them. So, in the dialogues, we must trust the water to keep us safe and to provide us with good drinking. Be truthful about how we are treating the water. We must have respect for the water, right?

And who is your audience? 

It depends on the time of year. All of our festivals happened on the island just in the last four weeks. Right now, the tourist season is coming to an end. So, things have kind of died down now. We’re seeing mostly our local community members.

And what are the reviews you’ve been getting? 

Everybody’s enjoying it. It’s funny and nutty. And since the actors are all from the communities here, they’re making their parents come and support them by watching the show. 

Where do you see you need to modify when you bring the show to Montréal? 

We’re going to be losing one of our actors after this show. We know that we only have half an hour [for our slot in the clown festival], so how can we change this message or take the same message, but have it done in that half-hour time slot? We will still try to keep the same message.

The Quest, photo © James Douglas
The Quest, photo © James Douglas – From left to right: Sheila Trudeau, Samantha Lynn Brennan, Richard Ashley Manitowabi

Interview with Debaj cast members4 in The Quest:

James:  Can we start with your names and your clown names? 

DRM: I’m Daniel Recollet-Mejaki (Wiigwas).

SM: I’m Sheldon Mejaki (Guy).

SB: I’m Samantha Brennan (Grass Manitou).

RAM: I’m Richard Ashley Manitowabi (Loovit). 

BT: I’m Bradleigh Trudeau (Muddles).

How was your experience working with the clown farm? 

SB: It was quite extensive this year. We were there for “Joey and Auguste”5 and for Advanced Boot Camp. So, the first eight days were Joey and Auguste with Jed Tomlinson and John Turner. And we learned so much in eight days. It was unbelievable! Then we went back for 11 days of Advanced Boot Camp, where we built most of these props. We built our clowns, too. We used some of the Joey and Auguste knowledge as well, but it was mostly the Advanced Boot Camp that the show came from. 

BT: Me? I thought it was great! I had never worked on my own props before. It was nice to make my own stuff. That was incredibly fun. And I had never done Joey and Auguste before, or duo-clown and clowning with another individual. It was amazing, especially seeing the contrast between the Joey and the Auguste. 

SM: Well, for me it was a very good experience. It helped me as a person to be more open. I used to be a little shy. I kept to myself, but this helped me grow as a person. I feel more “out there” now. It was a good experience.

Can you talk a little bit about each of your characters? Did you find a clown?

RAM: Well, part of Joey and Auguste, and baby clown, is using your masks6 as a resource and your colours of the rainbow to get your gestures, your feelings, your emotions and your expressions. It developed our characters for this performance, and many things would arise based on that [process]. There were times when fear would arise because you were not aware of that gesture or that emotion, but you pushed forward, being honest [about] what your character becomes and using those [gestures and emotions] that you’re afraid of. Yeah, it’s like a turning point in your character, what you could find and what you were not attracted to… but it could be an amazing character that surprised you all the time.

BT: I found my character through a quest. Each of us did a quest, and we were to use all of our masks to solve one problem on the quest. I had a lot of trouble with my final mask, but then I finally got it. Yeah, I felt like I dropped a lot of my final mask into this clown for this show. My clown’s name is Muddles. Muddles is very—I wouldn’t call it shy—he tries to speak, but he isn’t heard, you know what I mean? He wants to argue a lot about everything, whenever he gets a chance. Muddles is very argumentative and has a pretty soft voice. Muddles has a companion named William. William is pretty demanding of Muddles a lot of the time.

RAM: We used Joey and Auguste on some of our quests, and then had a workshop on how to create this performance. And we’d use our six masks to solve a problem that would arise. We went out into nature at the clown farm and we had to find what we were looking for. So, we put pieces of paper in a hat about the seven values. Love, honour, respect, trust, truth, and compassion—we left patience out because there were only six of us. We just grabbed one, like a gift from the gods, and we went out and had to search for that.

Mine was love. I was trying to figure out how to find love. But then, having the six masks to solve the problems was a challenge. I was interested at the same time in finding these different things on the journey, like your imaginary friend. Mine was a butterfly. It’s called Silky. You’ll see it in the performance. My clown character is Loovit. It was pretty interesting to develop my character. 

We weren’t really sure what we were creating. And then we all had our own quests that we developed at Advanced Boot Camp. We created our props based on that. Also, because all of us had our own masks and our own emotions and gestures based on [our quests], we all did individual work to create a collective effort, leading to what you’re going to see. Their clown characters are all pretty different. And we use all of our tools. Some of our clowns have a Joey and Auguste, you’ll kind of see that, the manipulator and the victim. It’s a lot of hard work developing your Augustes when you have to be that Auguste. That’s what I found out going through the Advanced Boot Camp and Joey and Auguste—that the Auguste was physical, always trying to please your Joey as much as he can.

Steven Bradleigh Trudeau, photo © James Douglas
Steven Bradleigh Trudeau, photo © James Douglas

What can a clown tell the audience by saying it in a clown style that a regular theatre story cannot?

SB: The absence of the fourth wall is a really good part of it, or the connection with the audience. Also, the subtlety and extreme loudness of physical theatre and using the dynamics of those elements to be able to express yourself. You don’t have to write 60 pages of dialogue to explain. You literally can do one gesture, and everybody knows what’s going on. I think it’s just a really cool way to communicate with the audience; and to have them affect you and you affect them creates a connection that just does not happen with a fourth wall.   

DRM: Do you mean doing clown, compared to a regular performance? A whole lot is different. I find that doing clown compared to other regular performances is different in that the clown is more physically active and interacts with the audiences. It’s a very interactive type of performance.

So, dealing a little bit with a history of the theatre group and maybe the ruins here, do you find that this Quest, the story, has traditional roots? 

RAM: Maybe a different way of doing it because in our ceremonies, our clowns are backwards. If you say, “don’t pray,” they’ll pray for you. Say “come here,” and they won’t come to you.  With these values, a lot of people in our community go with the Seven Grandfather Teachings. The ones we go by at Debaj are the Odawa Midewiwin teachings that [David] Sunny Osawabine, our cultural educator, teaches. That’s why the presentation of some of the seven values is a little bit different from others. It is structured in a way where you use mnemonics as a reminder. When you remember those colours—like when I look at red, I’m reminded of love, and then when I see black, I am reminded of our ancestors—part of that is based on the inner clown. We are using what we are learning in those Grandfather Teachings. It’s individual, too. To see spirituality is individual. Based on the teachings. 

So, what is the message you are bringing to the audience? What will they get and take home with them?

RAM: I think all of us are different. Mine is gentleness. I bring gentleness between our people. But my quest or value is love. I offer love and gentleness. 

SM: Mine is honour! I feel like giving them honour. I can’t really explain. It’s in my head.   

DRM: I guess, my message or value is compassion. My turn is a bit sillier in a way. But the message is that you have to show compassion to whatever is happening around you. In my turn, I get something stolen from me and then later find out what [the thief’s] use was for it, and I show compassion and let him keep it. 

BT: I guess mine is being truthful to oneself about things.

SB: Mine is trust. And my message is if you can’t trust the universe or the people around you, then you will get stuck. But if you can trust, new ways, new doors will open up to you.

The Quest, photo © James Douglas
The Quest, photo © James Douglas – From left to right: Samantha Lynn Brennan, Richard Ashley Manitowabi, Steven Bradleigh Trudeau’s arm, Bruce Naokwegijig, Daniel Recollet-Mejaki, Sheldon Mejaki, Sheila Trudeau behind Sheldon

For more on the Debajehmujig Storytellers and Theatre Group, follow them on Facebook and on their website.

  1. The Clown Farm on Manitoulin Island was founded by John Turner in 2002 as a unique facility for research, training, creation and performance in all areas of the performing arts. It became the Manitoulin Conservatory for Creation and Performance in 2012 under his artistic direction and continued until 2021. John Turner is best known as the Smoot half of the award-winning Canadian clown duo, Mump & Smoot.
  2. Debaj now has a large, professional performing and creation centre: The Debajehmujig Creation Centre, located in the nearby community of Manitowaning.
  3. John Turner was directing the workshop at the Manitoulin Conservatory for Creation and Performance (formerly The Clown Farm) attended by members of the Debajehmujig troupe.
  4. Sheila Trudeau (Ray Vaughn) was not in the interview.
  5. Joey and Auguste refers to a traditional clown dynamic involving a leader and a follower clown.
  6. In the Pochinko Method of clowning, performers use six masks representing the four cardinal directions (North, South, East and West) as well as Above/above and Below/below, to aid them in self-discovery.

James Douglas has been involved for many years in the Montréal performance scene, mainly in theatre: as technical director/adviser with Teesri Duniya (where he is now a board member and was formerly an actor/director), Black Theatre Workshop, Repercussion Theatre and others. He has worked as a lighting designer, technical director, photographer and stage manager with many Montréal companies, and is currently touring with Geordie Productions. James has been with the Montréal Clown Festival for six years, including three years as president of the Board of Directors of MTL Clowns, the company that produces the festival. He looks forward to helping and supporting the Montréal Clown Festival as long as his funny bone still works. To see what James is up to, visit his website and follow him on Instagram @jamesinmtl, Facebook and LinkedIn. You can check out this year’s MTL clown festival from April 25 to 28 at the Salle Gésu.

Bruce Naokwegijig is Odawa from the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island. He began his career in theatre at the age of 11 in Debajehmujig’s production of Lupi–The Great White Wolf in 1991, performing in the summer and attending school over the winter. Working with Debajehmujig gave Bruce an opportunity to travel around the world with its touring company, The Global Savages, and introduced him to art practices such as dance, acting for stage, improv theatre, mask and clown, stilt walking, fire breathing and more. Bruce has been creating, directing, facilitating workshops and acting in Debajehmujig’s productions for all these years, and became Artistic Director in 2018.