SesayArts in Conversation with John Van Burek, director of The Sound of Cracking Bones

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

John Van Burek, Artistic Director, Pleiades Theatre; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

John Van Burek, Artistic Director, Pleiades Theatre; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Watching The Sounds of Cracking Bones feels like holding your breath for 70 minutes. It’s gripping, relentless and chilling. One after another, revelations of atrocity accumulate. The play is viscerally disturbing—for exactly the right reasons. How could a play about the horrors experienced by captive child soldiers be anything else? The Sounds of Cracking Bones is told from two perspectives. First, we experience how two child soldiers, 13-year-old Elikia (Harveen Sandhu) and 8-year-old Joseph (Caity Quinn), escape the rebel camp in the dead of night. Second, we hear from a nurse named Angelina (Juno-Award nominated Patricia Cano) who rescues them at a field hospital.

This tautly-portrayed play provided me with a long-anticipated opportunity to interview prolific director John Van Burek, who is the visionary artistic director of Pleiades Theatre. Pleiades is producing The Sounds of Cracking Bones, written by Governor-General-Award winning playwright Suzanne Lebeau, in both English and the original French. This seems fitting, as people and art are at the heart of Pleiades’ purpose, which is to explore great plays from cultures representing the diverse citizenry of Toronto – and to foster community relationships and dialogue.

The Sound of Cracking Bones will surely provoke dialogue . . . and disquiet. And that’s precisely why everyone should see it. The question that will linger after the house lights come on is, “What should we do with our palpable response to the grim reality of children in war-torn countries who are being kidnapped and turned into killers?” Shake off the discomfort as we retreat to the warmth and safety of our Canadian homes? Or act on it? And if so, how? In his responses, Van Burek provides his perspective . . . You owe it to yourself to see this play, in order to determine your answer.

1. Why did you choose to stage an English language version of The Sounds of Cracking Bones?

Suzanne Lebeau is one of the world’s leading playwrights for young audiences and I have known her work for many years. Her plays are not well known in English-Canada, which is a great loss, in my opinion. This play, which has won awards in many countries, including a G.G. Award in Canada, is a powerful, beautiful and very timely play about an issue that plagues the very notion of civilization: the use of children to fight adult wars. So, artistically and thematically, I felt it was not only timely but urgent for this play to be presented in English –and in its own country! The heart of the story is the escape of two children, 13 and 8, through the jungle from the clutches of their warlords. The third character in the play is an adult, a nurse, who takes the kids in at a field hospital and who is now testifying about their experience before an invisible commission charged with examining the issue of child soldiers. The playwright very cleverly makes us understand that this commission is us. Hence, the real weight of the play is brought home to audiences here, in safe and comfortable Canada.

  1.  I’m curious about the casting of adults to play children…What are the challenges for the adult actors to portray a 13 and 8 year-old — particularly to convey to the audience that what they are seeing is being experienced not by adults but by children?
Harveen Sandhu as Elikia and Caity Quinn as Joseph in a scene from The Sound of Crackling Bones

Harveen Sandhu as Elikia and Caity Quinn as Joseph in a scene from The Sound of Crackling Bones

The story these kids have to tell is quite harrowing and it would be very difficult to have real children of that age play these parts. Also, the two kids carry almost the whole play, so the technical requirements for actors are considerable. Fortunately, I could find two extremely talented actors who could fill the multiple requirements called for here: have top-notch artistic chops, be convincing as children, represent a level of cultural diversity, be fully bilingual. No small order! Harveen Sandhu, who is of Indian background (via Kenya) plays Elikia, the 13 year-old girl who is the driving force of the play, and Caity Quinn, who is of American-Québécois parents, plays Joseph, the 8 year-old boy whom Elikia rescues from the rebel camps. Lastly, I am relying completely on the fact that the art of theatre is “the willing suspension of disbelief” and having watched these to women rehearse these roles, I am more convinced than ever of the veracity of that notion.

  1.  My own children (14, 13 and 11) are impassioned about the conflicting themes of this play. Yet, at the same time, they are disturbed by the ugly reality of kidnapping children—like them– to convert them into killers. What do you hope the youth in the audience will take away with them after seeing this play?

I very much hope that your children will see this play: it is about kids their own age who endure and resist challenges and horrors they could barely imagine. But they are probably also exposed to any number of horrors, fictitious in movies and video games or ripped from the headlines of papers and played out on the TV news, that make them aware of these realities. Education is the best and only way to really fight injustices in the world and that education must begin at an age when kids are forming their awareness of the wider world and creating their moral compass. Obviously, children need to be prepared for a play like this (as they do with a lot of Shakespeare) but we have ensured that every possible tool is available to teachers and parents to help do this.

  1.  What can these youth in the audience, living in “safer” countries like Canada, do in response to their feelings toward the play? What actions can they take for change?

Good question, which follows directly on the previous one. There are several groups and organisations that have aligned themselves with this production, including War Child Canada, the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, Journalists for Human Rights, and Amnesty International. All audiences, adult or student, are invited to look at what they are doing and to enlist their desire for engagement with them. Students can ask what our own government has done with respect to this issue, and there is a great deal to learn on that front, beginning with an examination of how Canada has reacted to one of our own citizens who was a victim of this abuse as a child. Now, 15 years later, Omar Khadr is still languishing in prison for his so-called “crime,” which was to obey his father.

  1. What has been the most rewarding aspect of directing this play? What has been most challenging?

I have been directing plays all my life, but I have never encountered a piece that combines beautiful, poetic and highly-polished playwriting with such burning, timely issues of world politics, human rights abuses, children’s rights, social justice, world health and many more questions that challenge us in our daily lives. If adults can be encouraged to question how a country like Canada can and should respond to this scourge, and if young people can be made aware of the plight that so many of their contemporaries face out there in the wider world and thus, develop a desire to step up and defend those who are less fortunate in the global playground, then I will be happy. The biggest challenge is to get people to make themselves available to engage in the first place: who wants to ruin their day by seeing a depressing play about child soldiers and who wants to subject their kids to such a miserable reality? Unlike the lives of the kids in the play, our lives are rife with escape routes.

  1.  Pleiades Theatre offers much more than just theatre. It has a strong arts-education mandate and offers two unique outreach programs. Please tell us about “Speak the Speech!” and “Play Upon the Word.” What inspired their genesis? How are they being received?

Both Speak the Speech! and Play Upon the Words were developed in response to a perceived absence of support mechanisms for young people in the first instance and, in the second, for newcomers to Canada who struggle to master English. Speak the Speech! is designed to help students find strength in spoken language, to encourage their discovery of language as a powerful tool for conveying ideas, to stimulate creativity and to heighten confidence in their ability to present themselves with conviction. Play Upon the Words helps adult ESL students to discover flexibility and confidence in the process of learning English, notably through the encouragement of playing with the language. We try to foster a sense of humour in the process and to open the door to an enjoyable as opposed to arduous and dogged approach to learning it. To do so, we use simple theatre games and improvisation to create situations of daily life or professional pursuits. In both programs, we make use of the fundamentals of theatre training (body and voice) to generate energy that resides outside the usual, fairly rigid framework of classroom learning.

News You Can Use

What: The Sound of Cracking Bones (Le bruit des os qui cracquent) written by Suzanne Lebeau, directed by John Van Burek, featuring Patricia Cano, Caity Quinn and Harveen Sandhu

Who:  For audiences in grade 8 and up

When:  February 17-28 (English) and March 3-7 (French)

Where: Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, ON


Cool to Know: The Sound of Cracking Bones Study Guide

Learn More: a long way gone: memoirs of a boy soldier by ishmael beah (2007). Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre

© 2015 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

Posted in Theatre and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .