Different Ways of Knowing: Q&A with director of University Theatre’s ‘Sila’

On April 16, University of Oregon’s University Theatre will open its production of Sila in the Hope Theatre on campus. The play combines themes of Arctic culture and climate justice activism to raise questions about the future of our planet and the human community.

The Emerald talked with director Theresa May about the challenges and rewards of bringing this play to life:

Rachel Benner: Sila is described as “equal parts Inuit myth and contemporary Arctic policy.” As an artist and environmental justice scholar, why do you think it is important to produce theatre about these concepts?

Theresa May: I think often in a university setting, we remain in our disciplines and we forget to ask ourselves the question: What ways of knowing exist that are different than my own? This play includes several different ways of looking at the world — different ways of understanding what knowledge is.

RB: Are there any especially compelling elements of this play, in terms of theatrical effects and special elements?

TM: There are two characters who are polar bears. We’ve attempted to work with those two characters not as the kind of “Disney bears” that you see and that we’ve all become accustomed to. Instead, we’ve tried to look to the traditional knowledge that’s represented in the play: that the polar bear and Inuit culture are closely linked. One of the characters in the play says “there was a time when animals and people shared the same skin and spoke the same tongue.” We let that inform how we approached the bear.

RB: What were some unique challenges you faced as you directed this play?

TM: Some of it’s written in French, some of it’s written in Inuktitut and some of it’s written in English. We had actors who did not speak French who had to learn. We have native actors who have helped us with some of the Inuktitut pronunciation. Obviously most of the play is in English, but I think that’s a really important aspect of the play that Chantal, who herself is Québécoise, tried to bring together. Language, in a sense, is a way of knowing, and we’re limited if we only speak one language. We’re limited by that language’s construction of certain ideas.

RB: Do you have a favorite moment or memory from the creative process for Sila?

TM: We did a lot of movement workshops very early in the process. I think the discoveries that the ensemble made during that process in terms of how they could become one living community— in a sense, one body— was a really exciting piece of the process, for them and for me.

RB: Why should UO students see this play? What should they expect?

TM: They should come to see it because it’s about one of the most important challenges of this era, of this generation… I think they should come see it because it will open up different ways of thinking about climate change and climate justice that they might not have considered before. They can expect to be challenged. They can expect to be drawn into a story that is complex and many-voiced and multiple in its meanings and in its conclusions.

Sila runs April 16-18 and 23-25 at 8 p.m., and 26 at 2 p.m. in the Hope Theatre on campus. Visit the University Theatre website for tickets and more information.

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Rachel Benner

Rachel Benner

Rachel is a Theatre writer for the Arts and Culture Desk.