Youth reimagine gender binaries in ‘Wyspa’

Photo by Julia Siedlanowska
Photo by Julia Siedlanowska

A Fringe Festival show on climate change and consequences

By Caroline Ho, Arts Editor


When environmental degradation causes societal collapse, what kind of world will the future generations rebuild?

This is the premise for Wyspa, an upcoming show directed by Douglas College graduate and former Other Press writer Julia Siedlanowska and written by Siedlanowska and Kanon Hewitt, developed in collaboration with five youth performers aged 11 to 16. As part of the 2017 Vancouver Fringe Festival, Wyspa is one of five shows created through the mentorship program Generation Hot: Waterborne, supporting young writer-directors in Vancouver. All of the shows in Waterborne tackle themes of global warming and the impacts for generations of people growing up in a world of environmental and societal transformation.

Wyspa (Polish for “island”) follows a group of youths who are cast away from their walled community onto an island where they must build their own society to survive. The story takes place in three distinct worlds: The home community, long sustained by fracking, until a devastating fire causes the youths to be sent away by their mothers; the ocean, where the children struggle to survive on small boats with minimal food; and the island, where the kids are left to create their own new world.

The inspiration for Wyspa grew out of discussions about the recent rise in domestic violence in Alberta, and the link of violence to job losses in the oil industry. Siedlanowska said she specifically wanted to examine the dynamics of raising children in often rigid gender binaries, exploring the ways these norms contribute to gender-based violence. In the home community in Wyspa, men and women occupy very distinct, hierarchical roles. In the new island environment, Hewitt and Siedlanowska have allowed the youths to develop their own ideas around equity.

The introductory text of the show is written by Hewitt and Siedlanowska, up to the point where the children arrive on the island—after which Wyspa has largely been left to the young actors. The kids have been the ones to determine the rules of the world, create scenes and lines of text, and guide the direction of the story. “The suggestions they come up with are all amazing,” said Siedlanowska, describing some of the lines they’ve written as “super poetic” and “beautiful.” She’s been particularly impressed by the young performers’ quality of dialogue, their enthusiasm for the work, and their maturity and insight in dealing with the issues raised.

History abounds with instances of children who have been forced to survive on their own, such as the story of Polish-Jewish writer and pedagogue Janusz Korczak, who operated an orphanage in Warsaw during the Holocaust. Although Hewitt and Siedlanowska drew much of their inspiration from researching Korczak and other accounts from history, the story of Wyspa is meant to be more metaphorical, and the playwrights hope that the extreme circumstances of their fictional world remain far from reality.

Nevertheless, Wyspa shares a powerful message about the consequences of continuing along with our current path of environmental exploitation and degradation. Siedlanowska believes that the message will resonate even more powerfully with audiences when presented by young actors with profound perspectives.

“When you’re talking about climate change, you’re talking about something that’s so far removed from our own consciousness, it’s almost like the effects are not immediately tangible to us in our daily lives.” said Siedlanowska. “We talk about, ‘What are we doing for the future generations?’ But what happens when the future generations are telling the story right in front of you?”

Wyspa and the other works of Generation Hot: Waterborne will be playing at the Vancouver Fringe Festival at Granville Island from September 7 to 16. Tickets for the shows are available at