One-man show ex­plores abuse, shame, suc­cess

One-man show tells per­former’s story of abuse, shame, strug­gle and suc­cess

Edmonton Journal - - FRONT PAGE - LIANE FAULDER lfaul­der@post­media.com twit­ter.com/eat­my­words­blog

It’s the rare writer who makes a lot of money from their work. But there are other, less tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits that have come to Shel­don El­ter through the craft­ing of Métis Mutt.

The one-man show, open­ing Feb. 15 at the Roxy on Gate­way, traces El­ter’s ca­reer from his early days as a strug­gling 20-year-old standup co­me­dian to the cur­rent day. At 39, El­ter is a suc­cess­ful Ed­mon­ton ac­tor, mu­si­cian and writer, but the part be­tween now and then has seen ups and downs.

While it’s fair to say El­ter didn’t nec­es­sar­ily achieve his present steady state through the writ­ing of his own story, it’s also true that writ­ing can be trans­for­ma­tive and can help take you places you need to go. There’s no putting a price on that.

Métis Mutt is El­ter’s per­sonal story. It’s a hard one to hear. His bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther, now dead, was an abu­sive drunk who beat El­ter’s mom for serv­ing oat­meal for break­fast. El­ter and his younger brother grew up in a tu­mul­tuous house­hold and El­ter has also strug­gled with al­co­hol and drug abuse.

“Peo­ple say, ‘Did that ac­tu­ally hap­pen?’ Yes. That’s what makes it dif­fer­ent from a reg­u­lar play and dif­fi­cult for me to tell,” said El­ter in a phone interview.

It’s hard for an au­di­ence to hear about chil­dren be­ing abused in their own homes. But equally hard to hear is what El­ter, and so many other In­dige­nous peo­ple, have had to en­dure out­side the home — the bru­tal, non-stop racism and bul­ly­ing that oc­curs from the class­room to the sports field to the work­place. Such treat­ment cre­ates ter­ri­ble shame — one of the most pow­er­ful parts of Métis Mutt is lis­ten­ing to the char­ac­ter of El­ter’s brother cry­ing bit­terly at be­ing called an In­dian at school.

“But we are In­di­ans,” El­ter’s char­ac­ter tells the boy, high­light­ing the sad state of hat­ing your­self be­cause others hate you.

El­ter, too, was caught in that cy­cle of self-ha­tred, and it’s ap­par­ent from the open­ing scene. The play starts with El­ter’s standup

rou­tine, which is a litany of racist jokes about his own peo­ple played to please the au­di­ence.

“I hope peo­ple will un­der­stand that it’s re­ally more of a pe­riod piece now,” said El­ter of Métis Mutt.

“Peo­ple did find (racist jokes) funny in 1999 and it would kill, it would slay. I would get big laughs. And this was so con­fus­ing for me as a young man, be­ing re­warded for this ma­te­rial. I thought I was Chris Rock.”

After the show, which El­ter per­formed in com­edy clubs in Ed­mon­ton and else­where, au­di­ence mem­bers would come up to him and tell their own racist jokes about Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple. It felt ter­ri­ble, but it also paid the bills, at least a lit­tle bit.

“That’s the hard­est part about do­ing this show. I’m lit­er­ally hold­ing up a mir­ror of my­self and show­ing peo­ple, ‘Look, I made these jokes and I got paid for it.’ I’m con­stantly re­minded of the shame I car­ried around. Through the work I am do­ing, I am try­ing to make it better and hope­fully share that les­son with other peo­ple.”

Although Métis Mutt has some pretty tough ma­te­rial, it also of­fers ten­der sto­ries about El­ter’s mother and others who helped him break the cy­cle of violence and shame. There is a reck­on­ing, re­demp­tion, and per­sonal growth. In that way, it’s not just an Abo­rig­i­nal story, but a story for many who have strug­gled.

“There are so many hard truths in the piece and so many is­sues be­ing tack­led. You can’t run from this stuff. You have to face it.”

The script it­self has seen many it­er­a­tions. El­ter first wrote a part of it while in a class with play­wright Ken­neth Brown in the the­atre arts pro­gram at MacEwan Univer­sity. He re-worked it for Nextfest, the the­atre fes­ti­val for young artists. He mas­saged the story into a sold out show at the Fringe and took it on the road to com­mu­nity halls across the Prairies. El­ter per­formed vari­a­tions for high school kids. Métis Mutt been all over Canada and to New Zealand.

Along the way, El­ter has learned about in­ter­gen­er­a­tional trauma, res­i­den­tial schools, and truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. This knowl­edge helped him move through his own ex­pe­ri­ence.

Métis Mutt’s most re­cent vari­a­tion sports a new set and light­ing de­signer, Tessa Stamp, plus T. Erin Gruber (who cre­ated the show’s pro­jec­tions) and sound de­signer Aaron Macri. Di­rec­tor Ron Jenk­ins has pulled it all to­gether.

“I love this team so much be­cause they have helped me tackle it again and make it a the­atre piece again, with­out los­ing the in­tegrity of the orig­i­nal work,” said El­ter.

Is this the last re-write of Métis Mutt? Although El­ter has more peace in his life now, and a clearer sense of his own iden­tity, he can’t be sure the story is re­ally fin­ished.

“Peo­ple think times have changed, but the work is never over. My job is not done as a hu­man be­ing ei­ther. And who knows if I’ll be do­ing it 10 or 15 years from now.”

Peo­ple did find (racist jokes) funny in 1999 and it would kill, it would slay. I would get big laughs.

JA­SON STANG

Shel­don El­ter stars in Métis Mutt at The­atre Net­work. The one-man show draws on his own life ex­pe­ri­ences.

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