One-man show explores abuse, shame, success
One-man show tells performer’s story of abuse, shame, struggle and success
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.
Sheldon Elter stars in Métis Mutt at Theatre Network. The one-man show draws on his own life experiences.