Debajehmujig arts animator Samantha Brennan creates a Sparc of hope

Samantha Brennen as her alter ego Samantha Hartley, tries and fails to find solace in a wine-centred self-care regime, before meeting up with her somewhat whacky, but wise, ancestor.

MANITOWANING—The weight of the pandemic on mental health and wellness has been heavy on everyone, but few more so than live performance artists as pandemic restrictions have curtailed most venues. A group of artists under the umbrella of SPARC, a network whose goal is to facilitate and promote the performing arts in rural and remote communities in Ontario, has set about creating a series of inspirational video shorts to help lift some of that weight.

Samantha Brennan, arts animator at Debajehmujig Storytellers of Wiikwemkoong, created one of those pieces that has recently launched online. The Expositor chatted with Ms. Brennan about the short and her inspiration in creating it.

“I have been working a lot from home over the past two years,” she said. “As part of Wiikwemkoong we operate under the protocols set out by the community, so we are still not able to go into the office.”

As a live performance artist, being separated from an audience is particularly challenging. “Especially for the kind of theatre we do at Debajehmujig,” she noted. “We really do not have a fourth wall.” A “fourth wall” is that invisible barrier which separates the audience from the actors on stage. When actors address the audience directly, it is referred to as “breaking the fourth wall.” Most Debaj original works engage their audience, extending the performance beyond the stage footlights to animate the audience and make them part of the process.

Ms. Brennan described the past two years as “living in unprecedented times for anyone. My grandmother, who is 94, wasn’t even born when the last global pandemic took place.” That generational distance has made it challenging to stay grounded, she noted.

To find solid mental footing upon which to ground herself, Ms. Brennan reached back to the wisdom of her ancestors. “I knew I could find some solution within myself,” she said. By channeling the instinctive wisdom of those who lived through great challenges in the past she believed she could find that place to find her bearings.

“The intention was to spark hope in people,” she said. Enter SPARC, the volunteer-driven organization that seeks out “people, services and systems that allow for better communication between different stakeholders.”

Ms. Brennan explained that the SPARC network was designed to ensure that the performing arts in rural and remote communities remain grounded in their communities and that the individuals involved, groups and organizations control their development.

SPARC initiated a series of micro grants for artists to create an online series ‘SPARCs of Hope’ aimed at seeding community resilience through the arts. The first in that series of video shorts was by Wiikwemkoong’s own Crystal Shawanda.

SPARC Northern outreach coordinator Jason Manitowabi introduced that video as an example what the SPARCs of Hope series can be.

“We wrote this song one day out of some very honest conversations about mental health, depression and suicide,” said Ms. Shawanda. Those conversations came about after hearing about passing of Kelly Fraser, a talented Inuk pop artist who took her life. The news evoked memories of loved ones they knew had taken their lives.

Ms. Brennan’s segment is the seventh in the series and she utilizes a comedic vein to move from wine-fueled pandemic angst (“I drank a scary amount of cranberry juice during the filming,” she laughs) to an interaction with Grismerelda, her alter-ego Samantha Hartley’s (many greats) grandmother. Grismerelda shares her words of wisdom with her descendant, delivering sensible and sound ground upon which to face today’s challenges.

Finding the work cathartic “and the grant helped a lot too,” Ms. Brennan said that she hoped that her work will help others find their footing.

Ms. Brennan’s work, along with those of the other SPARCs of Hope contributions can be found online on YouTube, simply by typing SPARCs of Hope into the search bar.