As a sixteen-year-old growing up in Toronto, Julie Salverson was obsessed with the threat of atomic war. Fearing a nuclear holocaust, she’d scan the night skies for signs of invading bombers, research emergency evacuation routes and plan survival shelters. Later, as a young, post-Queen’s Drama graduate in Vancouver, she looked into the organization of the city’s emergency planning infrastructure – just in case.
Today, Salverson is a professor of drama and cultural studies at Queen’s, an author and playwright. In some of her work, Salverson uses theatre with groups and communities who have suffered from violence or violation – such as refugees and people living in poverty – as a vocabulary for analysis, education, activism and healing. Her experience in this community-based practice informs her scholarship. She has written extensively about the role of the witness – in ethical relationships that don’t reduce people to victims or heroes – and the role of the artist – as a storyteller who challenges readers and audiences politically and aesthetically.
“Everyone has a story to tell,” says Salverson. “When you tell it in a collaborative kind of way, you can learn about your own situation, personally and socially. But in a group, it’s not only the telling of stories that happens – it’s having a listener, and being a witness. And it’s an analysis of those stories, an investigation into a possible future that might be better than you think.”
In her most recent project – the latest in a line of award-winning essays, plays and videos – Salverson has penned the libretto for an innovative opera inspired by a little-known aspect of Canada’s connection to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
“Everyone has a story to tell,” says Salverson. “When you tell it in a collaborative kind of way, you can learn about your own situation, personally and socially. But in a group, it’s not only the telling of stories that happens – it’s having a listener, and being a witness."
The opera is the culmination of more than a decade’s worth of in-depth investigation into the story of the atomic bomb and Déline, a tiny Dene community on the western shore of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. During the closing months of the Second World War, many Déline men found employment ferrying sacks of uranium ore, mined at nearby Port Radium, on boats across the lake. From the opposite shore the ore was transported into Alberta and then to Port Hope, Ontario, where it was refined into the uranium that would be used in the Manhattan Project and war-ending atomic bombs used in Japan.
The people of Déline who carried the sacks on their backs and in their boats were never told about the nature of their cargo or its ultimate destination. Nor were the white miners who worked underground. Over the years, there would be many deaths from cancer and all manner of unexplained illness – but no government explanations or apology. When the Dene finally did learn of their fateful connection to the bomb, the Déline folk wasted no time in sending a delegation to Japan to deliver their own apology to the survivors of the blasts.
Salverson first learned of these events in 2001, and has travelled to Déline and – with colleague Peter van Wyck of Corcordia University, who has written extensively on the subject – to New Mexico to follow the uranium trail that led to the birth of the Atomic Age. She also travelled to Japan and met some of the same people who accompanied the Dene visit in 1998. Her deeply personal journey has spawned an equally personal book entitled Lines of Flight: An Atomic Memoir.
Salverson’s opera, entitled Shelter, interprets these events through the story of a husband and wife who give birth to a radioactive daughter and try to hide her from the world. The opera is interesting not only for its premise, but for how it’s presented: Salverson has chosen to use a theatrical form called “clown” – which is not to say that the characters are wearing big red noses and goofy costumes. Rather, clown simply employs absurdist humour to reveal truths, perhaps uncomfortable ones, about life. It doesn’t make fun or light of its subject matter, but it helps audiences explore it from a different, perhaps less threatening or preachy, perspective. “In clown work you can look at absolutely dreadful things, but you’re surprised by what you see, so you can look at it in a fresh way,” explains Salverson. “I think there’s a humanity that can come through.”
Salverson uses the clown approach in her drama classes at Queen’s and at the Royal Military College of Canada. Last November, at the Queen’s RMC-sponsored Canadian Military and Veteran Health Research Forum, her Queen’s drama students presented a piece they wrote based on soldier testimonies collected by Canadian military nurse Susan Ray. “It got a lot of people talking to each other, not just the presenter talking to the room,” says Salverson. “That’s the object of the whole exercise.”
Shelter premiered with Edmonton Opera/Tapestry New Opera Works in November, 2012.
Profile by Alec Ross