You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.
The important message of that adage – and its many versions – will be explored, in a way, this weekend at St. F.X.’s Bauer Theatre.
Although they will not walk that proverbial mile, audiences will receive a taste of what it is like to be an immigrant woman in Antigonish, from the people who have made that journey and continue to live the experience.
“It reminds us of how rich we are – our diversity in Antigonish,” writer Anne Simpson said, when reflecting on the importance of helping the women “share their voices.”
Novelist Katherine Govier launched The Shoe Project six years ago in Toronto, as a way to help immigrant women in telling their stories.
After a 10-week writing workshop, the participants worked with a theatre specialist to bring their pieces to the Bata Shoe Museum stage.
Since then, immigrant women from Vancouver and Halifax – and myriad points in between – have been part of The Shoe Project.
After seeing one of the productions, Simpson thought it would be a perfect fit for her community.
As part of a collaborative effort, including funding by the Shoe Project and Nova Scotia’s Culture Innovation Fund, along with local sponsorship from Arts Health Antigonish, The Shoe Project Antigonish formed in partnership with Theatre Antigonish (TA) and Antigonish County Adult Learning Association (ACALA).
“This has been a great example of partnerships and how well they can work,” Simpson said.
Since last fall, eight women have been penning their immigration stories and preparing them for the stage.
After participating in writing sessions over a 10-week period with Simpson, Antigonish native Laura Teasdale came on board as a theatre consultant, guiding them in techniques of drama to prepare their pieces for an audience.
“I have been helping these amazing women tell their stories and I am really looking forward to it,” Teasdale said of the upcoming performances, describing the experience as “fascinating.”
Although immigration is a central theme of each woman’s story, with a pair of shoes as a ‘jumping off point’ for their writing, Simpson and Teasdale pointed out the narratives are “as diverse as this group of women.”
Ranging in age – from 25 to 75 – their global roots include India, Philippines, Germany, Spain, Vietnam, Holland and South Korea – the native land of Soo Kyeong ‘Suki’ Lee.
“I am nervous,” she said, with a laugh, of the prospect of taking the Bauer stage.
Initially, she explained, interest in becoming part of The Shoe Project Antigonish focused on her ongoing effort to improve her English.
“They have really helped me,” Lee, who has also been sharpening her language skills at ACALA, said of Simpson and Teasdale.
“You probably got sick of me,” Simpson interjected, with a smile.
In her piece, Lee reflects on moving to Canada 18 months ago with her husband, an Antigonish County native, while interweaving thoughts on a gift her mother gave her – a pair of winter boots – a year or so before leaving home.
“It is my favourite present,” she said, looking down at that same footwear, which she was donning on that particular day.
Her passage also includes the role of superstitions in South Korean culture, including not giving footwear to a loved one, because such a gift means they will run away from you.
“She didn’t think I would leave,” Lee said, with a laugh, when asked why her mother would have made such a present selection.
Simpson said Lee’s rich story is an example of the challenge they faced in deciding what to include in each piece. In keeping with requirements of The Shoe Project, each story can only be 600 words.
“We have been able to provide echoes,” she added of the women’s experiences.
When Anu Joshi arrived from India more than 50 years ago, she had five dollars and one suitcase.
“It wasn’t easy,” she said.
Joshi and her late husband, Yogi, a long-time faculty member at St. F.X., raised a family and made Antigonish their home.
“I am still learning a lot,” she said, referencing her participation in The Shoe Project, describing it as an “adventure.”
They hope telling their stories will show people, as Joshi described “what we have gone through,” including leaving behind families and friends.
“You will have to come to see it,” Joshi said, with a smile, when asked for some specifics about her performance.
For Yen Ngoc Nguyen, the experience has “given me an opportunity to pause, look back and re-think my whole journey to Canada.”
“It serves as a point of reflection, enabling me to appreciate more of my effort, my growth, and my appreciation for the beauty of living in this country,” she added.
Nguyen said she will “treasure” her time with the other immigrant women as part of The Shoe Project.
“It has widened my understanding and perspective,” she added.
Joshi described the experience as “therapeutic.”
“It has made me feel strong,” she said.
Teasdale said there has been plenty of “emotional bonding” between everyone involved in the process.
“It has been a magical experience,” Simpson added.
The Shoe Project Antigonish is part of the 2019 Theatre Antigonish (TA) season.
“This project is a powerful symbol of what community theatre is all about, and it is also a wonderful chance to celebrate and embrace our rich diversity,” TA artistic director Andrea Boyd said.
“When Anne [Simpson] brought this project to our attention, I knew right away that it would be the perfect fit for us.
“I cannot wait to watch the show and hear all the stories by these amazing women,” she added.
Along with stories from the participants, audiences will enjoy a performance from well-known choreographer Liliona Quarmyne, who will tell her story of coming to Canada from Ghan a through dance.
The Shoe Project shows, which are free, will take place Friday, Feb. 8 and Saturday, Feb. 9 at the venerable Bauer.
Showtime, both nights, is 7:30 p.m.
Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Each performance opens with a group song, followed by each woman’s reflection.
Donations for Arts Health Antigonish will be accepted.
Seating will be on a first come, first served basis.
For more information, call (902) 867-3333 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Immigrant women participating in Shoe Project Antigonish:
Renee Romero Brown
Soo Kyeong ‘Suki’ Lee
Yen Ngoc Nguyen