Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Rehearsals started this past week for the upcoming performance of Sunrise Betties, which will be presented to audiences from Feb. 21 to March 10 at the Russian Hall in Vancouver.
The interactive show draws inspiration from the 1970s-era gangs of Vancouver and the corruption of the East Vancouver police at that time.
Set in 1972, Sunrise Betties is the fictional tale of an all-female gang operating a small drug trafficking operation. They find themselves in a turf war with a well-known mobster.
ITSAZOO Productions’ playwright-in-residence Cheyenne Rouleau based the script on historian Aaron Chapman’s documents of the infamous Clark Park Gang.
The Clark Park Gang was one of Vancouvers most notorious gangs in the 1960s and 1970s. They were known for robbery, assaults, arson and vandalism.
Rouleau’s script was crafted with insights from four consultants: Chapman, Kim Brucker, one of the surviving female Clark Park Gang members; Danny "Mouse" Williamson, a high-ranking Clark Park Gang member; and John Grywinski, a retired Vancouver Police Department (VPD) inspector and founder of VPD's Integrated Gang Task Force.
“They were so, so fun to talk to,” Rouleau said. “We had them read early drafts of the script and sort of inform us on the more practical historical things, like would this be accurate? Would they say this? Would they do this? But then we just sat around for hours and they told me so many crazy stories. Nuggets of those stories are in the play and Kim really informed us on what it was like to be a woman at that time in that gang, and so her experience really informed how I wrote the female characters.”
Two of the characters in the play are performed by Indigenous actors Kelsey Kanatan Wavey and Kaitlyn Yott.
Kanatan Wavey is a nonbinary actor born with links to the Tataskweyak Cree Nation.
“I was really, really excited when I first read the script because it is so rare to have these kind of roles for women,” said Kanatan Wavey. “Especially because I have always really loved gangster movies, like Martin Scorsese type of films, and the women are always like either, you know, a sex worker or a wife that's been cheated on or something like that in those movies. So to kind of switch the narrative and bring it into a more feminine lens is really fun. Also, it's like historical Vancouver. So, it's a kind of an unheard history.”
Another key element to the ITSAZOO Productions is the opportunity for audiences to become part of the performance.
In Sunrise Betties there is a scene in a bar where the audience will be able to sit at the tables on stage, said Kanatan Wavey.
“They (ITSAZOO) do lots of sort of immersive theatre,” Kanatan Wavey explained. “In this play where it's all set in one setting and people are all along the wall, so you're like right in the scene with us. So that's kind of what makes ITSAZOO unique from the regular kind of theatre. That is, you know, usually with a person, … that they just kind of sit in the dark.”
Between the unique performance platform and working with Rouleau, Yott said she was excited to be part of the performance.
“I just said ‘Yes’ immediately (to the opportunity), and then I auditioned for the project in the traditional way.” Yott is a Coast Tsimshian and Japanese-Canadian actor.
When she first read the script for Sunrise Betties she said her “jaw was on the floor” how it built the characters up and created twists and turns in the story line.
“The things that the characters do in this and just how fully fleshed out they are and how they are just kind of all the different colors and shapes of women and what we’re capable of, even in these circumstances of being essentially gangsters,” Yott said.
Yott echoed Kanatan Wavey’s view of how women traditionally get supporting roles in gangster movies but don’t always get to be the gangsters themselves.
Yott said having the opportunity to be cast as one of the characters “is the easiest job as an actor when you have a good script.”
“Sometimes when you read a script you really have to reach for different things… As soon as I did my scene work for the first time in the callback it just, everything that I was meant to do with the storytellers and actor just flowed through me and I was able to just let it happen.”
Although the script was not written specifically for any demographic, Yott said they always interpret their characters through an Indigenous lens.
“That’s my way of maintaining sovereignty over my identity when I hop into projects, because the way that I see the world will always be through that lens, and so I feel it’s important to honor that in each of the characters that I portray, in some way, shape, and form will be Indigenous because of just how I see and how I walk through the world,” they said.
Sunrise Betties tickets are available here https://www.vancouverpresents.com/events/sunrise-betties/
“I just want the audience to revel in the joy of watching a bunch of women behave badly,” added Rouleau.
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