≈ 3 hours and 30 minutes · With intermission
The whole play takes place over five hundred years near a breathing hole in the eastern portion of the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut, traditional territorial homelands of the Nattilik Inuit (Nattilingmiut). Nunavut makes up 20% of Canada’s land mass and 60% of its coastline. If it were a country on its own, Nunavut would be the fifth largest country in the world.
ACT I : SOULS
Scene One, 1535
Scene Two, 1544
ACT II : BODIES
Scene One, 1845
Scene Two, 1847
ACT III : BREATH
Scene One, 2031
Scene Two, 2025
As a dramatist and as a mother, I felt compelled to write a play about the climate emergency—factually grounding it in science and history, yet rooting it in emotional reality...but the subject is so vast and complex that I was not sure how to create an epic journey that could touch people’s hearts.
Years ago, I read a moving children’s story about an old woman in the Arctic who adopted a bear cub and raised him. Inspired by the essence of that story—a special bond between the human and animal worlds—I developed the play around a mythical polar bear who lives through five hundred years of history. It begins in 1535 when a Nattilingmiut woman named Hummiktuq takes in the little cub and names him Angu’řuaq. The bond between mother and son is so powerful that it continues to grow through time. Angu’řuaq interacts with all kinds of people in the play, but mostly he interacts with the twenty-first century, because he represents all of us in our lives...and in our deaths.
My deepest gratitude to Aaron Gervais for helping me work through the original outline; to Siobhan Arnatsiaq-Murphy, who generously shared her extensive traditional knowledge and her artistry to help shape the specificity and behaviour of all the Inuit characters; to Janet Tamalik McGrath, who vividly and precisely translated this play into the Nattilingmiut dialect, and who kindly allowed us to incorporate some of her Nattilingmiut-back-to-English retranslations that now enrich the play; and, finally, to Nilaulaaq Aglukkaq, an Elder from Gjoa Haven, who carries within her soul the original story of the old woman and the polar bear. Life is a circle.
The Breathing Hole is produced by arrangement with Kensington Literary Representation.
Colleen Murphy is a member of Playwrights Guild of Canada.
Last updated: November 30, 2022
with Miriam Aglukkaq and Janet Tamalik McGrath
Why was it important to translate the production into what is now the largest existing example of the Nattilingmiutut dialect?
Tamalik McGrath: For both of us, Nilaulaaq and I, it was always about language preservation and revitalization. Nothing is perfect, but if we believed that and didn't try or were not willing to take risks, there would be no movement forward either. It was a huge challenge to translate an epic three-act English play within the genre of Greek tragedy. Nattilingmiutut is deeply an oral culture, and we barely had an adequate writing system, yet alone any literary tradition as English and French theatre has had since the 10th and 12th centuries.
How was the process of creating the translation?
Tamalik McGrath: Firstly, when Reneltta Arluk and Colleen Murphy asked me to work on a translation for a book form, I gave an overview of the play to Nilaulaaq verbally, similar to what Colleen did for me when she introduced her work and her intentions about the play and each act. Then I began drafting sections and reading them to Nilaulaaq over the phone. Just reading character lines back and forth wasn’t useful, so I reached out to Colleen numerous times and learned about the context of each scene and what each character was like at a given moment.
With that information, I spoke again with Nilaulaaq, painting the scene, the context, and the situation. As Nilaulaaq is a master storyteller in the Nattilingmiutut tradition, she began reciting in her own words what was going on. From that, there were words and phrases that I was writing down as she spoke, and I used them in the lines. Often, Nilaulaaq would share archaic words—words no longer commonly used—but ones she had either heard as a child or collected from many years of speaking widely with elders in the Nattilik area. These words, phrases or concepts are embedded in the first two acts.
Rather than working with everyday language, the translation process was an exercise in documenting and using the colourful and challenging combinations of consonants unique to the Nattilingmiutut dialect. This choice in translation was for the preservation of older forms. At the time, we didn't know what challenges that might pose for speakers of other dialects and had no sense as to whether the play would ever be run in Inuktut.
Working with cast members unfamiliar with Nattilingmiutut presents an opportunity to teach and share the significance of the dialect and accompanying culture. What are your hopes for future teachings of Nattilingmiutut, and what steps do you think need to be taken to reach those goals?
Nilaulaaq Aglukkaq (through translation from Inuktut):
It is important to me that our language has continuity into the future. The language has less transmission, and when the younger speakers get mixed up, they become discouraged. I want them to see that other speakers of different dialects can try to speak our dialect. It's okay to make mistakes. That is how we all learn.
I am so glad to see Nattilik syllabics showcased in the production. The actors are learning a lot, and as they work with the dialect slowly and consistently, they are making progress. I wanted the rich and complicated forms of our dialect to be in the script, so it was a challenge for them to learn in a short time, but we have worked hard together, and I'm really proud of each and every one of them. There may be extra challenges to learning the lines without being speakers of the dialect, but we tried to create an environment where they felt safe to try.
To reach the goal of preservation and continuing Nattilingmiutut, the steps are to encourage the young people in our communities to become strong in the dialect. The play really shows Inuit from other regions valuing our dialect—this will no doubt inspire the Nattilik youth to take courage and not be afraid to try.
Tamalik McGrath:: My hope and vision are that work forward is rooted directly in community needs. This production is for a national stage and attracts international interest. It carries a vital message that is universal in quality and timeliness. Yet, I’ve had high-school youth from Nattilk tell me they laughed and cried through parts of the book. They said the reason for their strong connection to it is they saw themselves, even in the 1500s characters, and that the humour was so spot on throughout that it amazed them that a book could have so much life. My work on this play was all for the youth. To spark joy in literacy, to eventually see their regional culture acted out on a big stage, rooted in some details that only insiders appreciate, yet faithfully carrying the spirit of the Nattilik region for a broad audience and reaching them too. I'd like to be clear that since the book publication, we've moved far beyond the original syllabics script with new input from other sources.
The first steps are to encourage and inspire the youth, in order to promote the future teaching of Nattilingmiutut), and the book and play have done that. I believe community theatre can support Nattilingmiutut oral language revitalization while also using the writing system and promoting dialect literacy. The main thing is that the initiative comes from young people. We are here to support their efforts and interests. The youth will carry the language and culture forward, while this production has created space, dialogue, and opportunity to inspire their work with elders and language keepers
Canadian playwright Colleen Murphy wrote The Breathing Hole / Aglu ᐊᒡᓗ to explore the climate emergency and its historic effects on Nattilingmiut people living in the Gjoa Haven area of Nunavut.
In November of 2016, Murphy joined members of Qaggiavuut, along with director Reneltta Arluk and Dramaturg Bob White, in Iqaluit for a two-day workshop to explore the play text and its cultural portrayals.
Murphy recalls of the process: “The Inuit artists read the first act of The Breathing Hole / Aglu ᐊᒡᓗ and made comments. There was lots of discussion about culture and cultural precision. We were told to go and meet people in Gjoa Haven, which is close to where the play is set. The Inuit artists at the Qaggiavuut workshop asked that we call the work they did with the script - Inuit Cultural Dramaturgy.”
Following its initial production at the Stratford Festival in 2017, The Breathing Hole / Aglu ᐊᒡᓗ has been further developed with community involvement to honour the Nattilingmiut people, their language, and cultural knowledge.
While revising the script, Murphy engaged Janet Tamalik McGrath, a fluent speaker and translator of Nattilingmiutut, for support with the language and the translation. Nilaulaaq Aglukkaq, a language-keeper and Tamalik’s mentor, was also brought on board the project as the Nattilingmiutut Language Director.
Director Reneltta Arluk will be returning for the NAC production, which began with a language workshop for the cast. As artists working on this project hail from communities throughout Canada, Denmark, and Greenland, a focus was put on listening to Nilaulaaq speak and recognising the distinct sounds of the Nattilingmiut dialect.
During the development of this production, Reneltta Arluk (director), Nilaulaaq (Language Director), Carmen Braden (sound designer), Salik Gudmunsen Lennert (drummer), Attima and Elizabeth Hadlari (drumming consultants) met in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut for a drumming workshop. In this workshop, artists learned the “play song,” which audiences will hear in Act One. Sounds of the environment in Gjoa Haven were also recorded for use in the play.
In addition to the work with language, this production also features two large polar bear puppets and one baby polar bear designed by Daniela Masellis. Modifications of the large polar bear puppets from the original Stratford production were made by Randi Edmundson, and Stephanie Elgersma built a new baby polar bear puppet. A puppet workshop took place at the NAC prior to rehearsals so that actor and puppeteer Gisle Henriet could become familiar with animating the large polar bear puppet.
Caitlin is making her NAC debut with The Breathing Hole. Elsewhere: Chicago, The Miser, Three Tall Women, Festival Theatre Production Assistant (Stratford Festival); Home for the Holidays (The Grand Theatre); The Tender Land (University of Toronto Opera); Angel, The Resurrection, Don Giovanni (Opera Atelier); Cinderella: The Panto (Capitol Theatre); August: Osage County (Soulpepper); rochdale (SummerWorks); Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (a Company of Fools). Training: York University, SM Arts. Other: Caitlin would like to thank her friends, family, and mentors for all of their support.
The Breathing Hole / Aglu ᐊᒡᓗ was originally commissioned and produced by The Stratford Festival, Ontario Canada.
The premiere production opened on August 18, 2017 at the Studio Theatre under Antoni Cimolino, Artistic Director & Anita Gaffney, Executive Director.
With the support of the National Arts Centre, the play was extensively revised for this production.
Special Thanks to: Aaron Gervais and Michael Petrasek, Nellie Umelik, Simon Martee and Roslyn, Judy Haqpi, Cynthia Shaw and Crystal Spicer,Kevin King, A.J. Laflamme, Simon Marsden, Ben Sajo, Renée Villemarie.
The National Creation Fund’s investment of $200,000 supported three workshops during the final phase of the project’s development: a language workshop in the Inuktut dialect of Nattlingmiutut with Nilaulaaq Miriam Aglukkaq; a traditional Nattilik drumming workshop in Gjoa Haven led by Attima Hadlari; and a puppet workshop with members of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop. These workshops are essential elements of a creation process that respects Inuit culture, traditions and protocols.
Projectionists, Wardrobe Mistresses, Masters and Attendants are members of International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 471.
NAC Indigenous Theatre and NAC English Theatre are members of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres and engage professional Artists who are members of Canadian Actors’ Equity Association under the terms of the jointly negotiated Canadian Theatre Agreement.
The Breathing Hole / Aglu ᐊᒡᓗ was commissioned by the Stratford Festival (artistic director Antoni Cimolino, executive director Anita Gaffney) through the Foerster Bernstein New Play Development program.
The Breathing Hole / Aglu ᐊᒡᓗ was first produced at its Studio Theatre in Stratford, Ontario from July 30 to October 6, 2017.
The costumes for this production were fabricated by the artisans of the Stratford Festival, including:
The Breathing Hole is presented as part of Nordic Bridges, a year-long cultural initiative led by Harbourfront Centre in Toronto and supported by the Nordic Council of Ministers. Visit NordicBridges.ca to learn more.