Inside the teardrop trailer parked at the curb on Victoria Avenue East, local councillor at large, Frank Pullia told the story of how he first came to live in Thunder Bay when he was 16 years old.
He spoke into a microphone inside the portable recording studio, known as the storymobile, answering questions about his experience and first impressions of the city as part of a nationwide story-gathering art project.
The Tale of a Town — Canada began in 2014 and has since crossed the country, visiting small towns and cities in every province and territory to record the collective community memory of Canada’s main streets.
Thunder Bay is the last stop on the final leg of the journey as the project traveled Canada’s longest road to mark the country’s 150th birthday this year, interacting with communities all the way along Highway 11.
The project, explained artistic director Neta Jeffery, was created by husband and wife team Charles Ketchabaw and Lisa Marie DiLiberto. When DiLiberto noticed how much the town in which she grew up was changing.
“Big box stores were replacing local businesses, the community was de-centralizing,” said Jeffery. “She had this idea that she as a theatre person wanted to create art that would inspire people to start appreciating local business and that sense of community again.”
The Tale of a Town trailer will be in Thunder Bay for three weeks collecting stories from residents about the city, about Port Arthur and Fort William, and about Fort William First Nation.
The stories, once gathered, will be used to create a live performance with the help of local artists Matthew O’Reilly and Sierra Nowegejick and local musician Jean Paul DeRoover.
Because the performance is based on the stories of a community, and influenced by the local artists, Jeffery said they have no idea what Thunder Bay’s show will look like.
It is an empathy building exercise, she said, for people to watch the performances and hear their own voices and those of their fellow residents. Often, she said, it makes people feel more positively about their community.
“It’s incredibly important for people to see their experiences reflected,” said Jeffery. “The goal with giving stories back to the community is you celebrate the stories and doing it in an artistic format, it tends to resonate better, people tend to remember it more.”
Excited to be helping with some of the interviews, Nowegejick said she is interested to hear about how Thunder Bay came to be the way it is today, acknowledging the city she knows is very different from what those of an older generation remember.
“I like being part of different projects and this one is so interesting. It’s very new to me, and I’m excited for it play out,” said Nowegejick. “Coming together and being involved, that’s what I’m into. Being together in the community. It makes me feel connected.”
Besides the live performance locally, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, artist co-ordinator with the project, explained that through a partnership with TVO some stories are also made into animated shorts while CBC has been broadcasting the stories on their show Fresh Air. There is also an interactive digital map on the project’s website at thetaleofatown.com.
“It’s a huge honour to be able to be given these stories,” said McMurtry-Howlett. “It’s a really intimate experience inside that little booth and you just fall in love with the towns you visit and the people you hear from.”
The Hub Bazaar is the project’s home base for the next three weeks and will stage the performance on September 30.
Lori Paras, owner of the Hub Bazaar, said the Fort William Business District really wanted the project based there because there are so many layers to the neighbourhood that are often not noticed.
“We know it’s the story of all of Thunder Bay but we needed them to come and see our side of town, blemishes and all,” said Paras. “Not only are there sad stories there are stories of success, stories of a community, stories of people working together, taking care of each other.”
The trailer will remain parked outside the Hub Bazaar until Sunday and be open for recording stories between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. most days, except Friday from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.
On September 19 the trailer will be parked at the Fort William First Nation community hall from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and will be in Port Arthur September 20, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and September 21 from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. outside the Red Lion Smokehouse on Cumberland Street South.