Healing from a true crime story: Victoria play recreates how a small community in Alberta came together in the aftermath of one of Canada’s most notorious tragedies
Castle in the Sky
By Jenn Martin
In April 2006, a 12-year-old girl and her 23-year-old boyfriend fatally stabbed her parents and eight-year-old brother in Medicine Hat, Alberta. It made her the youngest person in Canadian history to have been convicted of multiple first degree murder charges. Now, 10 years later, the controversial play about these murders, Castle in the Sky by the Castlereigh Theatre Project, comes to Victoria to offer a new perspective on crime stories and encourage people to search for truth in different ways.
“It raises questions that make society uncomfortable. Is a child capable of killing? Can a child be inherently evil? These are things no one, including myself, wants to admit. It is horrifying,” says the play’s co-creator, Francesca Albright.
Conceptualized, crafted, and thoroughly researched by co-creators and artistic directors Albright and Jude Thaddeus Allen, the play is based on hundreds of hours of interviews with family members and close friends of the accused and the victims, as well as members of the Medicine Hat community. It exclusively draws on real dialogue pulled from the interviews to build its narrative, and the variety of interviews conducted give a wealth of perspectives on the events, many of which never made their way into the courtroom or traditional media outlets.
‘Community in crisis’
The play begins when Albright and Allen began their interviews, approximately one year after the tragedy. JR, the accused 12-year-old girl who cannot be named under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, was being tried at the time. Though the play begins with the trial, it is not a reenactment or investigation into the crimes.
Instead, the concentration is on real people within the community and how they came together after the tragedy.
“Our play is about a community in crisis,” says Albright. “The idea we had is almost Greek. Put all of these people that would never speak to one another into a room and see what happens and see if we can heal.”
The co-accused were goths who had met at a punk show. Jeremy Steinke, the boyfriend, was being portrayed as a predator who had quoted the premise of Natural Born Killers as inspiration for the crimes, calling it “the most romantic movie of all time.”
Albright and Allen had been living in Calgary at the time of the murders, exposed to the repetitive, sensationalized media coverage that seemed to play up the most fearful aspects of the story.
“We believed there was more to it and that piqued our initial interest,” says Albright. “We were curious about what was really going on out there. Over the course of our research, we got close to individuals who knew the people involved in the crime. Teenagers mostly. So our project ended up being more about a small community in crisis during the aftermath of a terrible crime and their attempts to put their lives back together when there were no answers.”
Piecing the story together
Among the key characters in the play are Jordan Attfield, the crown’s key witness and Steinke’s roommate at the time of the murders, a Medicine Hat reporter deeply effected by the events, and another lover whom JR had asked for help to kill her family previously. Uncovering this last character during the interview process brought forward many questions about both Steinke’s role as portrayed by the media, and the former lover’s role and responsibility. Why hadn’t this man come forward to the police, and why, in the end, was Steinke the one to commit the crime?
Information like this that was uncovered during the interviews was troubling and heavy, so upon completing their first draft comprised of hundreds of hours of work, Albright and Allen stepped away from the project for a time. “It had had an effect on us that we were unaware of until the script was done,” Albright notes of the brief hiatus. “It is like it got into us somehow and we needed to be away from it.”
But while Albright and Allen were abroad working on a different project, a book about the events was released that, much like the news coverage, sensationalized the crimes and misrepresented the people that the play had aimed to protect. In the end, they were drawn back to the project by their commitment to the people who trusted them to tell a truer story.
“The dominant emotion that motivated us while drafting the script initially was to remain truthful to our interviewees (characters) and to portray them in an honest way. Flaws and all,” says Albright. “It was difficult to do because in doing so, it made some of these people very vulnerable and we needed to protect that.”
Director Britt Small, who has previously worked on plays dealing with the real life experiences of both inmates and trauma survivors, says that the element of truth telling, along with the play’s sensitivity and clever storytelling, is what drew her to Castle in the Sky. “What the characters are saying is true to them, not always true in fact, and by assembling all these characters, it creates a kind of prism into the events and a deep story emerges that is both greater and less than the truth,” she says.
“Less than, because invariably things get left out and people are speaking from their own viewpoint and not as unbiased observers. More than, because you start to get a feel for the community where the events took place and how events never take place in a vacuum. It’s fascinating and heartbreaking and perhaps helps in increasing compassion or understanding.”
Healing from tragedy
Not only does the play aim to provide a different perspective and understanding for audience members, but it has also offered an outlet for those involved in the tragedy. Both friends of the convicted and the victims have found healing in the process of building the play and watching the story unfold.
A close friend of JR, known only as Cara in the play, says that when she first met the theatre group “the wounds from the tragedy that took place were still very much fresh …. However, as the years passed and we continued to meet and discuss the events that transpired and I was able to actually put my emotions into words, I was also able to slowly heal and come to terms with what happened.”
Ultimately, Castle in the Sky offers a new way of talking about crime stories. In the age of true crime stories, such as the podcast "Serial" and Netflix's Making a Murderer, when crime narratives revolve around facts and solving a mystery, this play focuses instead on the current reality of those left behind. It speaks to emotions instead of facts, and in doing so becomes a story about healing and humanity instead of a “whodunit.”
“We certainly don’t consider ourselves to be psychologists or social workers,” says Gordon Pengilly, the play’s dramaturg. “But we built the play for the people of Medicine Hat hoping to contribute to their comprehension of events and consequently to their healing.”
Castle in the Sky runs from April 23 to 29 at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria.