To be resilient is to adapt to difficult situations; to face the emotional and physical effects of trauma, and still be able to keep going. “Resilient” might be the perfect word to describe Scott Jones–the co-creator and co-writer of Artistic Fraud’s latest production, “I Forgive You”–but the word “victim” is not. Scott Jones is a survivor.*
In 2013,** Jones, a queer man living in Nova Scotia, survived a brutal homophobic attack that left him paralyzed from the waist down. What is so remarkable about Jones is not the horrible violence that was done to him, but what he did in response to it. He made the very difficult decision to forgive his attacker, offering forgiveness to him directly in his victim impact statement during the court proceedings that happened months later.
Ever since the attack, Jones has been processing his experience in different ways. He started the “Don’t Be Afraid” campaign, which aspires “to eliminate homophobia and transphobia through creative expression and honest conversation.” He shared his journey at length in the 2018 feature documentary Love, Scott, but “I Forgive You” allows him to express the complexity of his experience in an entirely different medium.
I sat in my seat at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre waiting for the show to begin, as I have many times before. This time, though, I felt something different. The atmosphere was highly-charged. The audience– ranging from all ages, backgrounds, and experiences–had quietly gathered to witness something sacred. For the next two hours, the play would take us on a journey through the life of Scott Jones, the tragic night he was attacked, and its aftermath. The show would bring the majority of us to tears, make us laugh, and inspire us to celebrate queerness, and ultimately gift us with a little more empathy and hope in humanity.
“I Forgive You” is not a musical, but includes the addition of music and song to support the storytelling. Together, the performances of the choir*** combined with the actors–who shift between dancing, singing, and playing the piano and the guitar–establish music as the driving force of this show. Running approximately 2 hours with a 20 minute intermission, “I Forgive You” covers the extensive physical and emotional struggle faced by survivors of assault, and young queer folks especially, who must grow into who they are under the threat of possible harm. The play also shows how the healing process from any trauma is not, and will never be, linear.
The stage design is minimalist. The set is a simple arrangement: a semi-circle riser with a line of chairs for the choir to sit and perform during the show; a music stand; and two pianos on either end of the stage. The stage is illuminated by a wash of blue light that creates a sense of calm, and brings an undertone of sadness–a visual precursor to the tragic yet bittersweet story we are about to experience.
As the house lights come down, our performers come on stage. There are two actors, Nathan Carroll and Jeff Ho, who play different aspects of Jones’ character. The choir is also present, and then finally, Scott Jones himself. He is there to conduct the choir, and will later address the audience. As the two actors guide the audience through Jones’ life, they bring forward the internal and external conflict that Jones faced before and after his attack.
Throughout the play, the actors recite letters written by Jones. Jones’ personal accounts are accompanied by beautiful choral arrangements. The music–created by the ethereal Icelandic group Sigur Rós, and adapted and arranged by Ingi Garðar Erlendsson–was chosen specifically because it was the music that helped Jones with his healing process immediately after the attack. Here it reflects the emotion coming from Jones at different points in his healing journey. Anger and frustration are conveyed by harder, sharper vocals; sadness with soft, delicate ones. This not only helps evoke emotion in each scene, but also pushes the story along so that it is moved more by emotion than the unfolding events.
Artistic Fraud, the company behind the production, was formed in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, in 1995. Since that time, it has released unique artistic and creative productions, for local and national audiences. Spearheaded by Jillian Keiley and Robert Chafe, this company pushes the boundaries of what theatre is and what it can do: namely, rearticulate our lived experiences on stage so we might come to understand them better.
In the program notes for “I Forgive You,” the Artistic Fraud team writes that the company has been developing a unique brand of choral stage work that emphasizes story, and minimizes technical aspects, such as lighting, sound, props, and sets. For many contemporary productions, especially those playing at larger venues like the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s, the bigger is better. It is not uncommon to feature extravagant sets and technical feats. Certainly these productions serve their purpose. As spectacles, they highlight the possibilities of theatrical space, showing how we can transform stages into the world we desire. However, there is no denying that Artistic Fraud’s method of stripping things down to a bare bones production creates an intimacy with the rich emotional world of its characters. By focusing on storytelling and feeling rather than spectacle, it succeeds in making an incredible connection with the audience.
“I Forgive You” has different elements that may not seem like much on their own, but placed together, they become like a finished puzzle, all the pieces creating a complete image. I give director Jillian Keiley, and assistant director Sharon King-Campbell, a thunderous round of applause for their attention to detail, and their ability to put together the many elements of theatre—from performance, blocking and choreography, music, and lighting—to create such a gorgeous and moving piece.
The connection between the stage and the audience is established right off the top with actors Ho and Carroll speaking directly to us. It is an invitation into their world, rather than having us remain on the edge of it. These two actors had the hard task of conveying this very important story to us through the perspective of Jones. I would be remiss not to mention the outstanding job they both did in enriching the sense of Jones’ presence onstage.
The script, written by Robert Chafe and Jones, and delivered by Ho and Carroll is so clean and precise. And yet, the words and phrases felt so organic and conversational. There was a sense of familiarity as if they were just speaking to us privately, like chatting with friends. As an audience member, I felt drawn in close, and much more deeply involved in what was being shared. At one point, Chafe and Jones address the audience directly from the stage. They explain that the play emerged from a simple conversation between them. Sitting down together they wrote it from a place of safety, vulnerability, and truth. The writing of “I Forgive You” is truly magical, the process by which it was created makes every scripted word feel authentic.
The lighting design, by Bonnie Beecher, added such a subtle yet effective tone to the set. It would change ever so slightly to indicate a shift in emotion and mood, or a transition of events. Lighting is often something that gets overlooked in reviews and by audience members. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, especially when it’s good. But it has always been my favourite technical device, and when it is used correctly, it can create a stronger connection between the audience’s internal landscape and external landscape on stage. Beecher successfully achieves this. I noticed the little details: how conflict was painted in red and blue, and when the rainbow washes appeared, they celebrated queer joy.
The innocence of children, and the beauty of innocence, are running themes throughout “I Forgive You.” This is personified on stage by the young members of the choir, who, led by Jones, perform beautiful pieces by Sigur Rós. I described their sound in my notes as “angelic lightness.” The choir packs a powerful punch when paired even with the most traumatic moments of “I Forgive You.” The choir performing these songs in tandem with dialogue not only enhances the audience’s emotional connection to the story, but helps tell a difficult story in the most gentle manner.
The sound also lends itself to graceful physical staging. One moment in the show stands out to me: the choir members get up from their chairs, and walk in a formation around Jones, lightly placing their hands on his back as they pass him. This truly broke me, and even writing this now I have tears in my eyes seeing it replay in my mind. What at its most basic is simple blocking, creates such an impactful moment. After a terrible trauma, the innocent touch of these passersby are soothing in a basic but essential way. There are many small moments like this in the show, all of which have stayed with me since I have seen it.
I want to thank Scott Jones for having the courage to tell his story. An innocent man enjoying his life without shame, celebrating his queerness, was subject to cruel violence and enduring pain. I want to thank him for showing survivors that it is okay to feel the ups and downs of emotional and physical trauma, and admitting that some days you can’t say “I forgive you.” I want to thank him for the beautiful display of queer resilience, of grace in being who you are, of loving people for who they are, not what they are. I want to thank him for creating such a safe and healing place for everyone to come to watch and listen, and feel these emotions with him. And finally, I want to thank him for teaching us about compassion and empathy. He forgave his attacker, a man who unjustly changed his life forever, because he knew that hate comes from insecurities, societal stereotypes and teachings.
The truth is that words are not enough to describe the emotional impact that this show had on me, and truly on the whole audience. Scott Jones too struggled to find the right words to express his experience, and the rich language of theatre helped him find a way to do that. It was a privilege to witness this story of pain in this particular medium. It also helped reaffirm and celebrate the necessity of the arts for such storytelling. Trauma is often described as something so terrible that it cannot be spoken, it cannot be told. “I Forgive You” is a reminder of how the arts can help support the processing of trauma.
Watching a performance live on stage allows us to be close, to be vulnerable, and share in that mutuality. We were all young children once, full of innocence, who didn’t know hate yet. People inspire people, and that is exactly what Scott Jones has done. He has certainly inspired me. He allowed himself to be vulnerable after experiencing such trauma, a testament to his capacity to heal. This resilience has in turn made him an inspirational figure showcasing the strength that comes from the support of the queer community, and the power that music, dance, and storytelling have for healing.
With tears still in my eyes, I celebrate the entire Artistic Fraud team by dancing around my house, reminding myself how beautiful it is to be in my body, a vessel for joy and connection able to share with other humans. I hope that this show gets to make its way across the country so others can feel the gratitude I felt when leaving the Arts and Culture Centre after Scott Jones took his final bow.
* A previous version of this article referred to Scott Jones as a “victim” but has been changed to “survivor” to reflect Jones’s preferred term to describe his experience. Updated 26 September, 2022.
** A previous version of this article stated the attack happened in 2014, when in fact it happened in 2013. Updated 26 September, 2022.
*** A previous version of this article misidentified the children’s choir as the Shallaway Youth Choir. Though many of the singers were in fact Shallaway choristers, this particular choir was assembled by the artistic leads of I Forgive You, including Scott Jones, Jillian Keiley, Kellie Walsh, Christopher House and others. Updated 26 September, 2022.