In the past few weeks I’ve seen The Herd, a play by Ken Williams being featured at Tarragon Theatre, Kevin Loring’s Where the Blood Mixes at Soulpepper Theatre and next month I’m looking forward to seeing Kamloopa by Kim Senklip Harvey at that same theatre.
As we continue to crawl out of the pandemic, it’s gratifying to see that Indigenous theatre did not succumb to the evils of such an affliction. We are all mortal but stories are perhaps the hardest to kill. The best ones will simply refuse to die.
In the Indigenous community, it is generally accepted that theatre is the next logical progression of oral storytelling, essentially taking the audience on a journey using your body, imagination and voice. Whether this storytelling takes place around a campfire/kitchen table or the proscenium stage makes little difference. The story should unite the many different faces of an audience and take them someplace they’ve never been. That is generally the point.
A few decades ago I read a review of an Indigenous play where the reviewer said “theatre is an art form new to the Aboriginal people of Canada.” I love it when those who are supposedly more experienced than I am are deeply wrong. I’m not sure if there is an Anishnawbemowin translation of the German word schadenfreude. That might be too meta.
Yes it’s true, the deep and guiding principles of Aristotelian and Brechtian thought, or the practice of Stanislavsky for that matter, wasn’t really important to our traditional or contemporary storytellers. The story guided itself.
So much has changed in the thousand years since I first wrote my first play. Back then Indigenous theatre was the exception to the rule. Something unique and unexpected. It was part of what I refer to as the Contemporary Indigenous Literary Renaissance. In some ways, it was a golden age. Tomson Highway and Daniel David Moses were riding a crest of theatrical popularity. Because of them and many others, the Canadian population was becoming aware of the stories we had to tell. And how damn good they were.
Back then, usually all the directors were non-Indigenous and frequently some of the actors portraying Indigenous characters, how can I put this delicately, had never had a bowl of corn soup in their life. They were white (colour challenged, pigment denied, people of pallor, take your pick).
A good story welcomes everybody and bums in seats know no nationality. It should be added that proportionally, Indigenous people make up 5 per cent of the overall Canadian population, and for an Indigenous play, that might double or triple.
Granted the growth of Indigenous theatre has been a learning process for both sides of the stage. This evolution of this storytelling tradition has introduced such new concepts as lighting effects, box offices, and theatre reviewers. And I don’t believe our Elders had an actor’s union.
One of the latest trends in Indigenous theatre is a growing wariness of non-Native reviewers. Specifically those people in the audience who are paid to offer up their opinion of the show to the media, thereby influencing the public’s taste. Several productions have even gone so far as to request such people not attend opening nights, or not attempt to filter the Aboriginal experience through their Western European theatrically trained consciousness. On one hand, it makes sense. Why deconstruct something you quite probably won’t understand? Just come for the ride.
But then I’m reminded of the first week of a little known play called The Rez Sisters, by an unknown playwright named Tomson Highway, that premiered in an unconventional theatre space called the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. During its first week in late 1989, audience attendance was dismal. So bad in fact that according to legend, Tomson and the arts administrator were giving away free tickets on the street in an attempt to people the audience.
But a few weeks later, after the reviews came out lauding the unique and special story that was being told and how it was being told, it was standing room only. The following year, after winning a few awards, it went on a national tour and Canadian/Indigenous theatre history was made. Many have argued reviewers saved that production. Of course that was way before the introduction of social media, which has altered so many things.
Personally, I have nothing against white reviewers. Some of them are my best friends.
Oh by the way, my play Cottagers and Indians will open next month at the Blyth Festival. As I said, it’s a great season for Indigenous theatre.
Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright and humorist.
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.