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opinion

In the past few decades, it’s become de rigueur for theatre companies to hire only Indigenous actors for Indigenous roles. But it took some doing.

In 2015, Toronto’s Factory Theatre, in conjunction with Native Earth Performing Arts, produced Yvette Nolan’s The Unplugging with no Indigenous performers in a cast that required two older Native women. The response from the Indigenous theatre community was not pleasant. A decade or so before, the same theatre company produced a colour-blind production of The Rez Sisters by Tomson Highway, the success of which, while interesting, was also questionable.

Of course the discussion has spread to envelop a broader perspective on the issue. Should only gay actors play gay characters? Should only actors with disabilities play characters with disabilities? Should dog owners be allowed to play cat owners? And so on. In this woke society, few topics get woker than that. In fact, it’s prime woke.

But in the Indigenous arts community, the issue has expanded. Should only Indigenous directors direct Indigenous plays?

In recent years some theatre companies have gone out of their way to provide my work with a specifically Indigenous director, for which I am absolutely delighted. Other companies have hesitantly asked me if it was okay if they considered … the possibility of … if I wouldn’t be personally insulted if … would it be disrespectful if … a director of a non-Indigenous background was considered for the position. After you get through all the hemming and hawing, it’s something I am still willing to consider.

Some believe it is the natural progression of the developing contemporary Canadian theatre scene. Just ask the artistic director of the Gordon Tootoosis Nīkānīwin Theatre, Jennifer Dawn Bishop. “Directors bring a lot to the table, but what an Indigenous director brings compared to a non-Indigenous is our own voice. And that the stories we share, it’s done in a good way and the knowledge of protocols are present throughout the process. As a director and AD, our role is beyond the norm of theatre.” Again, makes sense.

In the thousand years I’ve been weaving First Nation literary universes in Canadian theatre, I’ve seen an amazing transformation in the industry. Our work has gone from being the exception to the rule to being part of the rule. And, as in these cases, the makers of the new rules.

Back in the 1990s, I was the artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s premier Indigenous theatre company, for a number of years. And during that time, in an effort to encourage and support the burgeoning Aboriginal theatre industry, we tried to institute an “Indigenous directors” only policy, with limited success. Today, the field is wide open, with a veritable cornucopia of seasoned First Nation directors available.

Still, it’s a complex issue. Speaking as an Anishnawbe artist, I appreciate the insight and knowledge a director from the Rez can shed on my work. They know the unique humour baloney and bannock can have in an Indigenous context. More importantly, our directors are as talented as any other and deserve the chance to show it.

Yet, geniusness doesn’t need a status card. In a film context, I personally would welcome the chance to work with Jeff Barnaby as much as with Steven Spielberg (FYI to both, I am available for meetings). Sometimes a different perspective can shine a new light on what I had originally envisioned.

Kevin Loring, the artistic director of the Indigenous theatre department of the National Arts Centre, agrees. “It’s not as simple as ‘You must have an Indigenous director.’ Theatre is collaborative, we need to have the freedom to create with whom we want to. But the issues that arise from Indigenous work can be complex. Not all Native people have deep roots to their communities or understand the nuances of Indigenous stories being told from vastly different regions, cultures and traditions. But they can relate as Indigenous artists in this country on these colonized Indigenous lands.”

It’s important to remember that theatre is the next logical progression of oral storytelling. It’s taking stories we all used to tell across the bonfire and the kitchen table, using only our voice, body and imagination and putting it upon a stage, using those same tools – albeit somewhat modified. And for all people who struggle to make a living in Canadian theatre, we have more similarities than differences. Chances are we all laugh at many of the same things and get angry at many of the same things.

But those differences … “Aye, there’s the rub,” I read somewhere.

So basically, on the one hand, my mortgage doesn’t care who directs my plays.

On the other hand, my ancestors might.

But my ancestors never had mortgages.

Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright and humorist.