In a rehearsal studio in Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, the faint smell of sweetgrass lingers as performers rehearse The Unnatural and Accidental Woman, a shatteringly prescient play written two decades ago about a serial killer who preys on Indigenous women. In a cathartic dance scene, the cast place their hands to their hearts, to the ground, as if laying down their medicine, and gesture toward the sky. They let loose a war cry, weaving and swaying to the music. Beats and shouts resonate with majestic force inside the room.
It’s an assertion of voice and laying claim to a space that is wholly theirs. While in recent decades, Inuit and First Nations performers at the NAC have come and gone, this time their residency here is a permanent one.
In September, the NAC is opening the first National Indigenous theatre department in the world. Artists from communities across the country will share a stage with French and English actors, using the space to tell their stories. Although the themes may be those of displacement and colonialization – how it feels to have one’s identity, culture and spirituality shaped and taken – within those stories, they say, there will always be something to be grateful for. “The works that we present are always meant to heal and to expose the poison and to laugh,” said Kevin Loring, a Governor General’s Award winner who was appointed as the department’s inaugural artistic director. “There’s medicine in the comedies. And this medicine is in the celebration of our people, our work, and our stories.”
Groundbreaking as the new theatre department is, it has still faced challenges since its inception. Heritage Canada did not pledge a requested $3.2-million, leaving the department scrambling to make up for an unforeseen budget shortfall. It has had to depend on contributions from both the English and French theatre departments. “Now, they have to fundraise with this department, as opposed to it just being baked into the cake.” Mr. Loring says.
Mr. Loring has a powerful collection of works that show both the pain and the beauty of being Indigneous in Canada, which he hoped to bring to a target audience of Indigenous people. "I want to tell stories that are reflective of their realities. But being at the NAC, we’re speaking to a primarily Ottawa audience,” he says. Loring had hoped that the company’s work, staged in Indigenous languages, would travel to more remote communities where this type of theatre isn’t commonly accessible.
But with the loss of the anticipated funding, the Indigenous Theatre Department will have to get creative – find partnerships and scale down, or perhaps hold off on touring outside of Ottawa. As it stands now, the Indigenous Department has to consider that the English and French theatre departments, as stakeholders, will now have a say when partnered on a project.
The brand new department faces another critical shortage: The Indigenous Theatre department had planned to bring several nations to the stage in their own languages. Lori Marchand is the department’s managing director and one of her responsibilities is to find skilled speakers and translators. For her, this task has underscored how few speakers there are available and how at risk Indigenous people are of losing their languages. “Each language is in a different stage of health," she adds. “It has really highlighted the frailty of where each of our languages are.” The United Nations declared 2019 the Year of lndigenous Languages to raise awareness of the endangered status of many of them. Finding people who can help the actors speak and act in one of Canada’s 60-plus Indigenous languages, and ensuring all nations have a voice on a national stage, requires substantial efforts.
The Canadian government loosely classifies Indigenous people as First Nation, Métis or Inuit, yet the reality is, there are closer to a hundred different tribes and nations settled across the continent. And of course, that number was far greater precontact. Mr. Loring recognizes it’s next to impossible to showcase them all. “What we can do is support the artists that are coming out of the communities and support the artists that have been doing the work and hopefully, be able to support [the artists] through mentorships and through partnerships. And through connecting the next generation of artists as well.”
As in any sector in Canada, Indigenous people are working hard to carve out a space where they can have a voice, in a land that was once theirs.
But a challenge remains, of making Indigenous people feel welcome. “The National Arts Centre of Canada is an elite space for elite artists and it feels exclusive,” Mr. Loring says. His team wants the community to feel comfortable coming the NAC to see work that represents them. As part of outreach, the theatre group created an All My Relations price, in which Indigenous peoples can get a discount to see plays from the season lineup.
For these audiences, this could be the first time that they will see their own stories reflected on a national stage, changing the narrative and challenging stereotypes. For other audience members, this theatre will provide an opportunity to learn, maybe for the first time, what Indigenous peoples in Canada have endured.
The stories are tragic and thoughtful, scary and humorous, but they are also healing and provide catharsis. “It’s the theme of the season really that we are celebrating the resilience and strength that is bringing us through the tragedy to hope and transformation,” Ms. Marchand says.
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