The National Arts Centre has selected the first artistic director for its new Indigenous Theatre – after a groundbreaking search process conducted through an “Indigenous lens” that other theatre companies should consider emulating.
Kevin Loring, a Nlaka’pamux actor and playwright from the Lytton First Nation in British Columbia, was told of his appointment last week– and it was announced Thursday that he will begin planning his first season to launch the theatre company in Ottawa in the fall of 2019.
“The founding of the Indigenous Theatre Department at the National Arts Centre is an important step in reconciliation,” Loring said. “Our stories from coast to coast to coast are the original songs of this land. Now through the NAC’s Indigenous Theatre Department our stories will have a permanent home, a place to grow and thrive.”
Loring shot to prominence in Canadian theatre in 2008 when his play Where the Blood Mixes premiered at the Luminato Festival in Toronto. A moving work about the intergenerational effects of the residential school system, it went on to win him the Governor-General’s Award for English-language Drama and be presented at the NAC’s English Theatre in 2010 when he was playwright in residence.
As an actor, Loring has an even deeper history with the NAC’s English Theatre, where he can currently can be seen onstage in Corey Payette’s musical, Children of God. He first performed there in 2003 in a production of Marie Clements’s Burning Vision that was directed by Peter Hinton, who would soon become the artistic director of the English Theatre and invite him to join its company of actors. In 2012, Loring gave a standout performance as Edmund in Hinton’s trailblazing all-Indigenous production of King Lear.
While Loring is a notable figure in Indigenous theatre, his appointment comes as a surprise because he is better known as a playwright and actor than as a director. (Though he does direct, he notes it’s not his “strong suit.”) Having stage directors run theatre companies became customary in the middle of the 20th century in the English-speaking world – and has remained so for no clear reason.
But everything about the creation of the Indigenous Theatre – which is to operate on a budget of $2- to $3-million, comparable to the NAC’s English and French theatre departments – was done in an unusual way.
Sarah Garton Stanley, the associate artistic director of the NAC’s English Theatre and part of a six-member hiring committee, said working through an “Indigenous lens” led to a more rigorous and transparent process than most not-for-profit theatres’ artistic director searches, which have been criticized widely in recently years for largely being run in secret with the help of executive search firms, rather than in close consultation with the communities they serve.
Consultations and talking circles with Indigenous communities – in person and livestreamed online – were an integral part of the project of creating the theatre from when the idea was first publicly mooted in November, 2015.
A large Elders Council of First Nations, Inuit and Métis was formed to advise and provide support to the NAC’s hiring committee on an “as needed basis” – and an advisory council of five Indigenous artists provided the same on an ongoing basis.
After applications were received, a nine-member vetting committee created a long list of 15 candidates that was then whittled down to a short list of four by a six-person hiring committee – composed of three Indigenous artists and three non-Indigenous representatives associated with the NAC. (By contrast, the Arts Club in Vancouver’s ongoing search for a new artistic managing director has been criticized for being run by a selection committee without any artists on it.)
Members of the Indigenous Theatre’s hiring committee then went to visit each of the quartet of final candidates in their own communities – to learn more about where they came from and see the impact of their work first-hand.
In the end, two candidates were presented to National Arts Centre CEO Peter Herrndorf, who made the final decision after one-on-one conversations with both.
What will Loring’s Indigenous Theatre look like? He, of course, is only in the first stages of planning his initial season, but he names playwrights Marie Clements, Cliff Cardinal and Tara Beagan, and the Dancers of Damelahamid from the Northwest coast of B.C. as artists he’d like to work with.
While he’s open to artists proposing new takes on classics such as the King Lear he acted in, Loring says he plans to focus on Indigenous playwrights for the time being. “For me, in the initial years, I really want to focus on Indigenous artists as much as I can,” he says, adding that he hopes to nurture and develop Indigenous designers, stagehands and stage managers through the theatre.
As with anyone appointed to a leadership position at the NAC, Loring is grappling with the fact that its building is located in the nation’s capital, while the many communities it is meant to serve and represent are spread across a vast country.
He envisages an eight-show season where half of the programming will be based in Ottawa – and half will be take place in or tour to others regions of the country. (This is not entirely dissimilar to how the English Theatre’s activities have been decentralized under Jillian Keiley’s leadership.)
Currently based in Vancouver, Loring – a 42-year-old second-generation actor whose father performed in the premiere of George Ryga’s Grass and Wild Strawberries in the 1960s – will be moving to Ottawa with his wife, actress Jody-Kay Marklew, and their two children. While he’s not looking forward to the winters in the East, he is looking forward to being near his wife’s family. “It’ll be nice to go on a date and not pay $80 for childcare,” he says.