Three years before the end of his too-short life, Michael Green, a force in Calgary theatre, received a new name. In the midst of creating the ground-breaking Making Treaty 7 theatrical presentation, he became Pona Ko'Taksi in Blackfoot, or Elk Shadow. The name was bestowed upon him by three elders, including Reg Crowshoe, and it was transformative. "As soon as he was validated with the name by the elders I saw a change in him where he really understood … where true oral knowledge came from," Dr. Crowshoe says.
As his Making Treaty 7 co-director, Michelle Thrush, recalls, he began introducing himself as "Pona Ko'Taksi, also known as Elk Shadow, also known as Michael Green" – whether in Calgary, Europe or Asia.
"One of the most loved moments of his life was receiving that Indian name," Ms. Thrush says.
Mr. Green was co-founder and co-artistic director of Calgary's One Yellow Rabbit performance company, creator and curator of the city's High Performance Rodeo, creative director of Calgary 2012 and creative and executive producer of Making Treaty 7, which tells the story of the historic treaty agreement from the perspectives of those involved, including the First Nations. The project had become the culmination of his life's work, and he had hoped to help First Nations in other treaty areas to embark on similar projects. He was on his way to do just that with three other artists on Feb. 10 when they were killed in a highway accident.
Mr. Green, Pona Ko'Taksi, Elk Shadow – a gifted performer who wasn't afraid to bare his soul (or body) in the name of art, fearless and freaky innovator, self-described carny, visionary envelope-pusher, Frank Zappa devotee, multitasker par excellence, community connector, dedicated father – was 58. He meant so much to Calgary that after his death, landmarks in the city were lit up in yellow as a tribute.
Michael Green was born on Jan. 21, 1957, in Scarborough, Ont., and later moved with his family to Longueuil, Que. He was an adventurous spirit who would turn up late at school because he preferred to travel through backyards rather than the more conventional sidewalk route, or because he devised a way to save worms from drowning in the rain. He was a bright student, well read and "a little bit geeky," says John Dunn, a tight friend from the age of 5. "He was always enthusiastic about life; always with that amazing smile and twinkle in his eye."
Photos shown at Mr. Green's memorial show a boy dressed in a cowboy costume, or with a pipe in his mouth or holding his coat just so in a photo-booth strip – dramatic even as a child.
He loved listening to records, and made a crucial discovery at the age of 12. His father, a jazz aficionado, had purchased what he had understood to be a jazz album. Realizing it wasn't his cup of tea, he gave it to his son. It was Frank Zappa's Hot Rats. "That changed his life, I think. That was seminal for sure," Mr. Dunn says. "He had an unending obsession with Frank Zappa."
In Calgary, where the family moved in 1973, Mr. Green was blessed with an inspiring drama teacher in high school. After studying theatre at the University of Calgary, Mr. Green moved to Toronto to pursue an acting career. Things didn't work out and he eventually returned to Calgary.
"He decided he needed to perform, no matter what," Mr. Dunn says, "and he couldn't wait for someone to ask him, so he was just going to do it." For his first project, Mr. Green explored the grittier side of Robin Hood, which he heavily researched. He and some friends drove around on summer evenings and weekends in Mr. Green's old pickup truck looking for crowds so they could stage the play. They made pennies, but it didn't matter – people stayed, watched and applauded.
Out of this grew Mr. Green's first company, Ikarus Theatre, which put on experimental, avant-garde, exciting work such as Night Club, which employed profanity and nudity. "To this day we have people walk up to us and say, 'I was going to move from Calgary until I saw that show and decided I could do things here,'" Mr. Dunn says.
One day, Mr. Green, riding his bicycle in his leather pants, noticed a couple of guys sitting on their front stoop and invited them to a show. Meat Song, an original show staged in an abandoned house, began with a garbage bag suspended from the ceiling that started to move. A hand holding a knife emerged, and a man inside sliced himself out of the bag, and there was the guy from the bicycle giving a "unique and surprising performance," recalls Blake Brooker, one of the two guys Mr. Green had invited.
In the early 1980s, Mr. Brooker and Mr. Green co-founded their own company, One Yellow Rabbit, a collective. Their first show was a production of Peter Barnes's Leonardo's Last Supper, but they quickly established that they were creators, not interpreters. "We were enamoured with making stuff," says Mr. Brooker, Mr. Green's co-artistic director. Denise Clarke and Andy Curtis joined the ensemble later.
The company has been outrageously creative and prolific. Mr. Green's many notable performances include his work in Gilgamesh La-Z-Boy and his Nazi colonel in Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp – a black comedy/musical satire inspired by Alberta Holocaust denier Jim Keegstra – which saw Mr. Green stride onstage with a riding crop, inspecting the audience and suddenly shouting.
"You would just see people leap in their seats; it was so terrifying," says Ms. Clarke, who co-starred in the play (which was banned for a time in Alberta). "And all of a sudden he would do his little Nazi dance and it was so … funny and brilliant. The show is 14 seconds in and the audience were absolutely stunned and thrilled and terrified all at once."
Another stunner was Alien Bait, where he played an alien abductee. (Mr. Green was fascinated with UFOs, even travelling to conferences to gather information in the pre-Internet age.) "He would give his account of … what had happened to him as an abductee, which could easily be a very easy thing to laugh at, and I can tell you I've seen that monologue 150 times; people would be so, so, so sorry for what it must be like to be an alien abductee," Ms. Clarke says. "Because Michael was absolutely accessing the anguish and the loneliness and the sorrow and fear of someone who believes that they have been taken and hurt by an alien force."
He also, as in his monologue The Whaler, was not afraid to disrobe for a performance, recalls Theatre Calgary artistic director Dennis Garnhum.
"He'd get on stage and do the most outrageous things with or without his clothes on. He's famous in Calgary; that's the joke at the Rabbits – will Michael have his pants on this time?" Mr. Garnhum says.
"We've all seen it. I think emblematically it wasn't voyeurism; it was that audacious spirit that says, 'Look at me. Let's play. I'm not shy. Let's share our stories. This is who I am. Who are you?' He wasn't showing off his body; he was showing off his spirit."
A few years after co-founding OYR, Mr. Green launched what came to be called the High Performance Rodeo. The annual January festival quickly became a highlight of the city's cultural calendar, presenting exciting local work and bringing in international acts, from unknowns to huge names, such as artists-in-residence Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno.
"The High Performance Rodeo set the bar for the idea of an independent avant-garde freewheeling performing arts festival in English Canada," says Norman Armour, who took inspiration from the Rodeo when he launched Vancouver's PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. "To use some of the settler adjectives, he was a trailblazer. Oh God, he was a pioneer."
When Calgary was named Canada's cultural capital for 2012, Mr. Green took on the important position of its curator and creative producer. "For someone who has spent their entire life in the theatre world, it's been a real adventure," he told The Globe and Mail that year.
More recently, Mr. Green made a rare foray onto television, when his old friend Bruce McCulloch wrote a part for him in his TV series Young Drunk Punk. Mr. McCulloch, best known for The Kids in the Hall, was a young OYR fan before he became a collaborator.
"Every show they ever did was the most important show they ever did – that's what I learned from him," Mr. McCulloch says. "He was a guy who accomplished a lot in this world, but he never kind of buried the boy inside the man. He was always the little boy as well, which I loved about him and I hope to emulate."
OYR suffered a devastating loss in November, 2014, as they were creating what would be Mr. Green's final show with the company, What the Thunder Said, sparked by the First World War centenary and inspired by T.S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land. A few days into rehearsals, ensemble member Richard (Rico) McDowell died unexpectedly after suffering a heart attack. Grieving, the company carried on and created a show that also dealt with this very personal loss.
"We talked about death a lot. … It was good to be sad together," Mr. Curtis says. "Little did we know it was such good training for Michael's passing."
Making Treaty 7 was a legacy project that began under the auspices of Calgary 2012. It saw Mr. Green collaborate with a number of First Nations artists and elders, including Narcisse Blood.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was one of the people who saw it. "He was sort of very – in his Michael way – pushy about my confirming that I could come and making sure I would be there on a certain night," Mr. Nenshi told The Globe. "And it turns out the reason he was being so pushy was because he wanted to use that performance as an opportunity for the Siksika Nation to honour me and to give me a Blackfoot name. And the fact that … at this moment of artistic triumph … he actually randomly thought of me in the middle of all of that – pure Michael."
Mr. Green was travelling with Mr. Blood and Regina-based artists Michele Sereda and Lacy Morin-Desjarlais to a school on the Piapot reserve to share their Making Treaty 7 experience and discuss the possibility of creating a Making Treaty 4 project when the accident happened.
"[Theatre] was his life work. And he was doing it as they headed down that highway in Saskatchewan," Mr. Curtis says. "There was a line in What the Thunder Said that … said, in considering the great losses from the First World War in particular, to think of all the paintings unpainted, think of all the lips unkissed. And I just know Michael had so many more paintings to paint. And as he was driving down that road, they were on their way, doing the good work."
The day before people packed the Jack Singer Concert Hall for a public celebration of Mr. Green's life, a private event was held in OYR's Big Secret Theatre. During a ceremony, Mr. Green's Blackfoot name was passed on to his daughter Maya, 17. She is now Elk Shadow.
"I feel honoured that the name was passed on," Dr. Crowshoe says, "because it recognizes a great person, to pass on that name."
Michael Green leaves Kim Green; their daughter, Maya; his parents, Tom and Margaret Green; his siblings, Deb Green and Eamonn Green; extended family members and his creative family at One Yellow Rabbit.
To submit an I Remember: firstname.lastname@example.org
Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.