Indigenous Theater Gains More Audiences in Canada

    Canadian indigenous author Tomson Highway once had to give tickets to people on the street to encourage them to enter the theater for his works

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    In the evolution of indigenous theater in Canada, it is hard to believe that there was a time when the well-known playwright Tomson Highway once had to beg people on the street to come into a theater and thus have an audience for his plays.

    However, this is how the theatrical career of the Cree indigenous writer Tomson Highway began, author of the play The Rez Sisters, translated as The Wives of the Rez, which explores the lives and hopes of seven women who live on a fictional reservation in the Manitoulin Island. This play premiered in November 1986 at Toronto’s Native Canadian Centre, in what could very well have been an empty theatre.

    No one knew anything about Indigenous theater, or about Tomson, said Anishinaabe Indigenous playwright and author Drew Hayden Taylor.During the first week, Tomson and the theater’s artistic administrator had to go out and give away tickets because no one was coming.

    But once reviews of that play came in and word of mouth began to spread, The Rez Sisters had such a crowd that there was standing room only, Taylor recalled. In fact, ‘Las comadres de la rez’ marked the emergence of indigenous theater, opening space for new indigenous playwrights, he said.

    Today, indigenous playwrights are no longer required to hand out free tickets for people to attend their shows. What has happened is that the indigenous theater community has grown to the point that it can sell all the tickets to shows that are presented throughout the country. This spring alone, stages in Montreal, Whitehorse, Ottawa, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Toronto will present plays written by Indigenous playwrights.

    The importance of education

    Education has been a key part of this growth, according to Rose Stella, artistic director of the Toronto Indigenous Theater Centre. More and more indigenous artists are being trained. They are being educated, they are being trained as professionals, he said.

    Since 1974, the Indigenous Theater Center has been training Indigenous youth in theater skills, including scene study, acting, dramaturgy and movement. Its three- and four-year programs aim to prepare Indians for a career in this field.

    Rose Stella, an indigenous Tarahumara, was a student at this institution in the 1990s and became its artistic director in 2003.She said she is proud of the alumni who have studied at that school, such as actress and producer Jennifer Podemski, who hired an almost exclusively indigenous crew for her latest television production, Little Bird.

    This series focuses on an indigenous woman, Esther, who was separated from her biological family in the 1960s, when thousands of indigenous children were taken from their families to be adopted by non-indigenous families, and who seeks to discover her past.That’s something remarkable, Stella said.

    But it’s not just the fact that indigenous people are learning theater skills. Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded its work in 2015, Stella has noticed a greater understanding of Canada’s colonial history.People educate themselves and start looking for us now, he said. They start looking for our stories. And that’s exciting.

    Anishinaabe writer Frances Koncan noticed a change in the scene when she returned to Canada after graduating in the United States. “I felt like the landscape had changed dramatically… Suddenly people wanted these stories and they wanted to hear these voices and see these people on stage”, she said.

    Koncan is a playwright and assistant professor of creative writing at the University of British Columbia. She is a member of the Couchiching First Nation in Ontario. Remembering being taught that Métis leader and politician Louis Riel was a traitor. It was that pivotal moment in her childhood that later inspired her to write her piece Women of the Fur Trade.

    This play has been a success since its premiere in Winnipeg in 2020. It later appeared on stage at the Stratford Theater Festival in Ontario and was a box office hit at the National Arts Center in Ottawa.

    This piece of theater, Women of the Fur Trade, will be on stage throughout the month of April at Native Earth Performing Arts, the indigenous performing arts center in Toronto.

    Moving “towards joy and celebration”

    Koncan recognizes that the humor that indigenous playwrights increasingly incorporate into their works can attract viewers. She says it’s a change from the work artists did in the early days of Indigenous theater, which focused on tragic issues like racism and residential schools for Indigenous children.

    One play that comes to mind for Koncan is The Ecstacy of Rita Joe, written by George Ryda. First produced in 1967, the play tells the story of a young indigenous woman who leaves her reservation behind, but experiences racism and marginalization. In the end, she is sexually assaulted and murdered. Koncan says the tragedy set a precedent for what audiences should expect from works about indigenous people.

    “Once I started really looking into theater and really taking it seriously, I saw a lot of very serious, very important, very difficult plays… They were very valuable, but they weren’t plays that I necessarily wanted to see,” Koncan said.On the other hand, she notes a continued push toward the joy, celebration, humor and comedy we see in our communities.

    “The world is not a great place right now and I think people are turning to comedy to process things and deal with them and… get out of all the pain and trauma that we see,” he said.

    Drew Hayden

    Drew Hayden Taylor’s plays, mostly comedies, were performed more than 100 times in Canada, the United States and Europe.His new play Open House, which examines marginalization in Canada and takes place during a real estate open house, will premiere in Montreal in April. The highly sought-after play Cottagers and Indians will be staged in Vernon, British Columbia, in May. And in June, a German-translated version of his piece In a World Created by a Drunken God premieres in Germany.

    Hayden Taylor, a writer from Curve Lake First Nation in Ontario, has been involved in the Indigenous theater community for decades. He says he sees a bright and varied future for stories told by Indigenous people on stage, from musicals to science fiction to detective stories.

    It won’t all be stories about residential schools, racism or abuse, Taylor said. There will be more positive things that will allow us to survive those darker aspects and that will be a broader reflection of the many, many facets of our indigenous culture, the indigenous playwright explained.

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