Navigating Indigenous Storytelling with Mixed Company

Last summer, Keith Barker, artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s oldest professional Indigenous theatre, curated the Indigenous Body of Work unit at the Stratford Festival Lab in Ontario, Canada, which brought together a mixed company of Indigenous artists and members of the Stratford ensemble to explore several Indigenous playwrights’ work.

This past April, Keith chatted with Dr. Lindsay Lachance, another Indigenous theatremaker in Canada, about the challenges and rewards of working in mixed company, including what it’s like to navigate work with sensitive subject matter in terms of Indigenous histories and colonization.

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Lindsay Lachance: I’m Lindsay Lachance. I’m from an Algonquin Anishinabe family. I am currently based on unceded Algonquin Territory. I am the artistic associate of Indigenous Theatre at the National Arts Centre. I work as a dramaturg, and I’m also a part-time assistant professor at the University of Ottawa and the incoming director of the Animikiig program at Native Earth Performing Arts.

Keith Barker: Hello. My name is Keith Barker. I am Algonquin Métis and currently the artistic director at Native Earth Performing Arts. I am an actor, playwright, and director. Before this I worked at the Canada Council for the Arts as a theatre program officer for almost two years, which then led me to this job.

ted witzel, who runs the Lab at the Stratford Festival, was organizing different units last summer that centered various communities, and one of the communities he wanted to bring in was the Indigenous arts community. He asked me to lead that weeklong lab, which would focus on Indigenous texts and which brought together non-Indigenous company members with other Indigenous artists. I appreciated this because I think it’s important that there isn’t one authoritative voice that speaks on behalf of Indigenous people and Indigenous artists. With so many different points of view and different life experiences in the room, we were able to address, talk, and engage with the artists on many different levels.

four actors onstage

A 2018 production of The Birds by Yvette Nolan at McGill University. Photo by Sean Carney.

We started the whole process by talking about how we wanted to work together. I introduced the seven traditional principles—or, as some people would know them to be, the seven grandmother/grandfather teachings, which inform decision-making in all undertakings. It is a belief that these tenets not only honor Indigenous values, but are universal to all cultures in various manifestations. They are subjective values, and each individual has their own interpretation of them.

The seven I shared in the room were gifted to Native Earth by Helen Thundercloud: generosity, tolerance, wisdom, empathy, strength of character, patience, and humility. I put them up in the room on pieces of paper as a reminder about how we needed to behave with each other in order to do the work—to engage with the difficult subject matter—in a good way. Agreeing to a set of principles would help us navigate feelings and difficult conversations. We also brought an Elder into the room, a residential school survivor, who works with the Stratford Festival on a regular basis. Talking about her journey and experiences as a survivor, she was able to provide context around the work from the very beginning.

About halfway through the Lab, we invited her back. We were dealing with some pretty heavy subject matter around residential schools. We were reading Larry Guno’s play Bunk #7, which was read at the Truth and Reconciliation committee as a record of his lived experience. The play is about young boys trying to survive the system and is a window into what they were doing to survive and get back to their families. It’s a really beautiful play.

There are many Indigenous-specific experiences embedded in it. At one point one of the boys says to another little boy, “Does your mom write to you?” The other goes, “Yeah, my mom writes me. Your mom doesn’t write you?” The boy responds, “My mom used to write me, but then she moved to Vancouver to get a job. Then she stopped writing me suddenly.” Now we, the Indigenous artists in the room, immediately went to the tragedy of murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada. All that history was there.

But the other artists, the non-Indigenous ones, didn’t necessarily have that context. When I opened it up to the room and said, “Do you think play could be done at Stratford?” One of the Stratford artists said, “I feel like a Stratford audience would need context because I can see them saying, ‘His mom will eventually write him when she’s in a more stable place, but she’s probably just trying to find a job to make ends meet.’” To which one of the Indigenous artists replied, “So what do you want? You want the trauma of murdered, missing Indigenous women on stage?”

We, the Indigenous artists in the room, immediately went to the tragedy of murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada. All that history was there. But the other artists, the non-Indigenous ones, didn’t necessarily have that context.

This is an example of the challenges of trying to navigate these conversations around what people know and what people don’t know, and mitigating the guilt of not knowing this history. One of the Indigenous artists said, “It’s actually your education system that has failed you to not know this history and not to understand where this story comes from.”

That was the hardest part of the Lab. How do you make space for people to have an open dialogue, where they feel safe enough to say, “This is what I know and this is what I don’t know,” and not have it hurt someone else in the room?

Then we read Yvette Nolan’s adaptation of The Birds. It’s a Greek comedy, but it’s also about first contact on Turtle Island. What’s beautiful about the play is we experience what first contact was like through the eyes of birds. It reflects the Indigenous experience with the Europeans landing on North American shores. Everyone in the Lab was able to connect through the birds’ point of view.

We brought Mi’kmaq/Black/settler dancer and choreographer Aria Evans into the room to work with the Lab participants on the play through movement. The bumpiness flattened out quickly, and everyone embodied a bird for a day. Bunk #7 had brought up several very complicated conversations, one of them centered around murdered and missing Indigenous women. So when we shifted to The Birds by Yvette, people felt more comfortable portraying birds and not Indigenous characters. This is the genius of the play because it allows people to talk about Indigenous issues—about first contact and reconciliation and residential schools—in a framework that is accessible.

In the end, I felt like everyone was really, really generous in the room. I was thankful for every bump we encountered. It was a great learning experience for me. My only wish is that we could have had more time with the artists. A week just isn’t long enough.

Lindsay: Yes! We always need more time when coming together in these spaces. I think a lot about “safe spaces” and how folks create these spaces. I wonder what a space like that is—who it’s for and who decides it’s safe when we’re all arriving from different places and we’re still getting to know each other. Last September, I was talking to Inuk/Dene/ Cree theatremaker Reneltta Arluk and Cree scholar Karyn Recollet about ideas around arriving to a place; Karyn talked about landing into spaces.

It’s really easy again to say, “This is a safe space,” but what’s safe for you might not be safe for me. So how do we—as producers, as artists, as collaborators—help create these spaces? You mentioned Aria Evans, and this idea of moving together and moving into the animal world. Did this help folks to land in the room together?

I wonder even about smudging. For a lot of Indigenous artists, it’s a normative offer and is often necessary in the work we do. But then I wonder if it’s also creating “unsafe” or “unwelcoming” places for some folks who might have allergies or might be afraid to participate or are unsure of what’s happening.

It’s really easy again to say, “This is a safe space,” but what’s safe for you might not be safe for me.

Keith: I think you’re right about smudging. On one level, for Indigenous artists, it feels welcoming because it is part of our practice. For us it cleanses the room and brings people back to neutral. But for other people it causes fear because they don’t understand what smudging is, they don’t know what to do or how to do it. They are afraid to be disrespectful. This has me thinking about how we arrive in these spaces and honor everybody’s experience. And not just say, “We’re going to do this because this is how we do it.” If we all feel grounded, we are all open to the work.

I was talking to Weyni Mengesha, the artistic director of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre, about theatre as ceremony. I’ve adopted one of the exercises she does at the beginning of a rehearsal process. On the first day of rehearsal, she asks everyone to bring in an item that represents what made them want to become a storyteller. Everyone brings in an object and shares their story. Through this exercise, everyone is able to speak from a personal place about why they got into the arts.

I think there’s something to that—how we create space together before we get into the business of theatre. Because oftentimes everyone sits down on the first day and starts signing contracts before going into the first read. I love that about circling up and connecting with people before we start the work; it forces us to slow down.

What was it like for you, as the dramaturg, being in the room for Frances Koncan’s play Women of the Fur Trade, which premiered earlier this year at Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg? What were some of your experiences working with the mixed company there?

Lindsay: As an Indigenous dramaturg, I feel it is my role to help facilitate Indigenous-centered ways of working. I talk about presencing as a process, which helps to activate cultural memory, places, senses, or ancestral connection during artistic collaborations. This expands the artistic process and makes space for our bodies to feel surrounded by familiarities that are not always invited into theatrical spaces. It is a process that is dependent on who is involved and varies with every workshop I do.

Generally, I like to work in values-based frameworks because, for me, it is a way to have open communication, especially if we are working in an Indigenous and non-indigenous company. Similar to your example of bringing in an object and telling a story, values-based frameworks really help to get folks to look inwards and bring an aspect of themselves outward to share with the group.

Working with the land as collaborator and with cultural memory is an important aspect of this work. For Frances’s play, we did a land-based exploration—me, Frances, the director, the set and costume designer, and two cast members. I asked everybody to carry with them—in their minds or hearts—a value, to think about a cultural object or to think about something they felt represented a part of who they are, and to presence that as we worked. We went to Fort Gibraltar in Winnipeg, which was the starting point for this exploration and significant to the piece because the play is set in a fictional fort upon the “banks of a reddish river.” We walked the Fort to see what memories were held there and to question what a historically recreated fort felt like, especially in relationship to the world Frances was building. We looked to the land, the historical re-makes, and the stories being shared as our collaborators.

After a tour of the Fort, I asked everyone to reconnect with their value and to walk the land looking for where they found it reflected back to them. I was curious to see how each individual’s value could be used as a lens to understanding and highlighting aspects of the script-development process. In some cases, the initial values transformed or expanded while others reflected clearly back at them. This exercise moved us beyond a dramaturgical process that follows the “well-made play” structure or predominantly text-based processes; instead, we got to look inwards and think about the self in relationship to the land and to the others in the process. This allowed us to build a creative framework where the collaborators were invited to bring their full selves into the process and, in particular, to the world Frances was building.

I like to work in values-based frameworks because, for me, it is a way to have open communication, especially if we are working in an Indigenous and non-indigenous company.

This values-based dramaturgical approach is one where the rules of the play’s world are determined by the experiences brought forward by the artistic creators and collaborators. Some of the offers and values that came from our exploration were: hardworking, accountability, fear, legacy, and distortions. Giving people the opportunity to center themselves is often a process that is overlooked, or maybe we don’t create enough space for that exploration. But taking part in inward reflection and self-evaluation and being able to put it back out in a collaborative form really excites me.

The idea of leave yourself at the door—as an acting training methodology, which is continuously taught in schools and in training programs—kind of hinders the way we artists think about bringing our full selves into theatrical spaces. That makes me wonder, are people trying to change that now, or is it still a predominant methodology?

Keith: I’m teaching a Canadian scene study right now at George Brown College in Toronto. From what I’m seeing, students are encouraged to bring themselves into the room, as opposed to the training I went through, which was “We’re going to strip you down to nothing and then build you back up to be the artist we think you should be.” This “leave yourself at the door” mentality stripped us of our individuality and what made us unique as artists.

There are lots of teachers who have been teaching a certain way for a really long time. That shift within the culture is happening, but I think it is complicated for a lot of people. Institutions are finally bringing in professionals who represent other communities. For example, Asian Canadian theatremaker Nina Lee Aquino is teaching at the National Theatre School in Montreal, and she brings in the brilliant playwright David Yee. Young actors are starting to see themselves reflected in their teachers.

But like you said, there’s still a lot of old-school thinking and it’s difficult to step out of it. Even I sometimes get frustrated. As an artist, I was trained a certain way. I am grateful for the training I received but I do find myself having to fight internally about what my expectation is of myself and of others in the work we do.

Lindsay: Absolutely. It’s definitely really vulnerable work. Some of the assignments I give my university students are: “Let’s share our artistic values.” It can make folks pretty nervous at first! Even in theatre and collaborative processes, I can feel like a weirdo saying, “Let’s talk about the rivers or our favorite trees and what they mean to us.” But in all honesty, trying to identify the structures and values that people carry in their bodies, that travel through different geographies and across time and space to land into studios to work with us, is so interesting and energizing for me.

Outside of educational institutions—at the Lab or when you’re directing—do you feel like you see other acting processes change and open up?

Keith: During the Lab, when we circled up, I would say, let’s acknowledge what people are feeling in the room right now as opposed to: “I’m being a good actor. I’m here to do the work, I’m a vessel for the director and the playwright.” Instead, I want to be able to ask the room, “How are you doing” and then have someone say, “I’m really struggling today. But I’m here, I’m ready to work, and I‘m glad I made it.”

With the performers’ schedule at Stratford, it felt like they appreciated being able to land in the room and express themselves in the moment. This also seemed to be the case at the theatre schools where I’ve taught. Everyone has been thankful for the opportunity to speak openly. Being able to take the first twenty minutes to do a check-in with everyone was not common practice. So on one level, I see that things are changing.

This “leave yourself at the door” mentality stripped us of our individuality and what made us unique as artists.

Then on another level, I see there are still changes to be had. Plenty of artists I know are recognizing people who are not making that change. Someone recently said to me, “You want to see a top-down colonial room with little regard for the actor? See so-and-so.”

Lots of it comes down to money, and the amount of rehearsal time we have, and the restrictions imposed on a room. The business model forces people to work in an efficient way that is more about getting things done and less about the people in the room. I recently had a stage manager say to me: “Why is our system set up this way? It does not serve the work or the artists when we work six days a week like this with only one day off.”

Lindsay: One thing I have noticed during this pandemic is, with some of the online initiatives, is that Equity, for example, is a little bit more lenient on having some of their union actors read on these online platforms. The contracts are a little bit different. There’s an urgency to support artists, to ensure there’s still artistic or cultural work happening. To benefit the mind, hearts, and bodies of the performers, but also to connect and build a community with witnesses/audiences.

There are these pockets of online transformations that are happening. People are adapting to it because they also see this urgency. I wonder what the climate, especially the theatre world, is going to be once we end up on the other side of this horrible global crisis.

Keith: I agree. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. Historically, there has been reluctance within the industry to put things online. It’s been way too expensive because rates are based on television rates, which frankly are beyond what most theatre companies can afford, especially culturally specific organizations that support the work of Black and Indigenous artists, and artists of color. The rules within Equity have made it challenging for theatres to adopt online formats.

There is potential for real change right now. When theatres come back our audiences are going to be reluctant to sit in a theatre with other people again. Unfortunately we are going to see family, friends, colleagues, and people we know die from the COVID-19 crisis. As people come to understand what this new reality is going to mean, how we interact socially is going to change. For me it will come down to how we support artists and their work in a way that will allow us to safely bring people back to the theatre again.

There is a long road ahead in the recovery of the arts sector. If there was ever a time when people have to learn to work together, it is now. As we learned during the Lab, it is full of pitfalls and complications, which are difficult for everyone to navigate. But—and it’s a big but—if we can agree on a guiding set of principles in how we move forward in a good way— humility, generosity, empathy, tolerance, strength of character, patience, and wisdom—and in how we treat each other, the dim light at the end of the tunnel will be much brighter.

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Thoughts from the curators

Canons act as both aspirational mirrors and genealogies for societies, but they also go beyond reflecting an image: they define how we make work and who is invited into the studio, on whose terms. Amid this catastrophe, we have an opportunity to rebuild: what stories will tell us who we are and how we got here, and how will we gather to tell them?This five-part series features curators and artists who participated in the Stratford Festival Lab’s “Beyond the Western Canon” workshop series in the Summer of 2019. This investigation was designed to push beyond the bounds of what is thought of as the theatre’s traditional artistic mandate: the “Western Canon.” In these articles and conversations, artists share their negotiations with dominant systems and structures, imagining holistic processes for a canon-to-come.

Beyond the Western Canon

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