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Un-belonging, Vancouver Style

I am both aware of and curious (ok, mystified) about the kind of artistic space I occupy in Vancouver. I am certain that my impact is not like others in terms of influencing, shaping, and ultimately defining the artistic community we have here. I do my work; some know it, many don’t. And this is partly because, like many independent theater artists here, I'm not attached to just one company, collective, or circle of artists. I’ve also shifted focus the past seven years in order to raise my son and that definitely puts me on the periphery of “the game” in more ways than one as I continue the balancing act of motherhood.

I’m regarded as an Aboriginal artist—a badge of honor I’m proud to wear. Over the last twelve years, my interests demand that Indigenous realities merge with, intersect, and dissect the progressive and even transgressive artistic form of what we call mainstream theater. My artistic expression is guided by what happens in this space between mainstream-Euro and Indigenous theater practice. I try to respond to them separate from one another even as I mash them together.

I’m not alone, of course; there are others like me in Vancouver—Aboriginal women whose works shine brightly, women who have very much shaped my aesthetic and practice; Margo Kane (of Full Circle: First Nations Performance), Marie Clements (Playwright and Governor General Award recipient), and Michelle Olson (of Raven Spirit Dance) in particular.

As much as my career has been built in the Aboriginal theater community, I’ve also enjoyed some incredible partnerships with the broader theater community in Vancouver and across Canada as a theater maker, creator, writer, dramaturg, director, teacher, and performer. I’ve enjoyed eating much cake... and a fair amount of icing, too.

The work I am interested in isn’t confined. It is a hybrid that bridges cultures, communities, and artistic forms. This is where I seem to fit best—in the middle, in the intersection. However, this propensity to fill the in-between also means that lately, I wonder if I’ve fallen through the cracks. I don’t always know if I have a “home” here.

However, this propensity to fill the in-between also means that lately, I wonder if I’ve fallen through the cracks. I don’t always know if I have a “home” here.

I wonder if each project will resonate because despite recognizable forms, each sources an urban Indigenous experience—not the dominant experience of the greater Vancouver community. Aboriginal audiences are still growing. We don’t see theater—theater is not where we gather; it doesn’t possess the same familiarity, historical weight, or worth as it does for non-Aboriginal audiences.

With each project, I am reminded that my artistic worldview requires a certain amount of translation with Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal colleagues and audiences. My work becomes a tool that deciphers and this tool isn’t always as sharp as I’d like it to be. Some of this stems from a lack of time due to motherhood, some from limited access to artists who might show me how to better sharpen my tools.

Every process is different thanks to the diversity of source, collaborators, and form— making the act of translation a time-intensive process. I interpret and embody cultural values physically and perform the work as I’m creating it. I go back and forth between the page, working on my feet, and in my body like a choreographer or dancer might. Words, sounds, images, movement, and dance evolve into language that is connected to cultural knowledge and personal experiences. Though I am not alone in this embodied practice, it remains integral to my work; it drives me artistically because it compels me culturally, engaging the whole person—physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.

Ultimately, I merge colonial artistic forms of dance and theater in hopes of discovering a form that fits me like a skin—a form that reflects my sensibilities as an urban feminist twenty-first century woman of mixed ancestry. As personal as they are, the pieces I'm currently creating and collaborating on are ancient, culturally connected stories. They explore the things we cannot bear but carry anyway; the journey back to self and community; the spiritual relationship to a loss of identity; prophecies and faith; peace.

Now, on the upside, there is space working between the cracks. I am often alone. Nothing is defined or pre-determined; I like how it leaves everything open to reinterpretation. I feel empowered to share stories the way I sense, dream, and resist them inside. It matters that I speak my own words as opposed to being obligated to mainstream theater’s image of who I am. Until I started making theater, I almost never saw my fullest self on stage. Now I do. And thankfully, I’m not the only one speaking—there just aren’t very many of us here.

And yet, even from within the cracks of un-belonging, my cultural teachings remind me that we are never alone. We always witness one another in success and failure. A senior dance artist recently encouraged me to fall more—to risk failing for the sake of discovering a better path for my work and myself. And I must say, here, in un-ceded Coast Salish Territory, in the land of artistic innovation where artists defy “what works,” there is a lot of falling. Those who create here are some of the most fearless and well-respected artists in the country. They are always walking off the edge and their tenacity and ballsy work inspires me.

Perhaps some of this is shaped by the three main theater programs here, one of which focuses primarily on training ensemble-focused, multi-disciplined theater-makers (and of which I am a graduate). It may also be informed by the shortage of regional theaters and the classical, mainstream works that often come with them—allowing smaller, independent collectives, and companies to flourish. Perhaps it is our historical reality as a younger province with a political legacy of renegade taking-and-doing. It may be the power of the cultural traditions of this land. Or also, it may be because the artists in Vancouver are some of the most approachable, generous and open-minded I’ve ever met; they are curious about and open to what is new.

Whatever the reasons, whenever I witness my colleagues’ work, it is evident how each, in our own way, speak with our own voice, boldly trying to make something authentic. The resilience of our artistic risk is our communal work—building on unique, invigorating practices, instilled with discipline, and the generosity to honor individual efforts.

From the cracks of my un-belonging, I begin to feel that perhaps my work is a stitch, bringing the fabric of different worlds together. The theater we make becomes the seam that keeps us going through the long, cold seasons of making new work, Vancouver style.

Thoughts from the curator

An overview of the Vancouver theatre scene.

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Thanks Lisa. It's lonely in-between, and yet so common a feeling for all who feel pulled in different directions, with differing loyalties. It is a call to speak from the innermost parts and wait for the echo in another soul. I hear you over here in my troubled whiteness and sing back a song of longing. Kum bah yah.