Languages that have never before found a home on the national stage – Coast Salish, Kalaallisut, Cree, Gitxsan, Nlaka’pamux’stn, Wolastoqiyik and others – will cascade over audiences starting this fall when the National Arts Centre opens the inaugural season of the world’s first Indigenous Theatre program.
The September-to-May lineup, which was announced Tuesday at the recently renovated NAC in Ottawa’s downtown, will include masked dancers from northwestern British Columbia, acrobats performing Inuit myths from Nunavut and a coming-of-age story from a Wolastoqiyik woman from New Brunswick.
One play will recount a young Ojibwe man’s search for the North Star. Others will look at the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the tragic legacy of Indian residential schools.
And, during a special 2½-week opening festival in September called Moshkamo, only Indigenous performers will appear on NAC stages, including veteran Cree folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie and Inuit songstress Susan Aglukark.
Indigenous stories “have always been important,” Kevin Loring, a playwright, actor and director from the Nlaka’pamux Nation in British Columbia who is the Indigenous Theatre’s artistic director, said in a interview this week in the NAC’s expansive foyer. “But we are at a point in our history where we are reaching a critical mass of artists and artistry."
That is what the Indigenous Theatre was created to showcase.
The theme of the first season is the strength, beauty and resilience of Indigenous women. Nine out of the 11 scheduled productions have been created by female artists.
Women “are the centre of our communities,” Mr. Loring said. “Go to any band office in the country and it’s going to be women running the show. And, to be honest, the lion’s share of [artistic] creators in our ecology are Indigenous women.”
But it is the subject matter, and the languages, that will set the Indigenous productions apart from the French and English theatre programs at the NAC.
Indigenous artists are working in their own languages and the performances become both a vehicle for language rejuvenation as well as a teaching tool, said Mr. Loring, whose own play Where the Blood Mixes will be staged in English and French with a dash of Nlaka’pamux’stn as part of the opening festival.
In one of the shows, the performers will speak only in Inuktitut. In another, only Kalaallisut. But Mr. Loring said he does not believe it will be difficult for non-Indigenous audiences to follow along.
“We often see operas in languages we don’t speak,” he said. “And one of the wonderful things about theatre is it is a way to engage with a culture that is, perhaps, foreign, but you still receive it at a human level.”
There was much to choose from when putting together the first season’s lineup, said Mr. Loring. Hundreds of plays have been written by Indigenous authors and artists that would appeal to national audiences.
“But I really wanted to pull works from coast to coast to coast,” said Mr. Loring. “And I also wanted to pull works from the four directions.”
So, in addition to the Canadian performances, a show called Hot Brown Honey by Indigenous women in Australia will be staged in May. Decolonization “is a global conversation and we share that conversation with other nations around the world,” said Mr. Loring.
The NAC’s Indigenous Theatre suffered a blow earlier this year when funding that Mr. Loring hoped would be included in the federal budget did not appear.
But donors stepped in to fill the financial gap. And Lori Marchand, member of the Syilx First Nation from British Columbia who is the Indigenous Theatre’s managing director, said the first season was created to fit the financial parameters the NAC was handed.
“To have a permanent place on the national stage dedicated to Indigenous artists and Indigenous voices is something we couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago,” Ms. Marchand said. “Our artists are just not used to having this kind of space and focus and attention. While it has been challenging, it has also been amazing to open those doors and say this is our new home. We’re here and we’re staying.”