Years ago, Indigenous theatre was little-known. Today, plays are being produced across the country

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Unreserved53:59Indigenous playwrights take centre stage

It might be hard to imagine that well-known playwright Tomson Highway once had to pull people off the street to get an audience. 

But that is how the Cree writer’s award-winning play The Rez Sisters — which explores the lives and hopes of seven women from a fictional reserve on Manitoulin Island — started out. The play premiered in November 1986 at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto to what could have been an empty theatre.

“Nobody knew about Native theatre, about Tomson whatsoever,” said Anishinaabe playwright and author Drew Hayden Taylor. 

“During the first week, Tomson and the arts administrator had to go out on the street and give away free tickets because nobody was coming,” Taylor told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild. 

But once reviews came out and word of mouth started to spread, The Rez Sisters was standing room only, Taylor recalled. In fact, The Rez Sisters was the “big bang” of Indigenous theatre, making space for Indigenous writers to follow, he said. 

Today, Indigenous playwrights aren’t relegated to handing out free tickets to their shows. Instead, the Indigenous theatre community has grown to sold out shows being produced across the country. This spring alone, stages in Montreal, Whitehorse, Ottawa, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Toronto are all hosting plays written by Indigenous artists. 

Importance of education

Education has been key to this growth, according to Rose Stella, the artistic director of the Centre for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto.

“More and more Indigenous artists are being trained. They’re being educated, they’re being trained [as] professionals,” she said.

Rose Stella, the artistic director of the Centre for Indigenous Theatre, says Indigenous theatre in the future will include dance, song and sharing traditions in modern ways. (Wolf Eye Productions)

The Centre for Indigenous Theatre has been training young Indigenous people in theatre skills, including scene study, acting, playwriting and movement since 1974. Its three and four-year programs aim to set Indigenous people up for a career in the field. 

Stella, who is Tarahumara, attended the centre as a student in the 1990s and became its artistic director in 2003. 

She said she’s proud of alumni who’ve passed through the doors of her school — like actor and producer Jennifer Podemski, who hired an almost all-Indigenous team for her latest television production, Little Bird. The series centres on an Indigenous woman, Esther, who was taken from her birth family in the Sixties Scoop as she tries to uncover her past. 

LISTEN | TV series Little Bird sheds light on life during the Sixties Scoop

Unreserved54:00The Little Bird Story of the 60s Scoop

“That’s remarkable,” Stella said. 

But it isn’t just the fact that Indigenous people are learning theatre skills. Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which wrapped up its work in 2015, Stella has noticed more understanding of Canada’s colonial history.  

“People get educated and they start looking for us now,” she said. “They start looking for our stories. And that’s exciting.”

Anishinaabe writer Frances Koncan noticed a shift in the scene when she returned to Canada after graduate school in the United States. 

“I felt like the landscape had changed dramatically. … Suddenly people wanted those stories and wanted to hear these voices and see these people on stage.” 

Koncan is a playwright and an assistant professor in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. She is a member of Couchiching First Nation in Ontario. 

An up-close portair of an Indigenous woman.
Frances Koncan remembers being taught that Métis leader and politician Louis Riel was a traitor. This pivotal childhood moment later inspired her to write Women of the Fur Trade. (Ady K Photography)

Her play, Women of the Fur Trade, has had a successful ride since it premiered in Winnipeg in 2020. It later graced the stage of the Stratford Festival and sold out at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Women of the Fur Trade will run throughout April at Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto. 

Moving ‘towards joy and celebration’

Koncan acknowledges that the humour Indigenous playwrights are increasingly bringing into their work can be a draw for theatre-goers. She says it is a shift from the work artists were putting out in the early days of Indigenous theatre, which centred on dark subjects like racism and residential schools.

One play that comes to mind for Koncan is The Ecstacy of Rita Joe by George Ryda. First produced in 1967, the play tells the story of a young Indigenous woman who leaves her reserve 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 plays about Indigenous people. 

“Once I started really researching theatre and really taking it seriously, it was a lot of very serious, very important, very difficult plays. … They were so valuable, but they weren’t plays I would necessarily want to see,” Koncan said.

But she notes an “ongoing push towards joy and celebration and humour and comedy that we see, like, 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 things and … step outside all of the pain and the trauma that we see,” she said.

Portrait of the author.
Drew Hayden Taylor’s work is known for its humour. ‘Comedy is commentary,’ he said. ‘Within Indigenous humour, what we’re laughing at … is a reflection of the universe around us and our experiences.’ (Submitted by Drew Hayden Taylor)

Drew Hayden Taylor’s plays — mostly comedies — have been produced more than 100 times in Canada, the United States and Europe. 

His new play Open House, which looks at marginalization in Canada and takes place during a real estate open house, premieres in Montreal in April. The in-demand play Cottagers and Indians opens in Vernon, B.C. in May. And in June, a German translated version of In a World Created by a Drunken God opens in Germany. 

The writer, from Curve Lake First Nation in Ontario, has been in the Indigenous theatre community for decades. And he sees a bright, varied future for Indigenous stories told on the stage — from musicals and science fiction to whodunits. 

“It won’t all be residential schools or racism or abuse,” Taylor said. “There’ll be … more positive stuff that’s allowed us to survive those darker aspects and are more of a broader reflection of the many, many facets of our Indigenous culture.” 

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Meet Kahnawà:ke’s next generation of theatre kids

After a 10-year hiatus, youth theatre programming has returned to Kahnawà:ke with the Turtle Island Theatre Company.

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