Native Theatre : Affirmation and Creation
by André Lavoie
translated by Andrée McNamara Tait
Just as there is no such thing as one Canadian theatre, Native theatre cannot be limited to its political or ethnographic dimensions alone. And if many fall into the trap of blending all of the Native assemblies into one homogeneous group, the approaches explored by its artists since its emergence towards the end of the 1960s are a testament to Native theatre’s richness and diversity, from one end of the country to the other.
Although Native peoples have long been featured in their own dramas, notably in western films, they have generally been excluded from the stage. For decades, political and religious powers enforced assimilation with broad strokes; there was nothing to favour the emergence of Cree, Iroquois, or Inuit dramaturgy. This “colonialization,” as well as its effect on the identities of these peoples, has inspired a great number of shows — attempts to rebuild a denigrated, diminished culture.
A Long Theatrical Tradition?
For centuries, passing on ideas and myths characteristic of Native culture depended on the spoken word, rendering it very fragile even though its guardians acted as living libraries. For Native peoples, theatre took form mainly through dance and story-telling.
The early collaborations with non-Natives towards the end of the 1960s allowed Natives to familiarize themselves with an artistic practice that had been either unknown or inaccessible to them. Directors such as Larry Lewis or George Bloomfield encouraged Native actors who, in turn, became playwrights, directors, etc. Thus Margo Kane and August Shellenberg were cast in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by George Ryga, directed by George Bloomfield, the first play to portray current Native life and where the playwright (of Ukrainian descent, to be precise) laid bare their difficulties.
Although this first big success in Western Canada did not start a trend, it did, however, allow Margo Kane and others who followed her to bring to the stage the suffering of Native peoples. Others, such as playwright Tomson Highway, would also benefit from this helping hand extended by non-Native creators to better appropriate theatre. In turn, to use it as a tool of awareness and artistic exploration as well as a tool of individual speech.
Across the country, in large urban centres and in reserves, theatre slowly established itself. In 1974, in Toronto, James Buller founded the Association for Native Development in the Performing and Visual Arts and Native Theatre School, a summer program which would later become the Centre for Indigenous Theatre. During the 1980s, in Quebec, Yves Sioui Durand and Catherine Joncas created the Ondinnok company, which remains the only professional Native company in the province. And in the Prairies, Winnipeg, and Saskatoon are major creative centres; the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company has its very own hall.
Staking Claims or Creating?
Certain Native artists have used theatre to voice their demands, so that their people and other Canadians could discover their reality, imagination, and hopes. Henning Schäfer, a Native-theatre specialist in Canada who is associated with the University of Erlangen in Germany, feels that the “healing” aspect is still present, even after 30 years of theatrical productions in this country. “This theatre helps heal the wounds of colonialization,” he says. “For a long time, many studies on and performances of Native culture were produced by non-Natives; now, it is the Native peoples who have reclaimed their culture, thanks in part to theatre.”
This healing process came about through a very politicized theatre, but it would be a mistake to reduce it to its anti-establishment dimension. Also, depending on the region, practitioners explore different avenues, based on mythology, contemporary reality, and the blending of different art forms.
Playwright and actor Floyd Favel sees to what extent the theatre scene in Vancouver “tries to break the supremacy of the text and of psychological realism. There’s an increased emphasis on dance, movement, and the body.” Henning Schäfer shares this point of view and sees the “impossibility of labeling” theatre in Vancouver. In Toronto, where there’s more competition, major figures such as Tomson Highway or Drew Hayden Taylor “show certain ‘mainstream’ tendencies,” says Schäfer, “a more linear structure that allows for easier access for the general public. This doesn’t prevent Highway, for example, of forcefully exploring the spiritual dimension of Native culture.”
To ensure the continuity of a theatre which, according to Floyd Favel, “has sufficiently explored its negative aspects,” its foundations must be even more solid to avoid reinventing the wheel at each decade. Favel would like to see the end of “artistic apartheid” in Canada, of obvious racial segregation, and for Native actors to be well trained and be able to work like any other actor. “Building bridges, not only between communities, is the fundamental objective of theatre,” he says. “Theatre enables us to better understand the world, and not necessarily only the Native world. The same thing applies for artists of colour. Must they only deal with their own reality on stage? We must break this false impression that all Native artists approach the stage as though they were social workers. Theatre is also about being entertained, having fun! The important thing is to put on a good performance, first and foremost.” Even so, reaching this goal is sometimes perilous, and not only for Native creators.