Landmarks – NAC’s Indigenous theatre company

The world’s first national Indigenous Theatre company is set to open next year in Canada. Maria Roberts chats to artistic director Kevin Loring and managing director Lori Marchand about reclaiming lost voices and creating a future in the context of a harrowing past.

Kevin Loring
Kevin Loring

It’s hard to comprehend why it is only now that the world has its first national theatre department for Indigenous 00_IAM_cover_1118_vF artists. The inaugural Indigenous Theatre (IT) season will open at Canada’s National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa next year, a place where English-speaking and French-speaking theatre artists have thrived for five decades. From Autumn 2019, First Nations, Métis and Inuit theatre practitioners will be supported by everything NAC has to offer, plus a CAD3.5m (€2.32m) budget, and an experienced management team with Indigenous heritage.

IT shows will share the NAC calendar with its French and English theatre counterparts as well as the NAC Orchestra. The move comes as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada exposes just how wounding the actions of the past have been on Canada’s First Nation communities’ personal and cultural perspectives.

Individuality-erasing policies like the residential schools (for over 100 years Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their families and educated in government and church-run institutions) removed family culture and tradition from the lives of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

And when you consider that our general experiences and memories of childhood are shaped and formed by the stories we hear, the people we see and the family and community experiences we share – you can see why the launch of NAC’s Indigenous Theatre is such a big deal.

IT’s new artistic director Kevin Loring is a successful playwright, actor and director, who also runs his own company, Savage Society. He is a member of the N’lakap’amux nation and grew up near a residential school, witnessing first-hand the trauma inflicted on families by crown and government policies. He also has a long-standing relationship with NAC: his award-wining play Where the Blood Mixes was performed there in 2010 and he has served as an NAC artist-in-residence.

Loring’s been in the IT post for a year, laying the groundwork and building relationships across Canada. “I’ve been travelling to meet companies and seeing work, we’ve been building the team. I’ve been a keynote speaker for the PACT conference (Professional Association for Canadian Theatres), a keynote for Arts Day on the Hill, which is an arts industry advocacy initiative on Parliament Hill, and I also gave a speech at the Canadian Arts Summit at the Banff Centre in Alberta.

“Dr Lindsay Lachance and Mairi Brascoupé, have been going out into the community and doing lots of outreach, which is an ongoing process. Lindsay is of Algonquin Anishinabe and settler Canadian ancestry and is one of two Indigenous people in Canada with a PhD in Theatre Studies. This connection has been helpful as both have family and friend ties to the community.”

An example of the outreach work so far is the symposium Experiencing Indigenous Works – Developing Critical

Lori Marchand
Lori Marchand

Voice, curated by Dr Lachance in June 2017. For this, professionals gathered at the NAC’s Salon on unceded Algonquin territory to watch Corey Payette’s Children of God – a powerful musical about an Oji-Cree family whose children were taken away to a residential school in Northern Ontario. Professionals then had the opportunity to take part in critical workshops where they jointly created a working list of performance analysis tools to support the viewing, reception, and teaching of Indigenous theatrical works, expanding on the issues raised by Conversation Leaders.

Although the national company will be located in Ottawa, Loring is not going to be capital-city focussed in his approach. “There are Indigenous artists creating work all over Canada. We’re putting together a programme that reflects experiences from across the country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the Arctic,” he says.

“As Canada is such a vast country, it’s a big challenge to cover all those communities (though the companies we work with can). There are over 634 distinct First Nations in Canada, speaking more than 50 distinct Indigenous languages. Unfortunately, I can’t represent them all but what I can do is support the artists that exist and encourage more to get onboard.”

The full interview appeared in Volume 14: Issue 11 of International Arts Manager.