By Drew Hayden Taylor
Originally published in May 2013
Last month in Vancouver there was a revival of a famous opera named “The Magic Flute,” written by this guy named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. You may have heard of him. This is interesting because while opera is normally considered an elite form of musical and theatrical expression, this production was influenced by one of Canada’s most marginalized populations.
The imagery, set designs and costumes were inspired by the longhouse cultures of the Pacific Northwest. In many ways, it was a Native infused production of a 200-year-old German opera. Cool huh? The storyline was kind of silly but welcome to opera. My point is this form of cultural appropriation is the kind we can gladly handle because more than 15 Aboriginal advisors from the area were consulted during the production. As a result, it has an air of legitimacy and originality.
Last year the National Art Centre in Ottawa produced William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” with an entirely Native cast. Actors Tantoo Cardinal and Lorne Cardinal (note: not all Native actors are named Cardinal but it helps) got the chance to strut their stuff on one of Canada’s most illustrious venues.
Unfortunately I never got the opportunity to see either of these productions but all the reviews say both were fabulous creations, the story enhanced by the unconventional elements provided by the inclusion of Aboriginal culture.
Over 20 years ago in Toronto I saw a production of “The Tempest”, also by Shakespeare, taking place in British Columbia’s Haida Qwaii, with Ariel and Calaban conceived as Haida spirits. The stage was littered with standing and fallen totem poles. It was awe inspiring. When I was the Writer-In-Residence at the University of Michigan a few years back, there was a Royal Shakespeare production of “The Tempest”, this time taking place amongst the Yupik people of Siberia. It was very clever.
And then, of course, there was “Death Of A Chief”, Native Earth Performing Arts adaptation of “Julius Caesar” and Yves Sioui Durand’s film “Mesnak”, a contemporary Wendat take on “Hamlet” and so on and so on. Several years ago there used to be a theatre company in Winnipeg called Shakespeare in the Red, dedicated to the Aboriginal exploration of the Bard’s writing. I think you know where I am going with all this.
For the longest time Shakespeare and opera were long considered art for the privileged and educated, far beyond the abilities and interests of First Nations people. You see, most Native languages are not spoken in iambic pentameter. It seems this perception is not as relevant anymore. Like the tides in the Bay of Fundy, the flow of cultural appropriation is now going in the opposite direction. And it’s very cool. Picture “A Mid Summer Night’s Dream” at a powwow!
In a broader context, above and beyond Shakespeare and Mozart, theatre companies across Canada seem more interested in exploring Native storytelling than ever before. Companies like Magnus Theatre in Thunder Bay have incorporated Aboriginal theatre into their mandate. To better address the underserved Native population of that community, it was decided that “during the 2005-2006 season, our Board of Directors accepted unanimously a proposal presented by the Artistic Director that, at a minimum, one of the six plays in the main stage season would be a play by a playwright of Aboriginal origin.”
Since then First Nations playwrights such as Darrel Dennis, Tomson Highway, Ian Ross and yours truly have had their name in lights (as in both neon and northern) in that fair city. Cree playwright Kenneth William’s “Cafe Daughter” wowed the audiences last month.
Other theatre companies across the country have made it a regular service to feature Native plays and playwrights, as part of the accurate representation of Canada’s multifaceted society. Firehall Arts Centre makes a regular habit of producing Native plays, which is logical since they pride themselves as being Vancouver’s multicultural theatre and their mandate is to ‘reflect the cultural pluralism of Canada.’
Even the National Arts Centre, Canada’s premiere performance space, makes a regular habit of featuring Native arts on a practically yearly basis. This season they are featuring “The Edward Curtis Project,” a multi-media play written and directed by the talented Métis theatre artist, Marie Clements. “Tulugak: Inuit Raven Stories” opens next month at the same theatre.
I remember reading a review of a Tomson Highway play that said something like “theatre is not an art form that came easy to First Nations people”, to which I responded ‘the flush toilet was new to us too but we seem to have mastered its intricacies.” I think the same can be said about these classic western art forms. We just want to make it a little more interesting.