Métis actor opens festival with play about gathering wisdom from the stars

Monday, November 6th, 2023 1:27pm


Image Caption

A play by Philip Geller will open Weesageechak Begins to Dance, the 36th instalment of the Native Earth Performing Arts’ annual festival in Toronto.
By Sam Laskaris
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Philip Geller has mixed emotions.

The 28-year-old Métis playwright and actor has had a play, titled who will save the night sky?, selected as the in-person opening night piece for this year’s Weesageechak Begins to Dance (W Festival).

This marks the 36th year of the Native Earth Performing Arts’ annual festival, which features new Indigenous works and works-in development.

Geller’s piece will be performed on Nov. 7 at the Aki Studio in Toronto. A second performance of who will save the night sky? will be held on Nov. 16, also at the Aki Studio.

Geller is thrilled but also nervous.

“I’m so scared,” Geller said. “For me I love to be in process and to be in experimentation and to see what’s going to happen. And there’s a certain kind of pressure about sharing on an opening night. Also, very honoured. Obviously, very honoured and excited.”

Geller’s play is a story that is told through the perspective of a pair of mystical creatures, who gather the wisdom of the stars before satellites change the appearance of the night sky.

“It’s about our relationship to the stars, our relationship to star stories,” Geller said. “And it really started for me when I realized I don’t know many star stories. I can’t navigate with the stars at all. And moving to this city, you can barely see them. And so, it just started with me thinking about my relationship to the star world.”

Geller was born in Winnipeg but grew up in Thompson, Man. They moved to Toronto four years ago, graduating with a Master of Fine Arts in directing from York University.

“It’s a show that’s totally in development,” Geller said. “I started developing it earlier in the year, around February or March.”

Geller then took the piece to the Banff Centre for the Arts and developed it at the Indigenous Dramaturgies Exchange this past May.

“The project has morphed and shifted now to this sharing at the W Festival,” they said. The play references numerous projects currently in space.

“There’s over 40,000 satellites now, with planned extensions in the future to create Internet across the world,” Geller said. “Even that completely shifts the way we perceive our night sky. So, it all started with me thinking what is that relationship for me. What does it mean to come back to those stories. And then, also. think about re-inventing those narratives based on a contemporary understanding from my perspective as a Michif on my mom’s side and Jewish on my dad’s side. A lot of the work draws from those cultural roots.”

Geller’s play is about 45 minutes long.

“My dream is people will leave thinking about their relationship to the stars and what’s important to them in that relationship,” they said. “And what stories, what teachings are out there in the stars that maybe we need right now in our life. And do we need them. And, also, thinking about our relationship to this wild world of space travel that’s impending. Like soon there will be a colony on Mars.”

Geller plans to continue working on who will save the night sky? after the W Festival.

“It’s quite self-contained,” Geller said. “So, I think, eventually, it could be a fun piece that I could tour and have conversations around star stories afterwards.”

Geller is pleased, however, to present the current version of the play for the first time in Toronto.

“I think there’s something about Toronto as a space where lots of Indigenous people gather from many different nations, different practices and protocols, and to share a story that, yes, is very specific to me and to my experience,” they said.

The play talks about being lost and people trying to find themselves.

“I feel that’s what Toronto is in a lot of ways,” they said.

Geller is the lone actor in the production.

“The show, on top of all the star pieces, is based on trickster and the fool mindset,” they said. “Lots of parts are improvised. Some is scripted. Lots of it is based on the relationship I develop with the audience. So, it will be a big experiment.”

The W Festival begins on Nov. 6 with a digital opening, followed Nov. 7 with the in-person component.

More festival details are available at https://www.nativeearth.ca/shows/w36/