The Pivot Theatre Festival - Nakai Theatre's annual performance showcase - begins a seven-night run this weekend in multiple Whitehorse venues. In addition to smaller-scale offerings such as a theatrical pub walk, an evening of spoken word material and a "speed-friending" event called Stranger Connections, the festival will feature the three major pieces, including:
A Brimful of Asha: charm and humour ensue when cultures and generations collide
When Canadian-born actor and director Ravi Jain travelled to his ancestral homeland of India to conduct a series of stage workshops in 2007, he knew he'd be meeting a woman his parents hoped he would marry.
Since his graduation from theatre school, they had been urging him to get married, but he wanted to wait a few years while he established his own company, Why Not Theatre.
"I was open to thinking about it, but I wasn't ready by any means to get married," he says.
"I wanted to spend at least a year and a half to meet the person, date them, get to know them. For them, it was you meet and within two days you have to decide. And that's crazy."
Unbeknownst to the 27-year-old Jain, his parents had made travel plans of their own, determined to nail an engagement in place without delay.
"What ended up happening was that they were just pressuring the situation a lot harder than I had anticipated, and went to great lengths to try to make it happen. A lot of that happened behind the scenes and I didn't know about it."
Jain returned to Toronto horrified, but the friends he told about it found the story funny. He began thinking about turning the experience into a play.
"That same year, I took a show to the Dublin Fringe Festival, and saw a show where a choreographer had done a show with his Mom, and I was really moved by it. And I thought, 'I should do something with my Mom,'" he says.
When he told his mother he planned to write a play to tell the world what a bad mother she was, her response was direct.
"She said, 'You're an idiot. If I was onstage with you, the audience would agree with me.' I thought, 'OK, let's try this,' and we just started from there."
Theatre played no part in Jain's family life, and his mother, Asha, had never set foot onstage before. But she took to it like a pro.
"We worked on it together and we built it together. The writing was done through improvisation. We would sort of stop each other and tell each other what was a better thing to say."
But when it's your own story, your own theatre company, and you're one of the actors, what is like to direct a novice who happens to be your mother?
"Terrible," Jain laughs.
"She really doesn't obey the rules of the theatre. She never wants to rehearse. She works to her own schedule, and is not very accommodating about that. So that can be infuriating," he says.
"On the other hand, it's a lot of fun. One great outcome is that I get to see an audience experience my mother. They love her. To see your mother make a crowd of 300 people laugh every night is pretty awesome."
What does Asha Jain do to earn those laughs?
"I say to people it's expert clowning, because she's totally present in the moment and just really saying what she thinks. And it happens to be so honest, people have to laugh at it."
Since its debut in 2012, A Brimful of Asha has garnered widespread acclaim across Canada and elsewhere. Following performances in Ireland and England this spring, it will be one of seven Canadian plays Soulpepper Theatre takes to New York City in July.
Jain attributes the play's popularity among diverse audiences to the fact that it reflects the dinner-table conversations that many families have while they're sorting through generational and cultural differences.
"The entire show is really an homage to the stories we tell around the table, and the theatre that happens in our homes in our daily lives. Sharing that is a really beautiful, very simple act."
As for the play's title character, has the theatre bug bitten her after five years of experience?
"There may be a part of her that wants to do another story, and we're kicking around some ideas. But at the end of the day, I don't think for her it's so much about acting," Jain says.
"It's really about meeting people and the connection she gets with an audience. That's the thing she really enjoys. She's always been a people person, and I think that's the bug that she wants to seek."
A Brimful of Asha will be at the Old Fire Hall from Thursday to Saturday, January 26-28. Show time is 7:30 p.m.
NeoIndigenA: One woman's dance journey to connection and renewal
Two broken legs and a fractured collarbone at the age of three might easily have squelched Santee Smith's innate love of dance. Instead, they had the opposite effect.
"I had all of my injuries in the span of a year. That really took a toll on my body, so that's one of the reasons why I started into formal dance training, to strengthen my body."
Now one of Canada's most accomplished dancers and choreographers, Smith doesn't even remember when her passion for dance began.
"As soon as I could walk, my tie was to music. As soon as I heard music, apparently, I would be just lost in movement. So the accidents were kind of like a blessing in disguise, because I was able to get some dance training."
While the specialty of the Kaha:wi Dance Theatre she founded in 2005 is marrying indigenous dance forms with contemporary dance, Smith's own formal training was quite different.
Growing up as a member of the Six Nations of the Grand River, near Brantford, Ontario, the young Smith had no access to contemporary dance, which was available only in large cities such as Toronto and New York.
Even six years of training with the National Ballet of Canada did not expose her to much in the way of contemporary dance. What she did have was an ongoing exposure to the traditional dances of her community.
"I never trained in any formal contemporary dance. My work comes through my individual exploration of how I like to move, and also my study of indigenous dance styles," she explains.
"When I did my very beginning choreography, it looked very balletic, but I was telling the creation story of Sky Woman. The other one I did at the beginning was a trio of Corn, Beans and Squash (the traditional Three Sisters of indigenous agriculture and nutrition), which are represented in the female body."
For her, the fusion in her work is not so much a technical matter of specific dance genres as it is about narrative and content, and how that is embodied in the dance itself.
"It is what it is; it comes out through the body and through the telling of the work."
After her formal training, Smith worked in indigenous theatre with the Toronto-based Native Earth Performing Arts while she was deciding on a career.
"I came back into dance when I was asked to choreograph. So that evolution started fairly slowly, and I was still exploring and not quite sure where my path would lead me."
During two years of caring for her new daughter, she says, she spent much of her time dreaming of what she wanted to do for her first independent choreography.
"I had already been working on developing a piece about an Onkwehon:we story, and it turned into a family creation story."
That work, named Kaha:wi (pronounced "ga-HA-we) after her grandmother, made its debut at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre in 2004,and led to the incorporation of the company by the same name a year later.
"I wanted to be able to tell our indigenous stories in main-stage theatres across Canada and around the world, really. It was a part of the dream, the vision, and I still keep working the dream. I still keep trying to make that happen," she says.
"Going on 11 years now, we've been building a repertoire body of work, and we've been touring internationally. So it's had a really nice growth since 2005,' she says.
In the Mohawk language, Smith explains, the word Kaha:wi means "to carry", which she sees in both literal and metaphorical senses.
"It can be metaphorical in many ways, in particular because the community is matrilineal. It's the woman who is carrying forward all our lineage and our genealogy and our understanding of the world."
That theme is part of the message Smith will bring to this year's Pivot Festival, when she performs her solo piece, NeoIndigenA, which has been part of the company's extensive repertoire since 2014.
"It's always been a personal challenge for me, not only as a performer, but as a person, to be able to do this work. Every time I come to it, there's always something new, and a new understanding of what it is I'm doing," she says.
"As a solo, it is an individual process, sort of an individual healing. It's an individual call for connection to land, ancestors, past/present/future that lives all-in-one in our bodies," she adds.
"So it has that individualistic part to it, but it also magnifies to extend out into community, because when you heal yourself, you heal others."
NeoIndigenA will be on the Yukon Arts Centre main stage on Friday, January 27 and Saturday, January 28. Curtain time is 8:00 p.m.
Public Secret: Speaking about what usually goes unspoken
Whitehorse artistic collaborators Selene Vakharia and Chelsea Jeffery will make a return appearance at Pivot Fest with an immersive piece that addresses one of the most uncomfortable subjects of all: human mortality.
Last year, the duo presented the Death Sex Money Salon, which Vakharia terms "an exploration of the three most taboo and most fascinating topics" of everyday life.
"This one's going to be the next iteration of it. As we were having more conversations with people about it, the death, dying and afterlife part of it really stood out, so we decided to focus entirely on that and really dive as deep as we could into it."
The new work, called Public Secret, ramps up both the site specific nature of its predecessor, and the level of interactivity with the audience.
"That's the kind of performance that we really are passionate about, and when we started collaborating, we were really interested in that idea of having something where the audience was participating, and not just observing."
Rather than unfolding in a traditional performance space, the work will take place in three heritage buildings in Shipyards Park, the old Pioneer and the Chambers and Jenni houses.
"Each of the buildings contains installations that people can physically interact with. Those are combined with audio elements that reflect the kind of conversations that we' been having with people around death and dying," Jeffery explains.
"There are also performance components, so people will be kind of interacting with the performers as well."
Vakharia picks up the narrative.
"The way it's structured is very much a 'choose your own adventure' for the audience. While there's some structure to it, in the sense that there are scripted performances, there are also unscripted performances that adapt to the audience's needs," she says.
"The audience can follow the path that they find most interesting, so no two shows are really alike, and even if an audience member went back for a second time, it would be a different experience for them."
The collaborators say the piece has evolved from what was originally conceived as a fairly light look at a sombre topic to something more meaningful as they talked with other people and explored their own beliefs and thoughts about death and dying.
The result, they say, retains an uplifting and hopeful element, but is aimed more at the kind of discussion they hope to stimulate.
"I don't think it became darker, but there are definitely some moments that are heavier, or sad, and it does reflect people's feelings of grief," Jeffery says.
"There are also moments that are very hopeful, and all the parts that were pretty heavy have been paired with something that brings in that element of hope and support."
Jeffrey says the people who were interested in talking with them tended to be those who had had really deep and meaningful experiences with death.
"Maybe they've had someone very close to them die and that was obviously a very difficult experience, but they've come out of it with some kind of understanding, or some kind of different perspective on life, so there's always that element as well."
Parts of some of those conversation will be available in audio form. Others have been incorporated into scripts that will be read by actors. The program will also include a number of non-actors sharing their own perspectives on the subject.
Audience members are free to participate, or just observe.
"It (death) is kind of the biggest public secret, where everyone's going to go through it and everyone's thinking about it, but no one want to talk about it," Vakharia says.
The intention behind the piece, she adds, is to help provide people with the beginning of a framework for thinking and talking about mortality.
With that, they can "really deal with and feel supported about their own death that's going to happen, but also about others in their lives who are going to pass away. So they don't have to go through as rough a time, or as terrible a grief as you would feel when you don't ever face it."
Performances of Public Secret will take place Monday, January 23 at 6:15 and 8:15 p.m., and Wednesday, January 25 at the same times. The final performance will be Friday, January 27 at 9:30 p.m.
Only 20 tickets are available for each show.