Gwaandak Theatre is putting on a reading series this summer featuring three plays written by First Nations playwrights, borrowing the skills of some local First Nation actors — some who are brand new to the theatre stage.
The whole idea makes Patti Flather and Leonard Linklater, co-founders of Gwaandak Theatre, excited and hopeful.
“We wanted to reach out to First Nation Yukoners to explore theatre in a non-threatening way,” Flather says. “Give some opportunities to those who had some experience acting, and those who had none. We also wanted to show people how many Aboriginal plays are out there.”
Flather and Linklater decided on producing several readings instead of mounting full productions. This way they could showcase more plays. Readings are much easier to put on than a full theatre production, require less rehearsal, less overall cost and can run for a one-night performance in any community.
Flather and Linklater thought this was a good way to introduce people to several Aboriginal playwrights — a smörgåsbord, if you will — that allows someone to get a good taste of what’s being written for, and by, Canada’s First Nations.
The first of the readings (June 23) was Sixty Below, Linklater’s and Flather’s own play. It was produced down South, but had an extensive run up in the Yukon as they both took the play to the communities in 1999. It has a Yukon setting and was hugely popular when it toured.
The second (July 7) is a play from Kenneth T. Williams called Bannock Republic, using characters from his earlier play, Thunderstick.
You might remember the playwright, Kenneth Williams. He came up for the Yukon Writers Festival last year.
Bannock Republic tells the story of Jacob, a videojournalist for APTN, Isaac, a new chief — both friends in the earlier play — and introduces Destiny, a woman and third party representative, who comes to financially take over the reserve drowning in debt.
“It’s very funny,” says Eric Epstein, hired as the director for Bannock Republic. “I’ve seen a lot of First Nation theatre over the last few years and there’s lots being written — more and more — and this is one that stands out.”
The third play (July 14) is Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters featuring “seven of the greatest roles ever written for women,” Flather says. Highway’s work, probably the best known of the four playwrights, was produced in Toronto, earned several Dora awards for theatre, and featured a hilarious knock-down drag-out fight between all seven women.
They believe all of the plays capture the strength, resiliency and humour of Aboriginal culture despite adversity, the effects of colonization and discrimination. “And these plays, they don’t hold anything back,” Flather says. “They celebrate the human spirit.”
Linklater and Flather formed Gwaandak Theatre back in 1999 to remount Sixty Below for a millennial production. They felt like there was a need for a company that would focus on under-represented groups — specifically First Nation groups — and give them a professional theatre company to tell, and produce, their stories.
Williams believes that what Gwaandak Theatre does is extremely important for every community.
“There are only a few professional Aboriginal theatres in Canada,” he says. “Yet, there are many exciting young Aboriginal playwrights in Canada like Tara Beagan, Waawaate Anishnaabe Fobister and Kevin Loring who are shaking things up in the theatre world.
“Mainstream theatres are paying attention to us, and that’s great, but it would be unfair and unrealistic to ask them to program an entire season to just Aboriginal writers.
“It’s about showing the diversity of writing within the Aboriginal community, it’s about sharing stories and learning from one another.
“The other benefit is to inspire young Aboriginal people to be theatre artists. Theatre is a great profession. And we need more Aboriginal theatre artists.”
This summer reading series is another bright idea from Gwaandak to do just that — to showcase as many Aboriginal playwrights and actors as they can.
The readings highlight the talents of Sharon Shorty, Kevin Barr, Boyd Benjamin, Sean Smith, Missy Sheldon and Charles Eshelman among others.
Flather and Linklater both hope that the idea of a summer reading series takes off, so they can do this every summer.
The plays are for everyone — both First Nation and non-First Nation. They do contain mature content so parental discretion is advised.
Next up, at The Old Fire Hall on July 7 and the 14, Bannock Republic and The Rez Sisters, respectively.