Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that we are here tonight on the territory of the Multnomah and Clackamus Nations.
I always struggle when trying to figure out how to start a speech. Once I get the beginning, the rest tends to fall in place. Finding this beginning involved quite a lot of procrastination. After seeing me read my tenth or twelfth article about NHL free agency, my wife sarcastically suggested that I might try starting with “Webster’s Dictionary defines dramaturgy as…”. After I gave her a glare, she said if that didn’t work for me, I could try an inspirational quote. Oddly enough, that clicked for me. So, here goes.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
What if you find out that the roads were never meant to be there, but that you need to get to where they lead anyway? Can you find your way without recreating those same mistakes?
Tonight’s recipient faced this predicament. Rather than starting a new trail on her own, the recipient asked and empowered others to lead. Through respect, listening and never presuming to know the path, a new way forward was created.
So what was this moment that lead to this decision?
Four years ago, the incoming Artistic Director of the National Arts Centre called the recipient and asked her, as part of her new position, to head an inquiry into First Nations plays in Canada. This was a challenging proposition for the recipient as she is not Indigenous. This was something she was keenly aware of before accepting the challenge and so the first decision was to approach an Indigenous theatre artist to co-curate this investigation. Yvette Nolan was this partner and she wrote a letter of support for the recipient for this award. I’ll come back to her words at the end.
With a partner in place, a two year structure was devised to accomplish the goals of this investigation: To impact broadly on programming choices being made not just at the National Arts Centre, but at theatres across the Canada, and also to create outcomes that would offer vital and necessary steps towards bringing Indigenous approaches and stories closer to the centre of Canada’s theatrical and, by extension, national identity.
You know, small manageable goals.
The Cycle, as it came to be called, was a three-part investigation whose components included The Summit, The Study and The Repast, which aimed to engage deeply with Indigenous Theatre and the Body of Work. The Cycle started in Banff with The Summit. For three days in April of 2014, leaders of Indigenous Theatre gathered and they were joined by institutional ‘Listeners’ from major arts organization across Canada at The Banff Centre. The two goals of the Summit were to engage in a dialogue about understanding and to translate the notion of a ‘Canon’ of Indigenous theatre in Canada into acknowledgment of a ‘Body’ of Indigenous Work. Listeners were invited to The Summit with the understanding that except for certain times and certain sessions, they would not speak but instead listen to the Indigenous artistic leaders talk amongst themselves. By the time the sessions where the Listeners were invited to participate in the conversation arrived, they had already clocked their own tendencies, and so were less likely to try and “solve” something for the assembly. This practice has now been used at other gatherings of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Additionally, The Summit took advantage of the knowledge held by the assembly and generated a list of all the Canadian Indigenous theatre pieces that they knew to exist. Titled the Indigenous Body of Work, it is a living list, which continues to be added to, and lives on the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance website
The next two phases, The Study and The Repast, traveled to Manitoulin Island, the home of Debajehmujig Storytellers, an Indigenous theatre company that was founded in 1984. In 2009, Debajehmujig opened its Creation Centre, which hosted The Study and the Repast. One year and ten days after The Summit, The Study began on Manitoulin Island. There was a challenge and a promise in gathering in a proudly situated and strongly resourced Indigenous Space. It immediately changed the focal length on viewing, understanding and witnessing Indigenous work from a non Indigenous perspective
The Study gathered Indigenous leaders, artists and students from across the land, while The Repast brought together over 100 additional professionals from the national theatre community to share in the findings at The Cycle’s conclusion.
To the work with Indigenous Artists and students at Debahjemujig lent power to the proceedings, to share it with the rest of the country, those that were there and those that sat in via live stream was to underline the centrality of these stories at our nation’s heart
The goal of The Study and The Repast was to tear away the story divide and to implicate all of Canada, settlers, new Canadians, and Indigenous peoples alike in a story that we all share.The outcomes of The Study and The Repast are still unfolding, but there is at least one we know. I’m going to save that for the end.
As I promised earlier though, let’s come back to the words Yvette Nolan used to describe this project and her co-curator:
“She has recognised her power and her privilege, and has used it – in this time that she holds it – to make change. Like any dramaturg worth her salt, she has kept her eye on the goal.
This is the very best kind of dramaturgy, that guides us all towards where all have expressed a desire to go. It is a dramaturgy that keeps us yearning to the thing that exists, the statue in the marble, the quiddity of the thing, the thing that is meant to be.
One of our prophets and political leaders, Louis Riel, said – shortly before he was hanged for treason, “My people will sleep for a hundred years, and when they awake, it will be the artists who give them back their spirits”. This nation is shuffling towards reconciliation, and the artists are beginning to fulfil the prophecy, but we will need allies to open doors, hold them open, and have their toes trampled in the process.
She has been that ally. She has been visionary in that she has seen what is not there and worked to make it visible, make room for it. Along the way, she has worked to educate herself, to seek out and listen to the teachings. Then she holds all that knowledge and makes it available and visible to her colleagues in the National Arts Centre and the national theatre scene. She practices a radical inclusion, which is a hard, hard path to follow.
It is too early to know how this initiative will unfold, how many obstacles lay before us, but no matter what, we are transformed, those of us who were privy to The Summit and The Study, and the reverberations from that work will continue to resonate, affecting our communities, personal and professional, local, national and global, for years to come. This is a watershed. And with her vision and her determination and her humility has been a huge part of making this moment possible, at this moment in time.”
We may not now just how The Cycle will unfold, and what its full impact will be for the theatrical landscape in Canada, or the country as a whole. But we do know that right now, in 2016, thanks in large part to this work, we are one year from knowing who will be the first Artistic Director of the brand new Indigenous Theatre section at Canada’s National Arts Centre and that a few years from now we will be seeing the inaugural season of Indigenous Theatre unfold there. The National Arts Centre turns 50 in 2019 and it is finally ready to acknowledge First People’s stories as centrally important to the cultural condition of Canada.
For shepherding along this work with vision, humility and determination, I am proud to present the 2016 Elliott Hayes Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dramaturgy to Sarah Stanley.
Unfortunately, Sarah is unable to be with us tonight. Michael Wheeler will be accepting on her behalf.
- Stephen Colella, LMDA VP Programs