In a year of major initiatives at the National Arts Centre, the creation of a department of Indigenous Theatre is one that stands out. And that makes the choice of the person to be the first artistic director of the new theatre a major development, one that is full of hope and heavy with expectations.
That person is now known. He is the actor, director, playwright Kevin Loring. His appointment was announced Thursday morning.
Loring is Nlakap’amux from the Lytton First Nation in British Columbia. He has always been a showman it seems. As a kid in the B.C. interior, he and his cousins started a party company and would throw dances twice a month, charging $5 at the door and selling pop and chips.
The 42-year-old then caught the theatre bug and is a graduate of Studio 58 and the Full Circle First Nations Performance: Ensemble Training Program. He has appeared as an actor in many productions including the world premieres of Burning Vision, Copper Thunderbird and The Edward Curtis Project all written by the Vancouver-based Metis writer Marie Clements.
He is no stranger to the NAC. He was Edmund in the NAC’s 2012 production of King Lear which featured an all-indigenous cast. He has been a playwright-in-residence and a member of the NAC’s English Theatre Company.
As a playwright the 42-year-old has won a Governor General’s Literary Award for Where the Blood Mixes. In fact he’s finishing a new script for the Arts Club in Vancouver that he will also direct next fall called Thanks for Giving before he starts work officially at the NAC on Oct. 16. He is also the artistic director of Savage Society, a theatre company dedicated to telling Indigenous stories. And on Wednesday night, he was on stage at the NAC performing in the popular musical Children of God produced by Vancouver’s Urban Ink company. In other words he has a long track record of note in the independent-minded indigenous theatre community.
So what is he doing accepting a job with a federal institution, in effect, working for The Man.
“There are a lot of people who said, ‘Why would you want that job?’,” he said in an interview with ARTSFILE.
Turns out he believes it is a great chance to share the stories of indigenous peoples.
“If you are going to work for The Man, the NAC is The Man to work for. I have carte blanche I can do what I want. (NAC CEO) Peter Herrndorf is, like, ‘You go be an artist’ and that’s very inspiring.
“I thought it was an immense, one-of-a-kind opportunity. When I decided to apply I thought to myself ‘If this is going to be an extension of the work that I am already doing, this is going the be amazing’.” And he realized, he said, he would have regretted not taking his shot at a job with a budget the size of the other two theatre departments at the NAC, in the $3 million range, with access to tons of infrastructure and the capacity to turn on a dime and implement an idea.
Loring is well aware that being the first of anything is always fraught with risk, but he also knows all about starting fresh.
“Most of the projects that I have done with my theatre company have never been done before. And so far noone has gotten hurt. If this is to be a national project, a national indigenous theatre company, then we need to reach artists and communities from coast to coast to coast and that’s really exciting. I’m very interested in creating a circle of artists across the country.”
The first performance season will be 2019-2020. The budget for that first season envisions eight shows, he says. He is thinking of staging four in Ottawa and four more out in the regions of the country. The latter four could be in the form of supporting work that will eventually be brought to Ottawa. Or it could involve creating work with a community and presenting it in that community. Or it could involve touring shows.
“It’s very important for us to have our work on the stages (at the NAC) but it is also very important for us to reach out to the rest of the country.”
The big question for Loring going into the hiring process for the job was ‘Who is this for?’
His answer: It is for the NAC and its audience but it is also for indigenous people who are spread out all over Canada and “who don’t necessarily go to theatre and who aren’t interested in it because a ticket could cost $65 and it’s being performed in an elite institution that’s not for them.”
His company Savage Society has been going on location in communities in B.C. and working with people in those places to create and present plays based on creation stories. He is hoping to take that grassroots model and replicate it on a national scale. In many ways, he believes this kind of project would also help the NAC fulfill its national role more visibly and it would help ease competition for the stages in the NAC that are already jammed with performances.
“First Nations culture is built on storytelling, it’s an oral tradition. When we tell a story there is a song and if there is a song there is a dance. And they are also all the same: the story is the song and is the dance. That’s what this company is going to be like.” And so an audience may go to one of Loring’s shows and see a story told totally in dance.
This leads to a question about what qualifies as indigenous theatre. It isn’t, he says, a novel by a white author adapted by a white director that features indigenous actors, culture and characters.
“There is a Cree MacBeth being staged in Edmonton. The director is indigenous and it’s an indigenous spin on Shakespeare. I would argue that that is an piece of indigenous theatre. The lens through which we are receiving the work is from an indigenous perspective.”
But is that not cultural appropriation?
Loren’s answer is no. “Cultural appropriation is whenever the dominant society is appropriating an indigenous work or a work from a marginalized community as their own and selling it as their own, hocking it as their own authentic work. Then we are into cultural appropriation because that’s exploitation. When you make Cowichan sweaters in China, and sell them for $50, you are exploiting a tradition, without any context, for personal gain.”
How will he choose his directors and cast his shows.
“If Marie Clements wanted Peter Hinton (the white theatre director) to direct her opera Missing, I’m not going to say no. If a white director approached me and said ‘I have this indigenous play I want to do, I’m probably going to say no.”
He says he’d cast white actors and actors who aren’t white “if it’s appropriate.” But, in principle, he’s not a fan of colour-blind casting.
He knows he will be in a powerful position in the theatre world, but “I will also be very accountable. If I (screw) up everybody will tell me. How much hate am I going to get from white nationalists and conservatives?” He also knows he might get some grief from indigenous people. “You just have to suck it up and deal with it.”
One of the expectations he won’t face right away will be pressure for ticket sales. The NAC is prepared to accept that full houses may not happen right away. Even so Loring believes the stories that will be told by indigenous theatre artists will attract the attention and interest of audiences.
When the discussion first started about an indigenous theatre inside the NAC, the centre consulted indigenous artists, including Loring. The artists asked: ‘Why shouldn’t we have our own theatre?’ “That’s a very valid argument,” he said. “We should have our own theatre. That’s the perfect solution. This is the good solution.”
Perhaps that is why Loring is already pushing for a separate theatre space outside of the NAC where indigenous artists can experiment, plays can be workshopped and staged before a small audience and technicians can be trained. He proposed it in fact during his job interview and the senior management at the centre is not saying no — yet.
Tradition has it that when actors want to wish each other good luck on a performance, they say ‘Break a leg” or ‘Merde.’ Indigenous actors say ‘Wound a knee,’ Loring says. Starting Oct. 16, he will begin building his department and start travelling the country meeting artists and visiting communties.
It will be Kevin Loring’s biggest performance. Wound a knee, Kevin.