This week the new NAC Indigenous Theatre department will begin its first season with a massive festival of Indigenous performing arts called Mòshkamo, an Algonquin word meaning, according to a media release: the act of appearing out of water, inviting others to bear witness to the arrival.
To that end, there will be a meaningful grand opening on Sept. 14 with the arrival of a flotilla of some 25 canoes paddling up the Rideau Canal.
Mòshkamo features two-and-a-half weeks of:
• Twelve concerts – including Buffy Sainte-Marie and Susan Aglukark;
• Four plays, including the Marie Clements’ play The Unnatural and Accidental Women which is the first NAC Indigenous Theatre production;
• Two dance performances;
• A slew of artist talkbacks, masterclasses, story-building sessions and free noon-hour programming in the NAC’s public spaces.
There will also be workshops, art exhibits, free public programming and food.
On Sept. 12 Chef Rich Francis and NAC Executive Chef, Kenton Leier will collaborate and curate a menu infused with indigenous ingredients and techniques. Francis is a member of the Tetlit Gwich’in and Tuscarora Nations. He now lives in Saskatoon where his restaurant 7th Fire is a must stop gourmands. He’s also well known for what he calls his Reconciliation dinners.
For Kevin Loring, the artistic director of the NAC’s Indigenous Theatre, the intention of this activity is all about “occupying the NAC as much as possible” with Indigenous arts and culture.
“If we were just doing that, it would be epic,” Loring said. But really there is much more.
“Not only are we doing our first production; not only are we doing this massive festival we are doing this major ceremony to open it all up. Any one of these would be a major event.”
The gathering is also bringing together a conference of Indigenous creators from Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and Norway to advance a discussion about an international Indigenous touring network.
Talk on this began in Loring’s first year on the job.
“I went to APAM in Australia and was talking about this initiative.” The conversation continued in New York where it was determined to centre the conversation around Indigenous artists and their needs instead of settler promoter allies.
The NAC is hosting the third discussion on this concept. The international representatives will meet in an invite-only gathering that runs from Sept. 15 to 17.
“We expect to have at least a path forward at end of the meeting,” Loring said. “It’s almost like building a consortium of presenters that will commit to presenting Indigenous work internationally.
“All over the world there are Indigenous folks whether people realize it or not.” He believes the time is right for this sort of initiative.
One thing Mòshkamo will underline is the level of creativity, and the quality of the work being produced by Indigenous performers, he said.
“People ask me what is the easiest part of my job. It’s curation. There is so much to choose from that is current, let alone things in the canon of Indigenous theatre.”
The grand opening ceremony itself will acknowledge that tradition and celebrate four artists who have been pivotal in the development of Indigenous performing arts.
“We are doing an Algonquin-led canoe procession down the Rideau Canal. We have a water ceremony happening that morning and a fire ceremony. Then we’ll do a grand entrance into the NAC.” That will be highlight by a blanketing ceremony that will acknowledge the artistic elders. Their names are being withheld until the event.
Loring says he believes the scope and scale of what NAC Indigenous Theatre is trying to do has so far been under-appreciated. “That goes for the government that even goes for the rest of the NAC.”
Outside Canada, he said, it is certainly being noticed.
“It’s big. Part of it there is that sense that this is happening in Canada and it’s a big deal. A national institution with a lot of resources and with capacity is open for Indigenous artists.
“I think of it as a beacon for other nations with Indigenous populations. It may encourage them to look at the way they acknowledge their own Indigenous artists. I think that it is an eye-opener for a lot of folks and I am hoping it will be that beacon.”
He said the artists in other countries wish their own countries were doing something like this.
This past winter, in the wake of a disappointing federal budget, Loring was moved to speak out on Facebook.
He said at the time: “I have now been put in the disturbing position of overseeing a department whose creation and existence is a financial burden to an already stressed institution – the NAC has not received an increase to its annual base funding in 15 years.”
He hasn’t changed his opinion, but he’s moving forward making lemonade out of lemons.
“Every time I do an interview people ask about the money. For me that is useful. It’s important for the community to know what we are working with.
“From my perspective, there is a sense that because we are at the NAC, we have all the resources in the world. A reality check on that is important.”
Indigenous Theatre has an operating budget of about $2 million and that will be the base going forward, he said. But even that amount is limiting.
Indigenous Theatre doesn’t have to cash to easily put on their own production on the NAC’s main stage. They would have to partner with another department.
“I would like to have our own sovereignty over that. I’d like to be the artistic director of a company that on its own can choose to do those productions.”
Still, he said, “what has been wonderful is that every department in the building has partnered with us this first season and that has been amazing. In an institution that has historically been siloed to have this much cross-pollination between departments” is amazing.
Loring’s job carries, he said, “an immense weight as well as a celebration As much as it’s uplifting, there is an immense responsibility. There is need to get it right as best as you can and there are a lot of expectations. We will never meet all of those expectations. It is impossible.”
The NAC as an institution has been operating for 50 years and this is a brand new thing, he said.
“This is the first season and we will make mistakes and there will be things that clunk. I believe the season we have picked is exceptional. All the artists deserve to be on a national stage and that’s the guiding light that we have to follow.”
Even though he is the head of Indigenous Theatre at the NAC, Loring is still a working artist.
He is a member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation in British Columbia where “I still get to run my own company. I get to go back home every summer and do a community project.
“This summer we did a piece that was actually the first piece in this project called Battle of the Birds. It’s a play about domestic violence and power abuse set in the bird nation in myth time. It was great to revisit it. We did it in my community in Lytton, B.C., with 40 community members and a team of professionals.”
The Unnatural and Accidental Women
Babs Asper Theatre. Sept. 13 to 21, previews Sept. 11 & 12.)
Written by Marie Clements, directed by Muriel Miguel.
An NAC Indigenous Theatre / NAC English Theatre Co-production. In English, featuring Coast Salish. The play deals with the murders Indigenous women by a serial killer named Gilbert Paul Jordan from 1965 to 1988.
Là où le sang se mêle / Where the Blood Mixes
Azrieli Studio Sept. 13-14 in French Sept. 16-18 in English
Written by Kevin Loring. Translated and directed by Charles Bender. A Menuentakuan production in collaboration with Teesri Duniya Theatre. Featuring Nlaka’pamux’stn language. This script won Loring the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama. It is described as a transformational story of tragedy and hope.
Southam Hall, Sept. 15.
Susan Aglukark and the NAC Orchestra (Conductor Nicolas Ellis)
Southam Hall, Sept. 20.
Finding Wolastoq Voice
Azrieli Studio, Sept. 21-23 Azrieli Studio
By Samaqani Cocahq (Natalie Sappier)
A Theatre New Brunswick production in association with Prairie Theatre Exchange. In English, featuring Wolastoqiyik.
Finding Wolastoq Voice is a first work by Indigenous artist-turned-playwright Samaqani Cocahq (Natalie Sappier) of Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick. It is a dance-theatre coming-of-age story of a young Wolastoqiyik woman, awakened by the voices of her ancestors.
Azrieli Studio, Sept. 26-28
Created by the Dancers of Damelahamid. Mînowin connects Northwest Coastal landscapes and legends with contemporary Indigenous dance.
A night of music by Indigenous composers Andrew Balfour, Ian Cusson and Barbara Croall.
With the NAC Orchestra conducted by Alexander Shelley.
Southam Hall Sept. 19. This concert will also feature Grieg’s Peer Gynt with narration by Tom Jackson.
Le Loup de Lafontaine, composer Ian Cusson
With the NAC orchestra conducted by John Storgårds
Southam Hall, Sept. 27.
The work is based on a real story about a wolf that came into town at the turn of the 20th century in the community near Midland, Ontario, the home of the composer.