NAC Indigenous Theatre: Catching up with Kevin Loring’s learning curve

Kevin Loring is nominated for his play Thanks for Giving.

Kevin Loring, who this summer was appointed artistic director of the new Indigenous Theatre at the National Arts Centre, assumed his official duties in October. The Governor General Award-winning playwright, actor and teacher is a member of the N’lakap’amux People from Lytton First Nation in British Columbia and will be joined this spring by Lori Marchand, the theatre’s first managing director.

Patrick Langston caught up with Loring recently to see what he has been up to and what he has planned for the coming year as he prepares for the theatre’s inaugural season in 2019-2020.

The following has been edited for brevity.

Q. It’s early days yet, but are your expectations about your job being met?

A. I didn’t really know what to expect, but so far, so good. I’m kind of getting carte blanche; so long as I’m presenting excellent Indigenous theatre, I can do it any way I want, which is amazing. I still have the shiny, new smell on me, and everybody’s very supportive – but I haven’t a chance to (screw) up yet.

Q. What have you been doing so far?

A. Building the team, and then we’re going to sit down to figure out our strategic priorities and how we want to operate. Also begin having discussions with the community about points of friction, points of interest, where we want to take this department – just start with really important conversations that need to be had within the Indigenous theatrical community.

Q. You must already be working on your first season. What can you say about that?

A. I won’t announce the season until the last possible moment. I’m holding my cards close. I’m already going around and seeing what’s happening in the community, seeing shows, making sure the NAC has a presence at important openings. It’s also important for me to see works that aren’t strictly Indigenous to be inspired.

Q. Your plan is to present four shows at the NAC and four shows touring communities. How will the community side of that work?

A. For the last seven years, I’ve been deeply involved in a project called Songs of the Land based in my community. I was researching 100-year-old wax cylinders of recordings of my people telling stories, singing songs, speaking the language, and then creating little plays with an ensemble of community members back home and presenting them to the community. I’m thinking of something like that, on a broader scale: NAC Indigenous goes to Manitoba, gets a group of pros, builds a show based on a story from the area and tours it through the region. A big part of this gig is, I’m in Ottawa and everything I present here is in Ottawa, so how is that a national anything? I’ll present at the NAC the top picks of the season from around the country, but the other half will be getting shows to Indigenous audiences where they’re at.

Q. You’ve said one of your goals is to develop Indigenous theatre designers and others. How large is that pool of talent right now?

A. There’s a handful of actual working artists – visual artists, clothing designers — with transferrable skills. We want to bring them in with practicing theatre designers and see if we can bring them over to the dark side. Indigenous artists might not ever think to apply their work to the theatre; there is a kind of perception that the theatre might not be for “us” that I think we have to break down.

Q. How are you planning to bring in Indigenous audiences who, at least in cities like Ottawa, may not be used to going to the theatre?

A. That’s a huge part of this job. We’ll be doing stories that speak to them. And making it attractive to them financially – you’re talking about some of the poorest communities in the country, so you’re not going to charge $65 for a show. We have to examine our financial model and make it easy for them to participate. There are companies across the country experimenting with pay-what-you-decide or what-you-can. The other thing is making people comfortable. I’m from a tiny village and when I was first moving into the city, I was very intimidated by the noise and busy-ness and the attitudes. For some, it’s very intimidating to come into the city, let alone to an elite arts centre. It’s my job to knock that veneer down, to make it a safe place. I have some strategies but I’ve only been here a few weeks. 

Q. How will you draw non-Indigenous audiences?

A. To be honest, my concern is not how to speak to a non-Indigenous audience, because I think they will come. Our stories are interesting, they’re novel to the general public, so the curiosity factor helps us. There’s not a play in the Indigenous canon that doesn’t address serious issues in our culture, so there’s impact in our work. And there’s a ton of humour, a particular kind of dark humour, so people are generally entertained with our work. I think right now people are interested in Indigenous issues in a way they never have been before, and that will bring people in.

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.