NAC’s Lori Marchand moved by the power of theatre

Lori Marchand is the general manager of Indigenous Theatre at the National Arts Centre. Photo: Red Works Photography

Lori Marchand — the first managing director of NAC Indigenous Theatre, which starts its inaugural season in September — is still moved by the memory of those students from Lilloett, BC.

A member of the Syilx Nation, Marchand was, from 1999 until joining the NAC last year, executive director of Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops, B.C., a couple of hours distant from small-town Lilloett. The company integrated Indigenous theatre into its lineup during her tenure, and St’at’imc Nation (Lilloett Nation) students were sometimes part of the audience.

“Seeing their reactions were some of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had,” says Marchand. “I think they recognized their voices, they recognized themselves and their experiences… That is what I think the power of theatre is: We experience it communally but at the end of the day it’s an individual response.  The potential for transformation I think is huge.”

The power of theatre has gripped Marchand since she was young. She grew up in Ottawa after her father, the late Len Marchand Sr., was elected in 1968 as the first Indigenous member of Parliament, representing the riding of Kamloops-Cariboo.

“Arts were always a really big part of my life. I sang in choirs and took dance lessons and piano lessons and I did all the school plays,” says Marchand, noting that while her mother was an opera enthusiast, her dad gravitated toward old-school country music artists like Canadian legend Wilf Carter.

As a youngster, Marchand would hop the bus every Saturday from her home in Bayshore to attend classes at Ottawa Little Theatre on King Edward Avenue. She even landed the role of the princess in the musical The Valiant Tailor. “I could sing, dance and act all at the same time,” she recalls fondly.

While living in Ottawa, she attended her first show at the NAC. It was  Ten Lost Years, a dramatic portrait of the Great Depression based on a book by Barry Broadfoot. She doesn’t remember much about the mid-1970s show but does recall being wowed by the glamour of the building and the occasion.

When Marchand’s father lost his seat in the 1979 federal election, the family returned to Kamloops, and she enrolled at the University of British Columbia, studying English and some theatre.

Ten years later, she found herself living in the small community of Whitecourt, AB, with young children. “I went back to doing community theatre to stay sane,” she says with a laugh. Marchand still remembers, with some bemusement, saying to the theatre group, “‘I’ve taken a directing course. I can direct.’ And they let me!”

There followed a decade of building her theatre reputation with community and semi-professional companies in the west while raising her three daughters (a soccer and rugby fan, she refereed the latter) and doing work for organizations like the B.C. and Ontario Native Women’s Associations  and the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

She also got to know the late David Ross, the long-time artistic director of Western Canada Theatre. In 1999, she accepted his offer of a job. 

The company’s inclusion of Indigenous theatre was almost inevitable, according to Marchand. “The interaction between the city and the First Nations there (Tk’emlups te Secwepemc) is very integrated so it was very natural for the theatre company to interact with that community and produce Indigenous theatre.”

That mounting of Indigenous theatre included, in 2009, a new co-production at the NAC of George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. The play had opened the NAC’s Studio Theatre (now the Azrieli Studio) in 1969 and the 2009 show marked the NAC’s 40th anniversary. Marchand worked with her long-time colleague Kevin Loring, now the artistic director of NAC Indigenous Theatre, on the new production, which in turn sparked the discussions culminating in the establishment of the Indigenous Theatre operation at the NAC.

As far as Marchand is aware, the 2009 show “was the first time (it) had been directed by an Indigenous director with Indigenous actors in the Indigenous roles… From there to the creation of the Indigenous Theatre department was a very natural through line.”

In a happy confluence of events, Len Marchand Sr. had attended the 1969 version of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, in which famed Indigenous actor August Schellenberg had appeared, and the MP and performer struck up a friendship. Schellenberg, who died in 2013, also performed in the 2009 show.

Lori Marchand is now gearing up for the start of the first season of NAC Indigenous Theatre, which also marks the NAC’s 50th anniversary.

With the lineup including much-anticipated shows like Marie Clements’ The Unnatural and Accidental Women, a co-production with NAC English Theatre, and Finding Wolastoq Voice by Samaqani Cocahq (Natalie Sappier), the season opens with a splash as part of Mòshkamo, the multi-disciplinary Indigenous arts festival that takes over the NAC from Sept. 11-29. More shows follow in the new year.

“We want to tell stories that are hopeful, forward-looking, that are grounded in our culture,” says Marchand.

She sees those stories as part of the process of truth and reconciliation, although she says, “We’re still at the truth part.”

“Reconciliation is a tricky word,” she continues, “and I think the majority of people come at it with a good heart. One of the things about the arts is that it does build empathy and understanding. It’s a personal, emotional response that I think is going to affect change; I think we have to get there before there can really be reconciliation.”

Marchand has also been working closely with Loring on building the new organization’s vision and strategy.

She says that, while the NAC has a long history of producing First Nations work, it’s been on a show-by-show basis. Now she and her team are working at “Indigenizing the institution” by ensuring recognition of Indigenous protocol and the Algonquin nation, on whose unceded territory the NAC sits. They are also working to make sure that welcoming all audiences is embedded in the everyday life of the centre.

That welcoming has included open-to-everyone activities like the Powwow Workout Class, a First Nations’ celebration of dance, song and food running through the summer. Marchand lights up as she remembers looking down on the class earlier this summer: “One of our janitors in his steel-toed boots and his whole gear was doing the Powwow Workout with a massive smile on his face. That was just fantastic.”

Asked if she’d ever considered taking her father’s political route to forging connections, Marchand reflects for a moment before answering, “Having grown up in that life, I know the personal sacrifices involved… In terms of my involvement in arts and specifically in producing Indigenous work, in some ways I’ve had more freedom to serve the community and make sure our voices are heard on the national stage.”

She’s about to hear those voices on the national stage in a newly permanent way.

For tickets and information about the 2019-20 NAC Indigenous Theatre season, please see

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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.