Prismatic Arts Festival: A Q& A with Cliff Cardinal

The actor, musician, writer and director Cliff Cardinal brings his solo show CBC Special to GCTC as part of the Prismatic Arts festival which celebrates the creativity of Indigenous artists and artists of colour.

For the first time, the Prismatic Arts Festival will travel from Halifax to Ottawa where a mix of theatre, dance, music and visual art made by some 20 Indigenous artists and artists of colour will be presented in five different venues including GCTC, The Gladstone Theatre, La Nouvelle Scène Gilles Desjardins, Arts Court and The Bytowne Cinema from Sept. 12 to 22.

One of the artists featured in the festival is Cliff Cardinal. He’s probably best known for the award winning work, HUFF, about Indigenous youth who abuse solvents, which he has performed more than 200 times. During the Prismatic festival, he’ll present his new solo performance CBC Special at GCTC from Sept. 15 to 18. Before the event he spoke with ARTSFILE.

Q. Please tell me a bit about yourself.

A. I was born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota and grew up in Los Angeles, Vermont and Toronto. My heritage is that I’m an artist. I’m an actor’s son. Artists and musicians have surrounded me since my earliest memories. When one ran out of money, one opened a show. Now I’m married to an artist and on it goes this thing of ours.

Q. Why theatre?

A. At first, it was because theatre is cheap. If you have a story and you don’t have a million dollars, you can tell it in the theatre. Now that I’ve been doing it for a little bit, my curiosity and taste has grown to enjoy drama and theatricality and the form of a play. I studied playwriting at the National Theatre School of Canada. I love to direct my plays in the black box.

Q. Was your mother, Tantoo Cardinal a key person in this? 

A. Absolutely, but I think she’d rather I do film. Wouldn’t you? If your son was in theatre, wouldn’t you encourage him to consider film?

Q. Tell me about HUFF. It is such a meaningful work in your career as a writer/performer.

 A. Yep. Sure has been. When I wrote HUFF I was into the creative exploration of pain and people living in taboo subcultures. I thought the group we are most afraid to talk about in this country is indigenous kids who abuse solvents at high risk of suicide. I thought that we as artists and audience have the responsibility to go through that experience as empathetically as possible — knowing we could never understand, we owe it to each other to try. Nowadays, I have a few projects that I’m dying to finish, (an album, a novel, another solo and another multi-character play) but what I’m really interested in doing is entertaining people. I want to do shows where people have a great time.

Q. The production Too Good to be True seems to be a new direction, in that it is multi-character and you are directing. Is it a new direction?

A. It’s not a new direction, it’s just that it took me a long time.

Q. The production coming to Ottawa is called CBC Special. Tell me about it.

A. It’s a variety show where I’m the only act. I tell stories and sing songs. The through line is everything is dark and funny.

Q. You also front a band called the Skylarks. Tell me about this project? 

A. We’re so close to finishing our second album. We’ve been mixing in the studio every day for the last two weeks. I can’t wait to send it to you. I write dark and kind of catchy folk songs and the Skylarks put that through a pop-reggae treatment. Our artistic mission is to make everybody laugh and dance and have a good time. It might seem trite, but when you’re the only act doing that on a night it can be welcome.

Q. How do you fit it all in?

A. Yoga. Breathing exercises. Going to the gym. Keto diet. I always take time to meditate. I only drink on special occasions. I share my feelings. I accept people’s shortcomings, even my own. I give to charity and volunteer my time to the community. I’m pretty much perfect. My only complaint about myself is that I can be too humble.

Q. Anything you want to add that I haven’t asked.

A. I’ll do anything to make you laugh.

The Prismatic Festival includes performances in:


Cliff Cardinal’s CBC Special

The Tashme Project’s The Living Archive

Hong Kong Exile’s FoxConn Frequency (No. 3)

Onelight Theatre’s Asheq: Ritual Music to Cure a Lover


Esie Mensah’s Zayo

Danse Nyata Nyata’s Mozongi

Santee Smith’s Blood Water Earth


Sina Bathaie

Ensemble Kamaan

Greyson Gritt

Jacques Mindreau

Digging Roots

Battle of Santiago

Diyet and the Love Soldiers

Dinuk Wijeratne

Visual Arts / Media Arts / Spoken Word

Rebecca Thomas

Stephanie Yee’s Broken English Karaoke

Rah-Eleh’s Oreo

For more information on Ottawa shows including a full schedule listing, please visit

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.