Plains Cree playwright creates respectful theater

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TORONTO - "I work to create bridges between traditional Native elements and the professional contemporary stage," Floyd Favel said. "I venture to go beyond the superficial or clich?d representations of Native ritual, social, and folk customs that have appeared in theater."

The prolific Plains Cree theater director and playwright, Favel was recently in Toronto to conduct research on his latest ongoing endeavor: how to create contemporary theatrical performances from a Native perspective while respecting cultural sensitivities.

During a four-year tenure as artistic director of the Native Theatre School in Toronto - the precursor to the Centre for Indigenous Theatre - Favel recognized a flaw in the modern theater world. "I came to the realization that no contemporary performance methods existed that were based on indigenous peoples' ritual and social traditions," he said.

Instead, he saw methods that took rituals and customs out of their cultural context and treated without the respect he was taught to give them.

Raised on the Poundmaker Reserve in Saskatchewan, Favel was brought up speaking Cree at home and many of his works utilize his mother tongue. His parents taught him and his siblings to respect and cherish the traditions they practiced.

"It was always a special time when rituals or events were held," he said. "But these also were not talked about a lot in daily life. They were held in the highest esteem and are still a very important and large part of my life."

A conflict emerged early in Favel's artistic career. "In theater and writing, childhood is often a major source of inspiration. I cannot avoid these cultural elements but also I must respect these traditions and not take them out of context and call it a performance," he said.

This challenge was reconciled with the creation of a methodology Favel identifies as "Native Performance Culture," a way of creating theatrical works informed by Aboriginal rituals and customs. He pursues this process through Takwakin, a theater company he created in 1990 with Ruth Smillie.

"As a contemporary theater artist, I create contemporary works," he said. "I also have a responsibility to not show directly the rituals and customs I have learned as a traditional person. I have to look for what is the art - the bridge - that can make them reborn in a contemporary context while respecting the cultural sensitivity and sacredness."

His last show - "Governor of the Dew" - was performed at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and for Prince Edward's royal visit to Saskatchewan. Based on a Cree folk tale, the work portrays spiritual themes that are central to Cree beliefs. However, rather than simply attempting to transplant this story to the stage, Favel used his methodology to create a music and dance performance to represent his Cree beliefs.

"It is essential to explore how to respect traditions while at the same time having them as sources of inspiration for contemporary work," he stated.

In Toronto, Favel conducted a workshop - "a lab session" - on Native Performance Culture for a book he is writing on theater methodologies. His work has struck a chord in the international theater world. Including two future speaking engagements in Moscow and Mexico, Favel recently returned from the International Festival of Theatre Methods held in Latvia where he presented his methodology.

"People are realizing the lack of indigenous traditions in theater that are not cultural misrepresentations," he said.

Favel's desire to see theater evolve is also a prosaic one. "The health of a language and culture is reflected in its utilization in its media and arts," he said. "In Canada as in the United States, Natives don't hear our languages or see our cultures represented in the media very much. Our languages are not healthy and are seen by many people as obsolete. But we can influence this by utilizing our languages in arts and media and using our cultures as inspiration."

For more information on Floyd Favel's work, visit www.takwakin.com.