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The Greatest Stories Never Told: A Dialogue on Theater

A dialogue between Donna Loring and Yvette Nolan on Native theater -- and the lack thereof.

Donna Loring is an author, playwright, and Penobscot Tribal Elder. Yvette Nolan is a playwright, director, and dramaturge of Algonquin heritage (Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation).

The following is a dialogue, furnished to ICTMN by Loring, in which the two esteemed writers share their thoughts on Native theater (and the lack thereof).

DONNA LORING: Theater is a venue for storytelling and for preserving the history or events that the stories are about. Native people were not allowed to tell their stories or even preserve their own languages. The legacy of the philosophy "Kill the Indian and save the man" put forward by Col. Richard Henry Pratt and his creation of residential schools in 1879 was meant to put an end to our stories, ceremonies, language, spiritual practices and even our family units. It was used as a tool to integrate us into the white man’s society; it did, in some cases, but not all. Our stories are still alive and will be as long as we exist as Native People. It is time now for us to share those stories.

Stories are the nucleus of who we are and how we communicate with each other. We see the use of stories every day from the newspapers and TV -- in fact, TV is stories from news to soaps to series! We talk to our families and tell them the story of what we did all day or what happened to us at the grocery store or school or at a meeting. It would be accurate to say that Stories are us. I challenge you to listen for the word story during a regular day. You’ll hear it in many contexts and many venues. People love stories; they need stories to process information. Native stories have never been told in the same way or same venues as the majority-cultures' stories. Without stories we are an invisible people without substance. The many tribes on Turtle Island have their own creation stories and stories of every day living. There are various ways to tell stories from books to film to theatre.

I was more familiar with books and film as a storytelling medium. It was by accident that I met William Yellowrobe Jr. a Native playwright who introduced me to playwriting. I was in the process of writing my second book when I decided to monitor his playwriting class, at the University of Maine. I found it intriguing and had always enjoyed live theatre and musicals -- I just never considered writing one. While I monitored his class it brought back memories of many years ago when our tribe, the Penobscot Nation, had a Tribal Hall. I remembered we gathered there on various occasions to do ceremonies and socials. We would also do plays. I remember watching people I knew transform into other people and take us to different places. It was magical.

I decided to write a play using characters that were in the book I was writing. My play, "The Glooskape Chronicles: Creation and the Venetian Basket," incorporated our Tribal stories from long, long ago and told about creation and the creatures that were alive and part of our history and how we pased on life lessons and values.

YVETTE NOLAN: Maria Campbell, one of our elders in theatre and literature as well as in life, had a similar experience early in her career. In 1974, she went to see a play about a Cree warrior named Almighty Voice, retold by a non-Native theater company in Canada, and recognized the power of theater, and from that moment, began to seek out ways to use theater. In The Book of Jessica, a book about the creation of her own play, Maria describes what she saw and felt: "In that production of Almighty Voice, I saw something really powerful happen, something that educated, that healed, that empowered people; it was fun and it was magical".

Maria went on to create the play "Jessica" with the actor Linda Griffiths, who played Jessica in the 1982 production, and co-wrote The Book of Jessica with Maria. This was, in my estimation, the beginning of contemporary Native theatre in Canada. And Jessica incorporates both the present and the old stories, with intervention from the spirit world, much like "The Glooskape Chronicles."

LORING: I did lots of research on the old stories for the play and in doing the readings and working with our community members I found that Native theater was very intriguing and different from any live theater performance. It brought the actors and the community together in a very special way. I found that people were hungry to see and hear about the old days, it created a bond and a sense of oneness that I hadn’t seen for many years. They wanted more! These were only readings, not full productions. I came to feel that theater was an excellent way to convey our stories and be entertaining at the same time.

NOLAN: Theater is not such a stretch for us. We have always passed on our lessons through storytelling, and dance, and song, which are all the elements of theater. Using the structure of a theater is really just using the tools of the mainstream to tell our stories.

You know the Louis Riel quote? "My people will sleep for a hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back." He said that in 1885, and a hundred years later, up here in Canada, Maria Campbell was working on the revision of "Jessica," and a new company in Toronto called Native Earth Performing Arts was working on its fifth show, called "Trickster’s Cabaret."

LORING: Yes, it seems we are awakening but here in the U.S it is not easy to get our stories out there. During the course of the past two years it has been difficult to find a place to rehearse and to perform the readings. We have been able to use the University of Maine's English and Theatre Department spaces but only as they become available. Once the readings have been done and comments and rewrites made, I am now ready to produce "The Glooskape Chronicles." I approached the University to see if the Theatre Department might produce it because that would take away the cost of much of the production. The University was not willing to produce my play, as they said no one of the faculty felt comfortable in directing it. I found Yvette, she directed the final reading. It took place at the Collins Center for the Arts with multi-media elements that Yvette introduced, the audience loved it and that reading was very successful. We now need to move on to producing the entire play. There are a number of difficulties, such as lack of a permanent space to train and educate Native people who are interested in being part of the play, production, Set and Costume design, technical aspects such as lighting and so forth. I was surprised to learn that there is no permanent space for Native theater anywhere on Turtle Island.

NOLAN: Well, Debajemuhjig opened a creation space in Manitowaning, on Manitoulin Island, in 2009. They have a small studio space in the creation centre that seats about 80, which is fine, because the whole population of the community is less than a thousand. Wikwemikong, the reserve, has a population of about 3000. And while Native theater companies who are touring often schedule a stop at Debaj, it is really out of the way: six hours drive from Toronto, eight from Ottawa, 18 from Winnipeg.

And Native Earth just took over the management of a studio space in Toronto, which opened in October last year. The 120-seat Aki Studio is part of a larger building owned by Artscape, so Native Earth runs the studio but does not own it.

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Native Voices at the Autry is in a similar situation, hosted by the much larger institution – The Autry National Center of the American West – but not having much in the way of resources, nor owning the space in which they work.

LORING: I have learned also that there are many Native writers who have written plays and others who are in the process. These stories will fade away forever unless we create a permanent space for them to be performed.

NOLAN: I am in the process of writing a book about Native theater in Canada for these very reasons. I don’t think our stories will disappear forever, because we are more resilient than that. We have been hiding our stories away for centuries, inside other stories and inside other forms, but I believe that because we are so scattered, because of being moved off our lands, because of residential schools, because of the diaspora, it is harder to keep track of our stories, and yes, theater is one way to keep them. Not just our old stories, but our histories, our histories which are threatened to be disappeared by the mainstream’s narrative.

I wrote "Annie Mae’s Movement" about Anna Mae Pictou Aquash because I was worried that she would be forgotten; at the time I wrote it, in 1996, twenty years after her murder, no one had been charged, and it didn’t look like anyone ever would be. Ha. Little did I know.

After eight years at the helm of Native Earth, I realized that much of what I knew about Native theater was in my head, and I needed to get it down on paper, precisely because it is so hard to get a production, much less a second production, or a third. Some of the work I talk about in the book was collectively created and the collectives no longer exist, so the work will no longer exist in the way it did originally. I’m thinking of Turtle Gals here, whose three seminal plays -- "The Scrubbing Project," "The Triple Truth," and "The Only Good Indian…" - were so important in the creation of the next wave of Indigenous theatre artists.

LORING: Native theater is a place where Native writers can tell their stories and watch their stories come alive. Presently those stories have no outlet and are not being seen. There are a number of reasons for that and lack of funding is paramount.

NOLAN: One of the advantages I feel we have in Canada is that we have a little more infrastructure, and a dedicated network. Native Earth in Toronto and Saskatchewan Native Theatre in Saskatoon and Full Circle in Vancouver and Gwaandak in Whitehorse -- we all talk to each other, we don’t have to start over every time. We have a shared body of knowledge. That helps. Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance works to keep us all connected, all informed of who is doing what where, and helps to support the network, both the physical one and the virtual one. Our membership includes not just organizations but individual artists.

We know who is directing, who is dramaturging, who is acting, who is writing. We can call each other up and ask for advice.

LORING: Hundreds of tribes on Turtle Island each have their own stories, talented storytellers, writers, performers -- all these stories are important to the tribes and also to the rest of us on Turtle Island. I hope that in the future we in the U.S will build an infrastructure and Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance as you put it. It would be an awesome network if we could all connect to help and support each other on a worldwide network. We have much to contribute to the world; tribes all over Turtle Island have a wealth of knowledge and many stories to tell. They are all great stories but without support or resources those stories will indeed be "The greatest stories never told".

NOLAN: I worry that it is more "the greatest stories never heard". One of the biggest obstacles we face in Canada is convincing an audience that our stories are worth their time. I agree, we have lots of stories to tell, and they belong to all of us. If you live on this land, you really should learn something about it.

LORING: I looked up the words Theatre and Native Theatre in Wikipedia on line and here is what I found.

First, "Theatre":

Theatre (also theater in American English) is a collaborative form of fine art that uses live performers to present the experience of a real or imagined event before a live audience in a specific place.

Then, "Native Theatre":

The page "Native American Theatre" does not exist.