To protect Indigenous values, this director created an artistic 'treaty' for her new play
Indigenous playwrights are going out of their way to ensure theatre includes ceremony and cultural support
As an actor, Kim Senklip Harvey was tired of playing traumatized, tragic Indigenous women onstage.
"I stepped into directing because I found that I was craving something that was not happening in the Euro-settler normative way of working, in that I wanted to Indigenize it entirely," says Harvey, who has Sylix, Tsilhqot'in, Ktunaxa, and Dakelh ancestry.
Harvey often felt overworked and undervalued as plays rushed to production. She knew the only way to change these archetypes was to assume a leadership role for herself.
Now, she's written what she calls an artistic "treaty" she negotiated for her next play, Break Horizons.
The treaty prioritizes ceremony and mental wellness for Harvey and her team, and it holds the theatres accountable in meeting those needs.
Treaty protects community, spiritual well-being
Harvey began her 2018 play Kamloopa: An Indigenous Matriarch Story with ceremony. It stars Indigenous women, and she prioritized hiring Indigenous women for the crew.
For Break Horizons, Harvey put her artistic values in writing.
The treaty, signed in May 2018 with Citadel Theatre and the Arts Club Theatre Company, protects "wellness and spiritual safety" for Harvey and her team. It requires the theatres to allow time and space for ceremony. They also are obliged to pay for Harvey to carry out ceremonial protocols, including elder consultation, sweats and "community gatherings with other Indigenous matriarchs and Elders to share best practices."
Harvey says she doesn't plan to write a treaty for every one of her plays — but she won't hesitate to set more Indigenous standards for the industry. She also wants to deconstruct the way productions rush to the stage without taking time to forge good relations among cast and crew members.
The Kamloopa team didn't read the script till day three of production. Harvey said most productions begin script-reading on day one.
"I could see them [the theatre staff] checking their watches looking at the production schedule," she said with a laugh. "They were like, 'But when are we going to start working?'
"And I was like, 'This is the work. This is the arrival.'"
Including emotional support and traditional medicine
Harvey isn't the only one handing over written requirements to theatres.
Corey Payette, from the Mattagami First Nation, is artistic director of Urban Ink Productions. Urban Ink sends theatres 30 or 40 pages of requirements they must meet before hosting the play, such as making connections with the local Indigenous communities and inviting elders to do welcomes.
Payette also had negative experiences as a young actor.
"I think almost every Indigenous character I've played onstage, except one, was one where I died and had some sort of horrific end," he says. "And those were always stories that were written through a white lens."
He hopes Urban Ink is helping theatres change how they interact with Indigenous communities and artists.
"What we're leaving behind are these really meaningful relationships," says Payette, who also wrote, composed and directed the play Children of God.
Children of God follows a group of Oji-Cree children in residential school. The play recently toured around British Columbia.
Ceremony takes place during the play, and also in the theatre's hallways. People can smudge and speak to emotional support workers, especially survivors and intergenerational survivors for whom the play may elicit painful memories.
Shane Leydon, who has a mixed Métis background, is an emotional support coordinator for Urban Ink Productions. He explains that emotional support at every performance is critical to ensure survivors and others have a therapeutic space to talk or to be alone.
"It's showing this play and bearing witness to it — and then also not just leaving people alone afterwards, " he says. "If they've been taken apart by the play, then there's a place where they can put themselves back together."
Theatres have 'responsibility' to break down hierarchies
Both Children of God and Kamloopa showed at The Cultch in Vancouver. The theatre's executive director Heather Redfurn says she is completely behind Payette's and Harvey's visions but found some requirements difficult, like outreach to community organizations and arranging welcomes.
She admits that staff sometimes struggled with Harvey's need slow down the production agenda.
"[We were] making sure there was time in the schedule for ceremony. Especially during tech, that can get slightly challenging, when things are heavily scheduled," she says.
Tech is the last stage of production, when the cast and crew rehearse the play with all lights, music and technical elements.
Redfurn says she's trying to share more control from her position as executive director.
"It's the hardest thing to do, as a woman — to admit that you have power," she says. "Once you admit you have power, then at least for me, I see it as my responsibility to give it away."
Theatre as reclamation
Harvey says she hopes theatre will evolve to become a space for reclaiming Indigenous identities.
At the beginning of Kamloopa, the actors ask for Indigenous matriarchs in the audience to stand up. Harvey says she has seen women grapple with their identities.
"[One woman] stood up, and then her six-year-old daughter looked to her mother and said, 'Mom, is that me?' Then the mother looked down at the young girl and said, 'Yes, that is you.' And then she stood up and held space as a matriarch — at six years old."
Harvey hopes to show people theatre can be more reciprocal. She wants the audience to feel at ease — more like they're "at a rock concert" than rigid in their chairs.
"You don't have to create the way the dominant white settler culture creates," she says.
"It's not the only way, the only totally legitimate way."
The Renew series about Indigenous Innovation is produced in partnership with the Reporting in Indigenous Communities course at UBC's Graduate School of Journalism.