Kitchener-Waterloo

Indigenous stories spotlighted in Canada 150 play at Stratford Festival

Four years ago, Stratford Festival embarked on a mission to better reflect today’s world, which meant diversifying its stories, cast and people behind the scenes.

Indigenous actors always trying to be more than a 'token'

Miali Buscemi and Nicholas Nahwegahbow are two Indigenous actors performing in the 2017 Stratford Festival. (Stratford Festival)

Four years ago, Stratford Festival embarked on a mission to better reflect today's world, which meant diversifying its stories, cast and people behind the scenes.

"By engaging those hearts and minds and artists from those different perspectives, we have a chance in our rehearsal hall of understanding them in that complex way and putting it into the work so that the world of the plays reflect this world we're engaging through all other media channels," Keira Loughran from the festival's Laboratory Program told CBC News.

Those stories and people include Indigenous people, and for Canada 150 the festival is premiering a specially-commissioned play, The Breathing Hole, which is set in the North and has an Indigenous director and cast.

Several cast members from The Breathing Hole are also appearing in other productions at Stratford. Two of those actors told CBC K-W that being cast as in a non-Indigenous role is still a rare occurrence.

"I'm always afraid to be a token actor because I have seen it a lot and it seems it's sometimes still happening," Miali Buscemi said. "I strive to make sure that I don't go in with the mindset that I am a token person in whatever story is being told."

Double-edged sword

Buscemi is in her first season at Stratford with a lead role in The Breathing Hole as well as parts in Treasure Island and Romeo and Juliet.

Nicholas Nahwegahbow was among the first Indigenous graduates from the National Theatre School and in 2007, became the first Indigenous actor to perform on the George Luskin Stage in Guelph. Those statistics still surprise him. 

"I get the sense that this should have happened ages ago," he said. 

Nahwegahbow, who also has roles in The Breathing Hole, Treasure Island and Romeo and Juliet, says for many it's still a thrill to get a non-Indigenous role.

"It's a double-edged sword because maybe it gets you noticed, he said. "But at the same time  you don't want to be just a native actor all the time, you want to be a variety of roles."

With files from the CBC's Jackie Sharkey

now