The Breathing Hole, Reneltta Arluk's directorial debut at Stratford, opens tonight
'It's just a massive show but it's beautiful,' says the Stratford Festival's first Inuit director
Friday night marks the debut of the first Inuit director to take the reins at the famed theatre festival in Stratford, Ont.
"Oh my God, I'm so nervous," said Reneltta Arluk, the Inuvialuit, Dene and Cree director, playwright, actor and artist who was raised in Fort Smith, N.W.T.
The Breathing Hole centres on the 500-year saga of a polar bear named Angu'juaq, which translates to "a big man" in Inuktitut. Audiences follow Angu'juaq from birth in an Inuit community in 1534 to an encounter in 1832 with English explorer Sir John Franklin and his crew.
The journey continues through to the 21st century, looking at the lives of a biologist and security guard working for an oil company, and a future devastated by global warming.
"It's heavy. It's epic, actually," Arluk said.
The production includes 24 actors, three or four different types of puppets — including polar bear puppets with people inside — and four kids, all of whom have already performed eight preview shows.
"It's just a massive show but it's beautiful."
They play was written by Colleen Murphy, a well known, non-Indigenous playwright. She and Arluk worked with Qaggiavut, the Iqaluit-based theatre collective to make sure the final product will ring true to Inuit.
"We have three Inuit actors on stage, but we had, like, 17 of them backstage with consultation, with guidance, creative input and design," Arluk said.
Inuk actor Johnny Issaluk valued the opportunity to give voice to his community in his theatrical debut.
"It's pretty much how we lived and where we came from; the storyline of my father, where he came from," said the Iqaluit-based Issaluk, originally from Chesterfield Inlet on the west coast of Hudson's Bay.
"Seeing it first-hand and then reading the story — it's so accurate. ... It's important to showcase where we come from. Not only that, but what's going on up there in any form or another."
Miali Buscemi said the opportunities for Indigenous artists to tell their own stories are improving.
"To play a character or to play a person that is Inuk, it is important to me," said Buscemi, who grew up in Kimmirut on the southernmost tip of Baffin Island and has been performing at Stratford all summer.
"It's only now in recent years that Indigenous actors are playing their own roles because for many years they didn't, even in film and TV, which is largely what I've done from 2007," she added.
"Even there, they always hired other people that looked Indigenous or could pass for Indigenous."
Arluk said she hopes The Breathing Hole will help pave the path for the Indigenous actors within the production to take on new projects.
"That's something I feel like we can do as part of this Canada 150 reconciliation," said Arluk. "On another level, I really think that it's important that our stories get told — and this is just a part of that process."
The Breathing Hole will be onstage at Stratford's Studio Theatre until Sept. 22.
With files from Loren McGinnis, Canadian Press