North

Stratford Festival stages play set in Arctic directed by an Inuk with Inuit cast

Next year's Stratford Festival season will include a play set in the Arctic, directed by an Inuk, starring Inuit actors.

The Breathing Hole to hold workshops in Iqaluit Nov. 21-25 in partnership with Qaggiavuut

'This is what makes it a really big deal,' says Inuk director Reneltta Arluk. 'Stratford has not only brought in Inuit actors but they have brought in their first Inuit director, which is about breaking down the power structure.' (submitted by Reneltta Arluk)

Next year's Stratford Festival season will include a play set in the Arctic, directed by an Inuk, starring Inuit actors.

Colleen Murphy's new play The Breathing Hole is the tale of a polar bear and the humans it encounters over 500 years, including Inuit, the Franklin Expedition and passengers and crew of an Arctic cruise ship.

The play will be directed by Yellowknife-based Inuvialuk director Reneltta Arluk of Akpik Theatre company and will feature a number of Inuit actors. 

"The thing with Stratford and other big theatres in Canada is that Indigenous people have never been able to be a part of those stages," says Arluk.

"So this is what makes it a really big deal — Stratford has not only brought in Inuit actors but they have brought in their first Inuit director, which is about breaking down the power structure."

Iqaluit's Miali Buscemi is one of the Inuit actors cast in The Breathing Hole. Buscemi will also play parts in other 2017 Stratford season productions, including Romeo and Juliet and Treasure Island. (submitted by Miali Buscemi)

'Inuit perspective'

To prepare for its August 2017 debut the play is being workshopped in Iqaluit in partnership with the Qaggiavuut Society, the group behind the award-winning Qaggiq project which supports Northern performing artists.

"With Breathing Hole, because it's based in the Arctic, I thought that it's really important that we workshop the play in the Arctic so that we can gain perspective," says Arluk.

In Iqaluit, Arluk and her team will be working with Qaggiavuut to gather the "Inuit perspective" on the play including feedback on the dialogue.

She says often "when stories are done about the North — the North never gets to see those stories or be a part of those stories."

The workshop in Iqaluit is also another opportunity to search for a few more Inuit actors to take part in the production. The play's cast of 18 includes eight Inuit characters.

"I knew I wasn't going to be able to get eight Inuit actors to do theatre for nine months at Stratford — it's a daunting task," says Arluk.

To bridge the gap, she is using a mix of Inuit and First Nations actors for the show. Her hope is to have at least three Inuit actors in the cast.

'There's weight to this'

Iqaluit's Miali Buscemi is one of the Inuit actors cast in The Breathing Hole. Buscemi will also play parts in other 2017 Stratford season productions, including Romeo and Juliet and Treasure Island.

The Breathing Hole will open at Stratford's Studio Theatre in August 2017. (Terry Manzo/Stratford Festival)

"This is surreal," says Buscemi. "I am so very grateful but shellshocked."

Buscemi says she feels "extremely proud" and "fortunate" to be able to take part in a play directed by an Inuk at Stratford.

"I am more than happy that I get to represent Inuit," she says.

For Buscemi, who recently starred in a Heritage Minute about famed Nunavut artist Kenojuak Ashevak, this opportunity is more than a simple acting gig.

"There's weight to this," says Buscemi, pointing to the fact that this play is a first for Stratford and its audience.

She says the production will inevitably bring up questions of diversity.

Considering everything at stake Buscemi admits that she's "a little bit scared" about the challenges ahead. 

Actor Randy Hughson as Sir John Franklin in Colleen Murphy’s The Breathing Hole. (Lynda Churilla/Stratford Festival)

'It's about time'

For Stratford's director of new plays, Bob White, adding productions such as The Breathing Hole to the program is a necessary step forward for a festival that started as a "colonial enterprise" featuring "great works of English literature."

"Our Canadian stories are as important in many ways as Shakespeare's," says White.

"It seems to me in the long march of progress that it's about time that we finally recognized the Indigenous stories as well."

White says there has been some Indigenous representation on the Stratford stage in the past such as the 2007 production of Merchant of Venice which featured Graham Greene as Shylock.

"We're finally opening ourselves up and opening ourselves is the key phrase to listening to the stories from First Nations peoples," says White.

Arluk agrees.

"This is the beginning. It doesn't have to be just this one play. To me it's a door opening — I don't see it as a one off."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sima Sahar Zerehi is a reporter with CBC North. She started her career in journalism with the ethnic press working for a Canadian-based Farsi language newspaper. Her CBC journey began as a regular commentator with CBC radio's Metro Morning. Since then she's worked with CBC in Montreal, Toronto and now Iqaluit.

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