Saskatoon·Called to Action

A theatre program changed her life. Now she is in charge

The Circle of Voice theatre program connected Jennifer Dawn Bishop to community and culture as a teen. Now she creates the same opportunity for other young people.

From back of the class to centre stage, Jennifer Dawn Bishop's growth is inspiring others

Jennifer Dawn Bishop says the Circle of Voices program changed her life and connected her to her culture (Marcel Petit)

Saskatoon's Jennifer Dawn Bishop understands the role a youth program can play in changing a life. 

In 1999 the general manager of the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company came to Bishop's Grade 7 class to promote its new Circle of Voices program.

From her regular spot at the back of the classroom, 13-year-old Bishop felt drawn to the idea of a theatre group for teens. 

Her curiosity was rewarded. From her first day with the program, she experienced a sense of belonging.

"I never felt so welcomed in a group of, like, different ages of peers in my entire life," said Bishop. "They were my friends. They were my family at the time." 

The Circle of Voices program develops confidence, cultural awareness, and professional skills in young theatre artists. (Liam Scramstad)

The Circle of Voices program develops confidence, cultural awareness and professional skills in young theatre artists. 

The cultural component was life-changing for Bishop. She discovered a whole different side of herself.

"It was a really big wake-up call in terms of identity and not knowing who I really was and what I represented," Bishop said.

It sort of just clicked into place for me and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life.- Jennifer Dawn Bishop

Before Circle of Voices, her Métis identity was a box she checked on forms.

Bishop said her parents chose to not make her culture a major part of her upbringing, partly because so many of those components were stripped from their own lives and partly because they wanted her to form her own beliefs.

"So learning about the smudge, the sweetgrass, the sage, and all these cultural teachings. I was so excited about it,"  Bishop said. 

A photo from Iskotew, a play written by Jennifer Dawn Bishop and performed by Circle of Voices in 2017. (Kenneth T. Williams)

Building a career

Bishop became a regular presence at the theatre, which changed its name to Gordon Tootoosis Nīkānīwin Theatre in 2015. She continued to develop her skills as an actor, writer and director. She also ran Circle of Voices for three years.

In 2017, Bishop was hired for the top job at the theatre company. She said the journey to becoming the artistic director started with her first year in Circle of Voices.

"It sort of just clicked into place for me and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life," she said.

Jennifer Dawn Bishop shortly after being named artistic director of Gordon Tootoosis Nīkānīwin Theatre in 2017. (CBC)

Bishop is now responsible for giving other youth the same opportunity she had.

"I want them to know that there will always be a place for anyone," said Bishop. "It's always not without its hiccups, but I know what it can mean to an individual."

Next generation finds inspiration

Sixteen-year-old Kam Miller is taking part in this year's Circle of Voices program. As part of the training, the group watched a video of the first-ever Circle of Voices show, which featured Bishop.

"It was really cool to watch Jen as a 13-year-old," said Miller. "It's inspiring what she's done with her work and how she's thrived in theatre." 

Katelyn Howe, Delano Kennedy and Kam Miller perform in You Didn't Hear it from Me by Nitanis Bear, the 2022 Circle of Voices performance. (Cory Dallas Standing)

Miller acted in the most recent Circle of Voices production, You Didn't Hear it from Me by Nitanis Bear. Miller said it was inspiring to see how far someone can take a career in theatre.

"Jen's done very well for herself. I am very proud and very impressed," said Miller. "She's also put a lot of time and dedication into her productions — into the entire company — which is crazy to think about."

It's inspiring what she's done with her work and how she's thrived in theatre. ​​​​​​- Kam Miller, 2022 Circle of Voices participant

Where she is meant to be

Bishop is not sure where she would be without Circle of Voices.

"There are so many things I wanted to do, but I also kind of just didn't think that I would get there because I didn't have that confidence," said Bishop.

"So it's really hard to imagine where I'd be. I mean, I'm hoping that I'd still be a goofball, but would I be a confident goofball?"

LISTEN | Jennifer Dawn Bishop spoke with guest host Heather Morrison on Saskatoon Morning: 
The Gordon Tootoosis Nikaniwin Theatre offers a program that strengthens self-confidence and cultural awareness in aspiring artists. Guest host Heather Morrison speaks with Artistic Director Jennifer Dawn Bishop and gets thoughts from 16-year-old Kam Miller who is taking part in this year’s Circle of Voices program.

Called to Action: Stories of Reconciliation features individuals and groups across the province who are embracing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action. Themes range from language to justice, putting the spotlight on local efforts and the people leading them. Read more Called to Action stories here.