Performing arts program provides space for Indigenous youth to explore their creativity

Since November, four Indigenous youth have been working on three performance pieces through the Paprika Festival Indigenous Arts Program, which will be showcased this weekend.

Paprika Festival's Indigenous Arts Program holds showcase this weekend in Toronto

Theresa Cutknife, Cole Forrest and Joelle Peters are three of the youth participants for the second year of Paprika Festival's Indigenous Arts Program. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

When he was 14, Cole Forrest was sitting with an Elder from his community of Nipissing First Nation near North Bay, Ont., listening to a story.

At the end of the story, the Elder started to cry.

"I felt that power and that was the first time I'd ever heard anything like that," said Forrest.

He said that experience has been a source of inspiration in the performing arts works he's created over the years.

"Indigenous performance is special because of not only its weight and its depth but its emotional abilities," he said.

Forrest is one of four Indigenous youth who have been working on performance pieces since November through the Paprika Festival's Indigenous Arts Program. The performing arts program for Indigenous youth under 30 is wrapping up its second year as participants eagerly prepare for their cumulative showcase this weekend in Toronto.

Each of the pieces is unique but they all relate back to the land, community and love in one way or another.

Forrest's piece called Firestarter is about two teenagers from the same reserve who grow up with hereditary fire powers. One night they start a fire that ends up threatening their community.

The story draws from Forrest's own experience with wildfires in his area.

Jesse Wabegijig from Wikwemikong First Nation has been involved with the Paprika Festival for three years. He spent one year with the Regent Arts Collective and the last two as a participant in the Indigenous Arts Program.

'You can't you can't write without acknowledging where you've come from,' says Jesse Wabegijig from Wikwemikong First Nation. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

He said the program offers a holistic approach to theatre and facilitators and mentors running the program are available for support even for pieces that aren't necessarily related to Paprika.

The participants set individual schedules with Michaela Washburn, the program facilitator, and Ali Joy Richardson,who is the artistic producer of Paprika Festival. 

The participants say having creative spaces like the Indigenous Arts Program for young Indigenous artists is important, especially in Ontario where the provincial government is making cuts to arts funding.

"It's a reminder that we still have so much work to do," said Theresa Cutknife, who is from Maskwacis, Alta.

A theatre program for Indigenous youth is wrapping up its second year as participants prepare for their showcase this weekend. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

Cutknife and Wabegijig have been working on a piece called Kisâkihitin/Gizaagin that follows the lives of two people, the different dynamics of love they experience and what love looks like through an Indigenous lens.

She said having the space to explore creative ideas to see what works and what doesn't has made the program a learning experience with a lot of freedom.

"I want to make art to show what can be done and what is possible," said Cutknife.

The Indigenous Arts Program Showcase takes place at Native Earth Performing Arts' Aki Studio in Toronto on May 25.