Day 6

After a season under lockdown, Tomson Highway is dreaming of the return of theatre

Last year, Cree playwright Tomson Highway's The Rez Sisters was supposed to be on stage at Canada's renowned Stratford Festival. But then the pandemic hit. It's been a tough year, but he tells us how he's kept busy and keeps him laughing.

While the playwright misses live audiences, he also says it’s good to be at home

Tomson Highway in Songs in the Key of Cree. (Sean Howard)

Theatres and other live performance venues have taken a huge hit during the pandemic, not to mention the performers themselves.

Broadway productions were shut down on March 12, 2020, and have been closed since. In Canada, all summer theatre festivals were cancelled last season, including The Stratford Festival in Ontario where Tomson Highway's classic play, The Rez Sisters, was set to be performed.

At the moment, it's unclear whether theatre will return this summer.

Highway says while he misses connecting with live audiences, he also finds a lot of comfort in being at home.

The playwright, author and musician talks with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about what's been lost with the postponement of live theatre, and about why, despite the lack of performances, he's as busy as he's ever been. Here's part of that conversation.

Tomson, the last time I saw you, you were performing music to a live audience, and that seemed like something that we would always be able to share — it was always going to be there. How much do you miss live performance? 

Well, I do and I don't. Live performance is very exciting. And it's always a pleasure to meet my audiences and just to be with people and make them smile. That's always, always a pleasure — and sometimes it makes them cry too.

But the part of it that I don't miss is the traveling. There's an awful lot of traveling involved. And sometimes you just get a little bit tired of it, and you just want to stay home. And to tell you the truth, I would like to phase myself out as a performer, as a pianist, and just let other people produce it.

It's given me a very good life.... And so I always tell people that I've accidentally written my own To Kill a Mockingbird or my own Tom Sawyer.- Tomson Highway, author of The Rez Sisters

I enjoy my privacy, my anonymity, my invisibility and all that stuff. And so performance ... you're dead centre on stage, right? And I enjoy hearing my own music performed by other people. So that's where I am right now, is on the verge of phasing out my performance as a pianist. 

So I have my other life, fortunately, which is my writing. For that, I can stay at home and that's the best part about a writer's life – you can stay at home, you can do it where everyone you want to do it. 

But people who work exclusively in live productions are really suffering right now because of the pandemic and your plays aren't being performed right now. The Rez Sisters was supposed to be at Stratford this summer. That didn't happen, obviously. How are you doing with the fact that that source of income is gone? 

Because I don't put my eggs in one basket — I have several baskets, shall I say, so writing plays is only one of them. I write novels as well. I write music. And all those things I can do at home in a state of total peace in my beautiful, beautiful office in this beautiful neighborhood in Gatineau, Que.

And so I've been thriving. I have never been busier in my life. Writing plays, writing music. I'm very, very busy, but I'm very conscious of the fact that I, of course, am surrounded by actors and singers and performers. I think about them a lot. I feel very strongly for them. And I hope to God that this thing's over as quickly as possible so they can get back to work. 

Tomson Highway's play The Rez Sisters was set to be performed at The Stratford Festival in 2020, but the season was cancelled due to the pandemic. (Stratford Festival)

I really missed seeing your play at Stratford this summer, and I thought a lot about those seven women, the rez sisters and their voices and the fact that they've existed now in our lives for so many years because you wrote this play back in 1986. But can you talk a little bit, just tell us about those seven women. Briefly, Tomson, what do those women want? 

It's about making your dreams come true. One of the most striking things about this play is these are women living in poverty, in a state of powerlessness in a lot of ways, and yet they're happy. Life is all about having a good time, and they do. 

But in the midst of all that, they express their dreams as they're driving down the road to the biggest bingo in the world, which is happening in Toronto, and what they're going to do with the money when they win. And the prize, of course, the prize money is considerable and they can change their lives with it.

And it's helped by the fact that they were written in Cree, which is my native tongue. And it's the funniest language in the face of the earth. It's an hysterically funny language, and so they had that spirit of comedy deep inside their blood. And there is tragedy, too, of course. Darkness. But ultimately the comedy overrides them. 

And you wrote these voices originally in Cree and then you translated it. Is that how you did it? 

I do a lot of stuff in Cree first, and then I translate it into English. I'm not yet comfortable with the language as a writer. It's an additional challenge for me. But as Terry Fox once famously said, and this is probably my favourite Canadian quote of all time, he said, "It's not supposed to be easy." And I would humbly add in parentheses, "If it's easy, it's probably not worth doing."

That's what makes life so exciting. Some people have had some very difficult lives, and a lot of them have defeated those difficulties and have lived on to lead very accomplished lives, very joyful lives. And my favourite kind of life that I like to share, that I like to see on stage and wherever, is humour. People laughing in the face of tragedy. To have that ability, you know?

That's what that play [The Rez Sisters] has done for me. It's given me a very good life.... And so I always tell people that I've accidentally written my own To Kill a Mockingbird or my own Tom Sawyer, like a world literary classic is what it's become. 


Written and produced by Laurie Allan. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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