Day 6

This 82-year-old director is helping launch the world's first national Indigenous theatre season in Ottawa

The curtain is up on the National Arts Centre's new Indigenous Theatre department. It's the world's first nationally-funded season of programming by Indigenous creators and as director of its inaugural production, Muriel Miguel says the pressure is on.

'I'm going in there charging because this has to happen,' says Indigenous director Muriel Miguel

Director Muriel Miguel poses for a photo between rehearsals in a studio for the National Arts Centre Indigenous Theatre's first production, The Unnatural and Accidental Women. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The curtain opened Tuesday on Canada's first national Indigenous theatre, and the 82-year-old director of the group's first production says "it's about time."

"This is the first production with a Native cast, Native playwright, Native director and assistant director, choreographer. We're all Native," said Muriel Miguel. 

"That's very exciting."

According to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, the organization's Indigenous Theatre season is the first of its kind in the world.

Their first production, The Unnatural and Accidental Women, is by Métis playwright Marie Clements. It centres on the deaths of several women in Vancouver's downtown east side.

Miguel, an American director and actor, spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about what audiences can expect. Here's part of their conversation.

Actor PJ Prudat performs in The Unnatural and Accidental Women, the first production of the National Arts Centre inaugural Indigenous Theatre season. (Justin Tang/National Arts Centre)

Do you feel any pressure?

Yes. I feel a lot of pressure. It's kind of like the canary in the coal mine. But I'm wearing my armour and my everything and I'm going in there charging because this has to happen.

This is obviously a big moment in Canadian history and in Indigenous arts in Canada, but what's in it for you?

I've been working all my life like this. 

I want to — it's the wrong word to say show — but how we think, how we talk to each other, how we get things together ... is not like a lot of theatre and that to me, that's what I want.

The opening play is The Unnatural and Accidental Women. It is, as you said, by the Indigenous playwright Marie Clements. Why is this a good play for Indigenous Theatre's inaugural season and for the first show? 

This is about women that were murdered many years ago now, and this man [Gilbert Paul Jordan, who] was walking around. The first time that Accidental Women was really put on the stage, he was walking around because he got out on parole and nobody paid attention to it. 

Nobody paid attention to what was happening with these women. 

My group is over 40 years old and we started working on a piece called Women and Violence over 40 years ago ... and here we are and we're fighting the same thing.

Actors PJ Prudat, Yoland Bonnell, Jenifer Brousseau and Columpa C. Bopp perform in The Unnatural and Accidental Women. The production features an entirely Indigenous cast. (Justin Tang/National Arts Centre)

So when we hear these women talking to each other on stage, what do you want us to hear? 

That these women were human beings. You know, they were on Hastings Street. No matter where they are, everyone deserves to live and everyone deserves to be happy.

Everyone wants to be happy. And this is part of it; that you can't murder somebody and walk away with it. 

You said that it's important to include humour in these performances. What you're talking about sounds very serious. 

Is there room for laughter? Is there room to show people enjoying life?

How I feel is that you keep on hitting people over the head and you hit them over the head and after a while, all they say is "Ow" and they just want to get away from you. 

So I want to show how you can approach a lot of things with humour and still get to the point — and maybe even surprise people. 

You know, they may be laughing at something and then find that you're not supposed to be laughing at that.

I want other people to see this. I want them to try to understand. I want them to fight us, push back on us so we can tell them where we're standing.- Muriel Miguel, director and actor

Who do you want to see the shows? Who's your ideal audience?

My ideal audience is an all-Native audience. It would be great. 

I mean, I've had experience with all-Native audiences and I love it. I love it because the love comes from the audience and you're surrounded with it. It's like acting on a cloud and I love that feeling. 

But I do want other people to see this. I want them to try to understand. I want them to fight us, push back on us so we can tell them where we're standing.

I think some people will walk out. But I think most of us are used to that. People walked out on my stuff.

Does it distract you when you see them leave?

Sometimes I say goodbye.

Do you think you'll find in an all-Indigenous audience up there in Algonquin land, the National Arts Centre?

I think so. I think Penny [Couchie, assistant director] and I have been working very hard to connect a lot of these different communities together. 

So we have done that with different kinds of workshops and we went into communities and talked with people and showed pieces of what we do. 

We went on those reserves and people did say, "It's about time you came here, you know."

Monique Mojica plays Aunt Shadie in Indigenous Theatres' production of The Unnatural and Accidental Women. (Justin Tang/National Arts Centre)

What have you learned about Indigenous talent in Canada?

There's a lot of it ... and it's fun to work with your stories.

People may not think that our stories are important, or that they're just a family story. Every one of those stories are important. How Aunt Lizzie met Uncle Joe. How mama ran away from home. 

All those … stories that you learn under the kitchen table, that's wonderful. And if you can take that and you bring that to the theatre and talk about it in those terms, that's wonderful.

Muriel Miguel, you are 82 years old. Most people your age would be deep into retirement at this point. What keeps you working on productions like this one?

I never thought of retirement. I'm old; my body's getting old, but my head isn't getting old. 

I'm still thinking and I think about a lot of things and I think about what I want to leave behind for younger generations.

All these other generations coming up — that's what makes me continue. I want that. I want people to just be wonderful, wonderful storytellers [who] know that they can fit in with with what they carry. 

That's important, and that's how I think. And I'll probably be doing this until I'm 95.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, download our podcast or click Listen above.