Margo Kane feels that the wheel has come around, a cycle completed. For many years in the ’80s and ’90s the founder and director of the Talking Stick Festival—the only annual festival of aboriginal arts in Canada—toured relentlessly as a solo performer. So she’s particularly excited to see three one-person theatrical shows at this year’s event, which runs February 19 to March 3.
“This is the second year we’ve had theatre on our mainstage,” she tells the Straight. “More aboriginal theatre work is starting to tour. That’s a relief because I wanted more theatre, but it’s so hard when you only have small resources.”
Kane is best known for Moon Lodge, a work rooted in storytelling that also incorporates ritual, dance, and mime. Its international success led Kane to form her own theatre company, Full Circle, currently in its 20th-anniversary year. Her intention was not just to develop her own work, but to collaborate with other aboriginal artists.
“Touring a lot as a solo performer was lonely,” says Kane. “I established the company so I could have more people to train with, and to create work together. I really wanted to have a camaraderie in developing new things, to give healing inspiration for the youth.”
Out of this process grew Talking Stick. “The first one, in 2001, was just for a couple of nights,” Kane says of the inaugural Talking Stick Cabaret. “We did a call for artists to submit for spots of eight minutes max. Some of them were just coming out of community-level performances. We provided a director and help in making their work stage-ready. It was a mix of theatre, contemporary dance, poetry, and visual arts—a lovely night.”
The 2013 Talking Stick Festival ranges from slam poetry and multimedia performances to the Headliner series, which includes the three one-person shows. “Café Daughter, performed by PJ Prudat and written by a well-known Saskatoon native playwright, Kenneth T. Williams, is about a young girl in Saskatchewan in the ’50s and ’60s raised as a Chinese girl and told to keep her Cree heritage a secret because of the prejudice. It’s very humorous that way, dealing with issues about mixed race. Tumit, by Reneltta Arluk from the Northwest Territories, is about the challenge of knowing she’s going to be a single parent. Agokwe, by Waawaate Fobister, is about a gay aboriginal boy on a reservation who falls in love for the first time. These are serious issues people are dealing with, and all the shows are by young and upcoming actor-playwrights,” says Kane.
The series also includes A Circumpolar Soundscape, featuring three young women from the Arctic Circle—singers Leela Gilday from the Northwest Territories, Diyet from the Yukon, and Nive Nielsen from Greenland. “The soundscape concept is not of the kind you’d expect in a movie, like background music,” explains Gilday, reached in Banff, where the trio is performing. “Our songs give the listener a sense of the North from three perspectives. There are many commonalities, and as the show has evolved we’ve explored different aspects of that. Diyet and I play guitars, Nive has a [frame] drum, and we’ve got a five-piece band with us.”
Dance is once more a major attraction at Talking Stick. Among the highlights are Native Girl Syndrome, a new contemporary work by festival favourite Lara Kramer from Montreal, and the sensational Sagkeeng’s Finest—three teenage boys from the Sagkeeng nation, east of Winnipeg. Last May they won the contest Canada’s Got Talent in Toronto with their spectacular display of footwork and choreography based on Red River jigging and Métis clog-dancing.
New artists such as these have given Kane inspiration to keep working to help aboriginal communities and individuals develop and heal themselves. “I just knew that theatre, drama, music—anything to express yourself—was really a healthy way to go,” she says. “I could see the change in our young people—and in all people. The arts and artists play a vital role in the recovery of their health and well-being.
“It’s taken so long to get this recognized it almost wiped me out a few times,” Kane continues. “I had to keep going—because I’m tenacious, and because I believed that something was possible.”
The Talking Stick Festival runs from Tuesday (February 19) to March 3.