With Kamloopa, Kim Senklip Harvey shifts theatre's view of Indigenous women

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      Her first experience of the professional stage nearly left her broken—but now theatre’s making her whole.

      There was never any doubt that Kim Senklip Harvey was born to tell stories, on-stage and off-. “What Kevin Loring always says is that you get called to something,” the Syilx, Tsilhqot’in, Ktunaxa, and Dakelh actor, playwright, and director tells the Straight in a telephone interview from Kamloops, citing the Nlaka’pamux author of Where the Blood Mixes. “I think I’ve inherited storytelling as something that is my responsibility to the community, for my people. And it’s my duty, when I’ve been given that knowledge and that ability, to work really hard at making sure that I can be effective and in service of my people.”

      Harvey could, it’s true, have gone in other directions. Her propensity for hard work and focus also made her a natural athlete, and in her teens she could have accepted a baseball scholarship from an American college. Instead, she enrolled at UBC, and it was there that her interest in the stage blossomed.

      “A couple of teachers—Tom Scholte and Stephen Malloy—asked if I wanted to be in the BFA theatre program, and I didn’t even know what that was,” she recalls, laughing. “I said, ‘What is that?’ and they said, ‘Well, you get to act, and you get to tell stories all the time.’ And I said, ‘Why aren’t I already there?’ ”

      On graduating, Harvey was immediately tapped by a variety of professional companies—but soon found the work she was being asked to do problematic. One script required her character to describe how her mother was almost beaten to death. In another, she portrayed a survivor of the ’60s scoop, whose mother had killed herself by jumping from a bridge. In a third, she performed an abortion on herself and then committed suicide.

      “It really burned me—and I didn’t expect that to happen,” she says. “Mentally and spiritually, I broke. The stories I was being asked to tell, the position I was being put in as an Indigenous young woman, severely hurt me.…I felt betrayed by theatre. I felt alone. And I felt abandoned in a world that I had loved so much from such a young age.

      “Those roles were my introduction into working in theatre,” she adds. “Body trauma: to die every day on-stage, sometimes twice a day. I did not have the tools or the maturity or the capacity to do that and not feel that pain myself.”

      Harvey left the stage to work as a provincial advocate for First Nations children in foster care. But now, renewed, she’s back—and not only with a new production, Kamloopa, but a new, healthier, and protocol-based concept of how Canadian theatre can engage with Indigenous stories. Especially, she stresses, with Indigenous women’s stories.

      Kamloopa came from wanting to be seen in the complexities of what it means to be an Indigenous woman,” she explains of her three-hander, in which she’ll direct Yolanda Bonnell, Samantha Brown, and Kaitlyn Yott. “I was being asked to be a victim all the time, and that’s not me. That’s not my friends. That’s not the powerful women I know in my life. The women in my life laugh and joke and have power and agency and sovereignty over everything they do in their life—and that’s what Kamloopa is. It’s three women who have sovereignty over what they do.

      “Yes, they have complications and challenges, but they love, they laugh, they fight, they cry, and they find joy.”

      Harvey’s characters are also designed to make an impact beyond the theatre. “If you kill us on-stage, if you make us cry all the time, if you portray us as victims, how do you think the rest of society is going to see us?” she asks. “How do you think that will not impact the way that we’re treated? And I think that’s dangerous.”

      Kamloopa runs at the Cultch’s Historic Theatre from Tuesday (September 25) to October 6.