Kaitlyn Yott was feeling frustrated about her chosen career, in the musical-theatre realm she’d devoted years to at Capilano University—even though she stresses she enjoyed the experience and learned a lot.
“Being in the world of musical theatre, it has a lot of work to do in terms of visible minorities,” the artist, who’s of mixed Haida and Japanese-Canadian heritage, tells the Straight over the phone. As a woman of colour, she explains, “if you existed outside of what the ingénue looked like, they didn’t really know what to do with you.
“So I felt betrayed by this art form that I loved and that was telling me there wasn’t really a place for me because I looked different,” she continues. “And my way of storytelling was different in a way I couldn’t really understand yet.”
All that changed with a sudden phone call from Corey Payette, the Oji-Cree playwright, actor, composer, and artistic director of Urban Ink Productions. He had sought out Yott and wondered if she wanted to be part of a reading for Les Filles du Roi, a musical about two young Mohawk siblings whose lives are interrupted by the arrival of a boatload of young brides from Europe.
“He says, ‘I’m looking for someone who can play someone 13 and is Indigenous and who can sing,’ and I said to my mom, ‘They’re looking for me!’ I remember crying and jumping for joy, saying, ‘I think there’s finally a place for me in the industry.’”
And so began a journey that would lead Yott to the very forefront of an Indigenous revolution in theatre happening in this country. What followed was a role in Payette’s national-touring residential-school musical Children of God, and then a part in Kim Senklip Harvey’s powerful matriarchal play Kamloopa last fall.
To fully understand what all this meant to Yott, you need to know her background. She grew up on Semiahmoo First Nation territory in White Rock, her Indigenous heritage cloaked in secrecy and shame. “My mom was part of the ’60s scoop and was adopted into a white family,” she explains. “There was a lot of shame around exploring my background.
I always had questions, but it was just a very powerful subject for my mom to talk about.”
Yott had enjoyed singing as a kid, but her parents couldn’t afford to pay for theatre training. Instead, she was pursuing a career in softball when an ACL injury ended that dream in her last year of high school. That’s when she decided she wanted to enroll in musical theatre instead.
Following what she calls her “spiritual awakening”, Yott is bringing her vision to a more conventional work this fall—and one that hasn’t traditionally sat well with Indigenous people. She stars as the title character in Carousel Theatre for Young People’s Peter Pan this November, but in a version that won’t look quite like what you’re used to. For starters, Tiger Lily, the infamous character built on Native American stereotypes, is gone. And the score is played with live folk music. Yott has had a lot of input into her role.
“Something I’m not interested in anymore is compromising myself in order to accommodate a story,” Yott says. “I could choose to not participate, or I could see this as an opportunity to flip it on its head and repair the narrative.”
Through fully rethinking roles like this, and carrying on work with a new wave of Indigenous playwrights and composers, she’s found her calling.
“All my ancestors are watching,” she says. “I hope that 100 years from now my children’s children will have an easier life because of the work I’m doing.”
International man of mystery? That might be a bit strong. But there’s no denying that Chris Francisque is a bicoastal, bilingual powerhouse on the local stage, or that there are a few cards that he likes to keep close to his chest. He doesn’t want to reveal his age, for example, noting that “It helps with casting directors and roles if they don’t know exactly how old you are.” And he’s coy about what led him to take “an unexpected seven-year hiatus from acting”, saying only that “Life has a very funny way of humbling you, sometimes.”
Now that he’s back on the theatrical track, however, he’s convinced that acting is what he was born to do, and that the stage is his natural home.
“How you know your purpose in life is that you can identify your passion—which, to me, is something you can do very well with the least amount of effort, and that gives you the most joy,” he tells the Straight, in a telephone interview from downtown Vancouver. “Like, when I act, it’s not something that I have to force or rack my brain over it. It comes naturally.”
Francisque recently demonstrated his on-stage ease in an Ensemble Theatre company production of Superior Donuts; writing in these pages, critic Andrea Warner praised his ability to “flawlessly elevate the material”. And he doesn’t hesitate to reveal his excitement over getting to revisit his role—or roles—in SpeakEasy Theatre’s production of American playwright Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment, which opens at the Firehall Arts Centre on September 24.
“It’s really a play which speaks to the black experience in the world,” says Francisque, whose own experiences have included his francophone childhood in Quebec, and being an adolescent in the Fraser Valley.
“Black people are not a monolith, but we share a lot of similarities,” Francisque notes. “I think that’s where the genesis of this play came from. It’s interesting that it’s a Korean-American playwright who wrote it, but she actually asked actors ‘What is it you would like to see yourself as, if you had a choice, rather than the stereotypes? What is it that you would want to see on-stage, if you had the choice?’
“Which is why The Shipment is so interesting, because, without giving too much away to the people that haven’t seen it, it is divided into two parts—the first part being highly, highly stylized to convey a very specific message to the audience,” he continues. “And then the playwright wrote the second half based on what they [her black colleagues] told her they would like to be offered as roles.”
Let’s just say that the half-dozen characters Francisque will be asked to play allow him to stretch way, way beyond “Thug Number 2, or Rapper Number 3”, the kind of roles he’s all too often offered in more conventional productions. And he’s not the only one who’ll be challenged by the show. The Shipment, he suggests, requires audiences to confront their own complicity in perpetuating racial stereotypes, and that’s rare on the Canadian stage.
“You see the wheels turning, and they go ‘Oh, that’s what it is! That’s what we as a society do!’” he explains. “And that’s one of the best moments I’ve ever had as an actor. A lot of the time, on-stage, you can’t really see the audience, but in this particular part, the houselights go up and we’re able to see every single member of the audience, and you get to see them realize what the hell is going on.”More