“My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” Those Louis Riel words hit home hard for Vancouver theatre artist Tai Amy Grauman when she heard playwright and actor Kevin Loring quote them last month. B.C.’s Loring was giving a speech after being named the first artistic director of the National Arts Centre’s new Indigenous theatre department.
Grauman, who stars in a new mask-and-music theatre work called Th’owxiya at the upcoming Drum Is Calling Festival, was deeply inspired. The quote captures all that she sees happening in Indigenous theatre this year—a beginning, an awakening, a reclaiming, and an expression like never before. It’s reflected in both her summer project and several others she’s taking part in this fall.
“I’m so thankful that I was born when I was and I’m able to tell the stories my grandmothers couldn’t,” Grauman says, speaking to the Straight during a break from another indigenous-themed project, UnSettled: A Journey of Our Homes on Native Land, at the Cultch. “But I carry that as a huge responsibility.”
Th’owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish, produced by Axis Theatre, is a perfect example of what Grauman wants to be doing and wants to see more of. A recent grad of UBC’s theatre program, the Métis artist says it’s the first theatre-for-young-audiences work she’s seen with only Indigenous actors on-stage.
“We all know how to dance and drum, and there’s a lot of beautiful music where we’re in a line singing,” she says of the six-cast-member production, which has already had performances at the UBC Botanical Garden and will hit Larwill Park on Tuesday (July 25), during the Drum Is Calling Festival, part of the city’s Canada 150+ celebrations.
The show, based on six storytellers from the Kwantlen First Nation village of Squa’lets, is illed with animals and spirit creatures, with Grauman playing Baby Bear. “There’s this amazing part where Raven says, ‘Come fly with me to the moon,’ and myself and the other bear join him and sometimes we have 100 people following behind us—a bunch of children running around it with us. So it’s creating those positive relationships of the young with our culture. I think that’s something this play does very well.”
Written by Kwantlen playwright Joseph A. Dandurand, Th’owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish feels a bit like Hansel and Gretel mixed with the Northwest Coast story of the wild woman of the woods. In it, Th’owxiya’s giant mouth holds the most delicious foods, but if you steal from her, she’ll eat you and your family. A young mouse has made that mistake, but with the help of two young bears, Raven, and Sasquatch, the creature takes a journey to earn her forgiveness. It’s directed by Axis’s Chris McGregor, one of Grauman’s past instructors at UBC.
The play mixes drumming, storytelling, acting, and mask work. For Grauman, the most rewarding experience was crafting her own elk-skin drum with Haudenosaunee Mohawk artist Jay Havens for the show.
“There’s something about building your own drum—it gives us a huge sense of responsibility and ownership,” Grauman says. “You come to love the drum and protect the drum—it’s not just an instrument. For this show, it fits your hand a certain way. An animal has given its life to make this drum.
“It took a full eight-hour day to just sit there with our hide and string and rounds,” she adds, saying the process teaches patience.
The positive experience finds Grauman in a different place than she was in midway through the theatre program at UBC. At that time, she says, she was struggling with the European, colonial model of the curriculum, and was immersed in First Nations studies as part of her degree. But Margo Kane—artistic managing director of Full Circle Productions and the Talking Stick Festival, who also happens to be artistic director of the Drum Is Calling Festival (see story here)—persuaded Grauman to see her studies through.
“I really struggled at theatre school when I had to step into stories I didn’t understand,” explains Grauman, to whom Kane went on to give a Mayor’s Arts Award in theatre, in 2015. “Margo said, ‘Tai, you’re getting an incomparable education. It’s just a mountain you have to climb and to see over, and maybe there’s another mountain after this one.’ ”
Grauman couldn’t be happier she took her mentor’s advice. She’s scheduled to debut the play she’s written and is directing, Her Name Was Mary…, a coming-of-age story based on a real friendship with someone who had anorexia nervosa, at September’s Vancouver Fringe Festival. And she’s landed a part in a new play, Thanks for Giving, at the Arts Club Theatre in October—written by none other than Kevin Loring.
These are signs that things are happening for both Grauman and Indigenous voices in Canadian theatre, and that gives the young artist something to celebrate at Canada 150+ festivities.
“I think it’s great that we have an Indigenous-run Canada 150 festival, where we can say, ‘It’s been 150 of not-great years, but we’re still standing strong together,” Grauman says. “And I think Margo Kane can bring us together.”
Axis Theatre presents Th’owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish at the Drum Is Calling Festival on Tuesday (July 25) at 1:30 and 3:45 p.m. in Larwill Park.