Michael Greyeyes says students take centre stage in York University graduate theatre program

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      The director of York University’s graduate program in theatre, Michael Greyeyes, has a long list of film and television credits, including Dance Me Outside, Crazy Horse, Smoke Signals, Sunshine State, Passchendaele, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. But several years ago, the Cree actor, director, and choreographer from the Muskeg Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan felt that he had run into a series of walls in terms of casting.

      “I started to think of theatre as my first home,” Greyeyes told the Straight by phone from his home in Toronto. “It’s really the place that I think I can find the freedom and challenge that I need as a performer. So I went back to school, intending to teach.”

      After graduating at the top of his class with a master’s in fine arts from Kent University in 2003, he landed a job at York University, specializing in devised theatre and teaching movement. And by reimmersing himself in theatre, he feels that he has improved as a director and choreographer.

      “When you’re placed in front of students, you need to figure out a way to articulate something you know in your bones, in a way,” Greyeyes said. “You have to…distill it into a teachable moment or a teachable idea.”

      He is quick to credit his faculty colleagues, noting that at York, theatre professors don’t only teach acting. He called Erika Batdorf “a fantastic theatre director, fantastic theatre maker”. He also lavishly praised Laura Levin in theatre studies, Paul Lampert in performance, and Teresa Przybylski in production.

      “There must be a room in her house for all the awards she has won,” he said of Przybylski. “She’s designed for every major company: the Shaw Festival, Stratford, Soulpepper. So when I look across the table in faculty meetings, I’m seeing people who absolutely lead in their fields. I think what students get when they come to York is, first of all, access to faculty that continue to stretch themselves, that need to innovate.”

      Greyeyes pointed out that former students of his in Toronto’s Theatre Parallax are presenting KATA until November 20. It came out of an assignment in his movement class. “I’m so excited to see the show,” he said. “They’re making theatre. I think that’s what we do. We produce students that make theatre.”

      As the director of the graduate program, he has tried to encourage more theatre makers and directors to join a new cohort within the acting-directing-design spectrum. It’s part of the university’s effort to be seen as a place where creators in several aspects of theatre can hone their craft. “We offer performance. We offer directing. We offer creation and design.”

      In the meantime, Greyeyes’s acting career received a big boost after he was cast to play the most famous North American indigenous person who ever lived, Sitting Bull, alongside Jessica Chastain in Woman Walks Ahead. It is scheduled for release next year.

      “It’s simply the best script I’ve ever read,” Greyeyes said. “And I’ve been working in the industry for about 30 years.”

      Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux forces defeated Gen. George C. Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

      “I was immensely excited not only to work opposite Jessica, who is utterly brilliant, but to tackle a role so complex," Greyeyes said. "It was an extraordinary, extraordinary experience.”