Talking Stick Festival

This year’s Talking Stick Festival has been a long time in the making. Organizer Margo Kane established Full Circle First Nations Performance theatre company in 1992 with an eye to providing opportunities for aboriginal artists to collaborate and grow.

Now, 20 years later, the company’s biggest performance festival is featuring original theatre for the first time along with its traditional program of dance, music, storytelling and workshops.

The first of those plays is Metis Mutt by actor/writer/ director/musician Sheldon Elter, perhaps best known for making it to the Top 14 on Canadian Idol in 2006, as well as his work in the APTN sketch comedy series, CAU-TION: May Contain Nuts. The one-man play follows Elter’s journey growing up in Grand Prairie, Alta., with an abusive but musically talented father, through to his early career as a standup comedian struggling with addiction.

Metis Mutt also deals with Elter’s development as an artist and the gradual adoption of a sense of responsibility to his community.

As a young comedian, Elter found himself on tour with a more experienced friend, facing the complicated reality of not only being a young Metis man, but also choosing how to represent his point of view through an onstage persona.

At first, his act played into the stereotypes he faced in real life, but that quickly became a problem. “I thought I was being like Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock,” he says. “I was a big fan. I really wanted that ability to take racism and flip it, but as a young guy I didn’t realize that a lot of the negative stereotypes I was joking about could be hurtful.

“I’m killing in this room of 500 construction workers for their Christmas party,” he says. “Then someone I admire and respect from the aboriginal community in my home-town approaches me and says, ‘I can’t believe you’re making these jokes. Doesn’t it bother you that people are laughing at that?’ ”

He resisted at first, arguing that maybe joking about it was part of the healing process. The problem was that he couldn’t tell when to stop. “I wasn’t pre-pared for the responsibility of what I had done,” he says. “I was perpetuating these negative stereotypes, not through my behaviour but through what I was saying.”

Elter has since altered his act to make it more respectful, but that doesn’t mean he has censored himself. Quite the opposite. In Metis Mutt he uses the old jokes – the ones he realized were doing more harm than good – to shock his audience into understanding the impact of deeply ingrained racist attitudes. The play was penned in 2001 and went on to win awards for Best Actor and Best New Fringe Work at the Edmonton Fringe Festival. It has grown over the years into a full-length piece Elter has toured across Canada and as far afield as Auckland, New Zealand. Elter says shifting the venue from nightclub to theatre has changed his message as well. The play is more about sharing his experiences and building understanding than simply making people laugh.

Two other plays, In a World Created by a Drunken God, by Drew Hayden Taylor and Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way, by Monique Mojica, will also be appearing at the Roundhouse over the two-week festival. At the Cultch, two nights of cutting-edge dance will grace the stage thanks to some world-class choreographers, including New Mexico’s Rulan Tangen and Ontario’s Brian Solomon. According to Talking Stick’s Kane, both artists meld a variety of techniques to produce a style that defies the artificial boundaries between traditional and contemporary aboriginal dance.

On Monday, Feb. 27, a group of writers will take on the challenge of creating a brand new work in eight short hours based on a topic chosen by writer and publisher Paul Seesequasis. The authors will share their creations that evening, along-side Seesequasis, who will be reading from his novel Tobacco Wars.

Venues across the city will also be host for spoken word events, powwows, and a number of workshops where the artists will get a chance to reach out into the community.

To Kane, this year’s festival is a culmination of her 40 years in the arts. She sees the explosion of world-class artists on this year’s bill as an excellent sign for the future.

“Artists provide a vital role in the development of a com-munity. Artists are the visionaries,” she says. “We have a role to play and, damn it, we’re going to play it.”

Erika Thorkelson, Vancouver Sun (February 16, 2012)