NAKAI: A NORTHERN THEATRE
This paper relates the history of Yukon's Nakai, a small theatre group, from its inception in 1979 to 1999. It focuses on those elements that contribute to Nakai's Northern-ness: its geographic location and relatively small population base; the personalities of those who molded it; and its development of works that originate from and deal with contact between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people and traditions. The significance of Nakai is in its Northern perceptions of issues that, while not confined to the North, are particularly apparent in a Northern context.
Cet article présente l'histoire du groupe yukonnais Nakai, une petite troupe théâtrale du Nord, depuis ses débuts en 1979 jusqu'à 1999. Le thème central porte sur les éléments qui contribuent à la spécificité nordique du théâtre Nakai: sa situation géographique et le petit bassin de population qui constitue son public, la personnalitié de chacun des gens qui ont donné forme au groupe et son interprétation de pièces de théâtre inspirées qui traitent des relations entre les peuples et les traditions autochtones et non autochtones. La particularité de Nakai découle de sa perception de thèmes qui, bien qu'ils ne soient pas limités au Nord, sont particulièrement pertinents dans un contexte nordique.
The weight, volume, and variety of writings devoted to teasing out the multiple and shifting implications of North, from Louis-Edmond Hamelin to Thomas Berger to Margaret Atwood, attest to the importance of this aspect of Canadian identity. Works of art that modify or add dimensions to current ideas of North are worthy of consideration; and Nakai Theatre Ensemble, because of its Yukon location, the time frame in which it has been active, and the personalities and affinities of its developers, has been instrumental in producing such works. It has, in particular, amplified the articulations of voices less heard, the voices of First Nations people, the voices of women of all origins, the voices of people for whom North is both symbol and the land and water upon which they live. What this paper aims to do is sketch a history of Nakai, with a brief look at some of its key productions.
Leslie Hamson's Last Rites, Miche Genest's The Fasting Girl, the comic duo Sara and Susie, and Patti Flather and Leonard Linklater's Sixty Below are examples of Nakai productions that present such views. Hamson's work, with its interplay of women and their relationships with one another and the northern wilderness where they live or to which they have retreated can be read as eco-feminism, and Flather and Genest are in a sense descendants of Hamson (whose mentorship and moral support they acknowledge). Sixty Below presents a manifold North: small town and wilderness as an actual location, the place where people live, a meeting place of different cultural traditions, and a locus for aboriginal ancestral spirits. Sara and Susie had its origins in Sharon Shorty's Trickster Visits the Old Folks Home, and through them Shorty and Jackie Williams produce their satiric, down-to-earth social commentary in the voices of those who observe and react to, rather than participate in the pursuits of the dominant culture.
Nakai is a professional theatre company whose home is the Yukon and whose mandate is "to develop and produce plays which have resonance in the North." It is small, serving a thinly populated area, and its history is probably representative of many small theatres in Canada, except that in exploring its territory this particular theatre company presents aspects of North that are not part of common imaging. The environment that gave rise to Nakai and the personalities of its initiators were factors in designating the direction in which it was to travel and the areas it was to explore.
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It is generally agreed that Beth Mulloy was its principal founder. She grew up and was educated in the Yukon, going "out" to Camosun College in Victoria to study drama, where she met Sheila Langston, who had grown up and done practical stage work in Montreal. They were part of Caravan Stage Company for a while, and then moved North in 1979, determined to "do theatre," influenced by theories of the pedagogy of the oppressed and by Mulloy's attachment to the Yukon. They were in their early twenties, and what they did was not unusual: many vigorous young artists happened to arrive in the Territory at about the same time, some as newcomers, others returning from schooling outside, all recognizing in the Yukon's quality of the North part of their identity and purpose, a sense of homecoming. Chris Dray, Executive Director of the Yukon Arts Centre, points out that the Yukon societies originating at that time and continuing to flourish now include Lost Moose Publishing, the Dawson City Music Festival, Frostbite Music Festival, Yukon Educational Theatre, Separate Reality (theatre that later merged with Nakai), The Guild (also theatre), and Nakai itself.
At this time, the Yukon, like the rest of Canada was beginning to recognize the validity of theatre made in Canada rather than favouring plays made in England or the States. In 1978, Michael Ondaatje's Billy the Kid, a Canadian play by a Canadian playwright, was staged in Whitehorse. In 1979, the Canada Council "endorsed theatre policies which assign[ed] priority to Canadian plays, artists and employment of Canadians for senior artistic and administrative positions for publicly funded theatres" (Canada Council). Recognition of First Nations Theatre, too, was developing (the Native Theatre School having been formed in Canada in 1974), although the Native Theatre School in the Yukon is first referred to by name in 1990/1991.
Even with the new Canada Council policy, arts funding was still either difficult or impossible to come by, and many cultural organizations were funded "through the back door," through employment funding and student hiring programs (Parry). Mulloy and Langston were initially funded by a Youth Grant from the old Whitehorse Drama Society (in existence since 1942) for teaching theatre in outlying communities, where the populations were mostly aboriginal. They needed to make contact with their First Nations' students and to introduce Western theatre techniques in a form accessible to them. They achieved this by listening to the legends and stories told in the communities, and then by helping to shape them into impromptu plays which their students or apprentices then acted. Besides acting, the students also provided the art work and music. The resulting performances combined First Nations and non-First Nations art and traditions, and provided a stimulus for more. Mulloy and Langston, then, through an entirely pragmatic approach to their work and relationship with the people in the communities, took the first steps in the Yukon towards a Native Theatre School and community-based First Nations Theatre.(1)
The name "Nakai" and how it came into existence provides a vignette of Langston and Mulloy and their relationship with the people with whom they worked. In 1979 they happened to be in Old Crow, the northernmost Yukon community, living on food contributed by the community, in an uninsulated log cabin without electricity or running water. The Youth Grant that brought them there did so on condition that the host community provided their living. Mulloy and Langston were working on a grant application that would enable them to do more, and perhaps even receive a modest allowance for expenses. The concept that artists could or should be paid seems to have been a novelty, but with this application the idea of professional theatre began to surface. Searching for a fitting company name for their company, they were inspired to ask a Gwich'in woman what she would call them. "Nee'khai," she answered, meaning "two." They promptly adopted that as their name (Mulloy). It has been taken to stand for the two cultural communities, aboriginal and non-aboriginal.
In spite of the efforts of its founders to attain some kind of stability for themselves and their theatre, Nakai had to wait a while longer to acquire a manager who could handle the financial aspects of long-term planning. This phase, however, made a start in 1980, when Christine and Marc Paradis, then on tour at a Canadian Heritage Festival in Saskatchewan, were persuaded to join the company. Marc Paradis is a musician and graphic artist. Christine was and is a rarity: one who, while not a performer, was willing to deploy her considerable energies and skills in running an arts group. In 1981, she trained as an Arts Administrator, and became Nakai's first General Manager. Dedicated to ideals of responsibility and accountability, she concentrated on developing programs and resources, finding audiences, sponsors, and public funding. She sat on Arts Council Boards, and worked on getting actors and writers together. In her first year as General Manager in 1982, she took the new company in a tour across Canada, producing Beth Mulloy and Daniel Janke's musical, Flight 23, representing Yukon as part of the cultural component of the Canada Summer Games in Thunder Bay. Incidentally, the play is a humorous look at the contrast between the expectations of those arriving in the Yukon and the experiences of those leaving, another atypical representation of North.
So, although in 1982-83 the Yukon was in a bust phase of its notorious boom-bust economy, Nakai flourished, continuing its work in the smaller communities with First Nations people. "Theatre in the Woods" was a summer performance program that ran from 1982 to 1986, featuring legends and fables, natives and non-natives; and its title is a literal description of where this theatre was created and performed (see illustrations) (Paradis). The Good Spirits Festival, which toured Yukon in the summer of 1983, was funded through the Council of Yukon Indians and NNADAP (National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program) (Parry). In it, visual and performing artists showed their work and taught workshops. Marc Paradis and his pupils made masks for productions that featured animal transformations, a frequent theme of First Nations' story-telling. Marc simultaneously taught his skills and derived fresh thematic material from his students. Leslie Hamson was a prime mover behind the Festival and its manager in the field for part of its existence. Her Last Rites and Land(e)scapes show First Nations' influence not only in the representation of First Nations' characters in a cabin-in-the-wilderness setting, but also in the theme of adapting to the environment rather than the more usual "man against nature" manifestation.
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In 1985, Nakai, although plumping out financially, found itself suddenly depleted of artists. The founders left for a variety of personal reasons and outstanding recruits were not yet forthcoming. Langston had left to study further: "Mulloy had to resign for personal reasons. Mulloy and Janke [married about three years previously] divorced. Physically exhausted from the years with Nakai, Mulloy had contracted hepatitis B and mononucleosis while travelling" (Flather 43). Marc and Christine Paradis, busy raising their children, spent less time on Nakai. Ironically, in 1985 Nakai got its first project grant from Canada Council, "a major feat for Yukon," and also from YRAC (Yukon Recreation and Arts Committee) in accordance with the relatively new "Yukon 1983 Recreation Act" (Parry).
From the General Manager's Report on the 1987-88 season, it appears that Nakai had recycled some of its earlier works. Nevertheless, in 1986, in a time of almost-eclipse, another Nakai institution got under way: the Nakai Twenty-Four Hour Playwriting Competition, which gave writers, playwrights, and the artistically adventurous the opportunity to write plays and have them read and workshopped. The reading and performance of these plays became part of New Theatre North, another production of Nakai that deals with the North.
Considering the size of the Yukon's population in 1989, it is likely that audiences, as well as artists, were being stretched. The Yukon was very well supplied with theatre groups, each with its special niche. The Guild had theatre space and was devoted to amateur theatre and "having fun" (Dray). Separate Reality performed professional (classical) theatre from a world stage. Nakai Players worked outside of Whitehorse and with First Nations (Parry). It developed new scripts with a Yukon focus and worked on developing writing, design, acting, and directing. Too many demands on audiences, the need for performance and rehearsal space, and artistic burnout were possible motives for the Yukon dramatic societies to embark on a search for partnership that tested their identity and was, at times, painful and divisive.
A bland statement attached to a letter dated April 15, 1991 summarizes the outcome of one attempt to consolidate resources: "Nakai Theatre Ensemble was formed in January 1990 as an amalgamation of two well-established Whitehorse Theatre companies, Nakai Players and Separate Reality Theatre" (Yukon Archives). The Guild disengaged itself, and retained its autonomy, its physical plant, and its commitment to amateur theatre. And Nakai Theatre Ensemble, the coalition of Separate Reality and Nakai Players, remained committed to professional and developmental theatre, theatre originating in the North and having special resonance with Northerners. Christine Paradis trained a new general manager as her replacement, and the Board started to work at long-term planning. An infrastructure was there, waiting for a new personality to move the organization ahead.
In 1991, Dawn Davies became the new Artistic Director and Nakai received ongoing operating funding from Canada Council. Project funding had served Nakai well and continues to do so. But operating funding meant that Nakai could concentrate on its mandate and develop its ongoing work rather than being primarily project and sponsor oriented. In addition, it signified national recognition; Nakai was, in Laurel Parry's words, "crowned" as an important theatre company in Canada.
In their number, scope, and selection, the ten productions in Nakai's Seasons 11 and 12 demonstrate Davies's energy and willingness to engage in complex and confrontational social issues. They include, among others, Lill's The Occupation of Heather Rose and Sisters, Hamson's Last Rites, Flather and Linklater's Sixty Below and, notably, The Blizzard, a post-colonial, feminist version of The Tempest, reworked by Dawn Davies and Eric Epstein, the setting being an island off Canada's northwest coast reminiscent of the Haida Gwai.
The Spirits were played by Yukon First Nations people. Margo Kane took the part of Ariel and Sam Bob, Caliban. Prospero became Prospera, played by Angela Wood. In her article on Nakai, Flather refers to some of the tensions: "Kane complained that native people hadn't been involved in the project from the start" (Flather 43). The causes were deep and complex. Being a woman emphasized Prospera's role as colonizer and wielder of power. That and other details in the production also underscored her role as director of all action in the play: raiser of storms, commander of Ariel and Caliban. So, in a strange irony, Prospera mirrored Davies herself, who, while aware of the theoretical issues involved, manipulated the text and "commanded" or directed the characters, invoking the actors' responses to unresolved issues of power and control in their personal historical and social context. She tapped profound emotional depths which emerged in performance and added to its power (for example, in particular, in the recitation of Ariel's curse, and in the sung or chanted farewell of Caliban to the colonists/courtiers).
In her Artistic Director's Report on the 1991/92 Season, Davies acknowledges the experience and indicates its political importance:
The Blizzard gave me another opportunity to realize the importance of increased communication and collaboration with the native community when dealing with native issues. As we all know, this is a situation that must be addressed nationally, and we in the Yukon must particularly involve the native community from the onset of a project through to its completion. I don't think any of us involved in the production fully realized the implications of the adaptation and the casting of native actors in the roles of Ariel, Caliban and the "Spirits." Twenty percent of the population is native. We must work together to determine the needs and goals of this segment of the population. (Yukon Archives).
The Blizzard, its performance, and the experience of all associated with it demonstrated how necessary it is for the dominant group not to be the sole definer of what constitutes sensitive ground. Issues of dominance are not, and should not be the only terms by which the North is reckoned, but they exist and are of national, as well as of Northern, importance.
Dawn Davies was an extraordinarily hard worker. Copies of letters to possible sponsors, grant applications, policy statements, revisions of policy statements, and detailed comments to playwrights on their submissions fill boxes in the Yukon Archives. Moreover, in the Artistic Director's report of 1991/92 she states, "At the end of the 1990/1 Season, the Board decided that Nakai Theatre Ensemble could not afford a full-time General Manager during the 1991/2 Season. As of September 1, I will be fulfilling the duties of Executive Director and will therefore be responsible for supervising the administrative functions of the company" (Yukon Archives).
Under her direction, then, Nakai developed fresh affinities. Davies was not afraid to work with large casts. She believed that bringing seasoned actors from the South was part of the development Nakai should offer to Northern actors. She emphasized technical advancement, by training stage managers, and by working on set and lighting designs. She fostered a relationship with schools. Together, Nakai, Yukon Libraries and Archives and the Department of Education still host the annual Writers' Festival. She worked with the Native Theatre School (Dray). The largeness and boldness (and expense) of Davies's vision may have been an administrator's nightmare, even when she was the administrator, but it added dimensions to Nakai and its work.
It is hardly surprising that she was exhausted when she went away on a leave of absence that lengthened into permanency, leaving the company in the hands of Philip Adams, who had been a member of the Board when Davies was Artistic Director. He succeeded her and was Artistic Director until December 1998. Philip Adams's leadership of Nakai was characterized by a blend of charisma and fiscal awareness. He spoke and wrote passionately as an advocate of the arts, in particular the theatre, and was at the same time prudent in planning and executing projects. Himself a playwright and actor, his greatest and most generous gift was mentoring, building up, and giving confidence to emerging writers in Yukon. He paid attention to educating audiences. At the New Theatre North (1996), there was reading of undeveloped scripts created in the Twenty-Four Hour Playwriting Competition. There was standing room only, and some of the audience were seventeen-year-olds (Parry). His vision was to extend New Theatre North to include other Northern regions with the Yukon and he continued to work at making Nakai a significant part of Canadian national theatre.
Adams's own play, Free's Point, also produced by Nakai, deals with the negative side of the masculine escape and adventure story that is a frequent theme of Northern literature. But what does Nakai amount to now? It is a small Northern professional theatre company operating out of an office in Whitehorse. Michael Clark is its new Artistic Director, following Patti Fraser, who was Guest Artistic Director after Philip Adams. Clark's aim is to continue the development of Yukon theatre by maintaining its exposure to southern expertise.
Nakai continues to run its annual Twenty-Four Hour Playwriting event, together with workshops and dramaturgy. New Theatre North is part of this project in which experienced practitioners from "Outside" dramaturge the work of emerging playwrights and have their own works-in-progress read. Some new plays finish then and there, having achieved their full growth. Others develop further, appearing as productions on the Yukon stage, and sometimes proceeding to the fringe theatres of Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and the United States. It produces and co-produces plays with other dramatic companies. Along with Yukon Libraries and the Yukon Education Department, it supports an annual Writers' Festival.
It has no physical plant, no stage, and no rehearsal space. It does, however, have audiences who come to hear and discuss readings of works-in-progress. Based in the Yukon with its population of thirty-three-and-a-half thousand ("Hell, the entire population of the Yukon fills only half of Skydome"), Nakai has been part of the fertile northern ground out of which has grown plays conveying cogent and different views of North (Adams 43).
1. Louise Profeit Leblanc, an authority on First Nations orature, has kindly verified the statement. A history
of First Nations performance traditions is too large and complex a topic to enter into here. What I am
attempting to describe is contact and cross-cultural influence that occurred from about 1979 to the present
as perceived and recorded by non-aboriginals.
Return to article
Adams, Philip. Free's Point. Staging the North. Eds. Sherrill Grace, Eve D'Aeth, and Lisa Chalykoff. 243-278.
--. Personal interview. 22 January, 1999.
--. "Why Theatre, Lawrd?" Theatre Memoirs: on the occasion of the Canadian Theatre Conference. Toronto: Playwrights Canada, 1999. 43-47.
Canada Council for the Arts: Fortieth Annual Report 1996-1997. Milestones. 7 pp. Online posting. 8 August, 1999. <http://www.canadacouncil.ca/forty/miles>.
Davies, Dawn and Eric Epstein. The Blizzard. Unpublished script. 1991.
--. Nakai Artistic Director's Report 1991-92. Yukon Archives, 99/53.
Dray, Chris. Personal interview. 6 May, 1999.
Flather, Patti. "Nakai Theatre Ensemble." Canadian Theatre Review 73 (Winter 1992): 42-44.
-- and Leonard Linklater. Sixty Below. Staging the North. Eds. Sherrill Grace, Eve D'Aeth and Lisa Chalykoff. Toronto: Playwrights Canada, 1999. 435-501.
Genest, Miche. The Fasting Girl. The Guild Theatre, Whitehorse, Yukon. 22 November, 1997. In press.
Hamson, Leslie. Last Rites. Canadian Theatre Review 75 (Summer 1993): 55-71.
Mulloy, Beth. Personal interview. 17 March, 1999.
Paradis, Christine. Personal interview. 17 May, 1999.
Parry, Laurel. Personal interview. 6 July, 1999.
--. Yukon Arts Branch Address to Rotary Club. Unpublished speaking notes. 24 October, 1997.
Pekarik, Cristina. Cloudberry. Unpublished script. 1997.
Paradis, Christine. Personal Interview. 17 May, 1999.