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The Public Theater: Native Theater Festival

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20081113.NATIVE13/TPStory/ Entertainment The Public Theater: Native Theater Festival The Public goes native,
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 31, 2008
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      http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20081113.NATIVE13/TPStory/
      Entertainment

      The Public Theater: Native Theater Festival
      The Public goes native, courtesy of a lot of Canadian talent

      November 13, 2008

      NEW YORK -- In a coincidence that seems arranged by the spirits, aboriginal
      Canadian performers and writers spanning a century are appearing in New
      York this week as part of two separate events that demonstrate the enormous
      distance native culture has travelled in that time.

      The American Museum of Natural History's annual Margaret Mead Film & Video
      Festival, which presents works engaged in ethnography, will host a rare
      screening tomorrow evening of a newly restored print of In The Land of the
      Headhunters, a 1914 silent film set among the Kwakwaka'wakw in British
      Columbia. When the film premiered last June in Vancouver, some descendents
      of the cast suggested their ancestors participated in the production as a
      subversive way of presenting their culture at a time when official
      government policy was extremely oppressive.

      Downtown, living native culture will take the stage of the Public Theater
      in the form of the second annual Native Theater Festival, which opened last
      night with a concert at Joe's Pub by Martha Redbone. This year's festival,
      which will draw hundreds of industry players, including literary managers
      from theatres around New York and across the U.S., includes three staged
      readings of plays, a public panel discussion on Saturday afternoon and
      numerous other meetings.

      The festival was originated by Oskar Eustis, the Public's artistic director
      now in his fourth year, who had actively sought out native writers during
      his tenure as head of Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I.,
      including Canadian Drew Hayden Taylor, whose play The Buz'Gem Blues he
      produced in 2005. The Ford Foundation, a long-time supporter of the arts in
      the United States, is footing the festival's $175,000 bill.

      The Public has a long history of giving space to those outside the
      mainstream, particularly members of visible minorities, being a strong New
      York base for playwrights such as Diana Son, Suzan-Lori Parks, George C.
      Wolfe (who served as the theatre's previous artistic director), Anna
      Deveare Smith, Nilo Cruz and David Henry Hwang.

      "The Public has always been kind of a trailblazer in giving voice to
      artists of colour and giving voice to experiences that are not represented
      on our stages. That is in the DNA of this building," said Mandy Hackett,
      the theater's associate artistic director. "Diversity is really a core
      tenet of what the Public is built on. I think we've seen success in the
      African-American community, the Latino community, the Asian community, but
      I really feel strongly we haven't seen the same success in the native
      community."

      Two of the three plays in the festival will be directed by Canadians: Marie
      Clements from Galiano Island in British Columbia will direct tonight's
      kickoff play, The Conversion of Ka'Ahumanu, about the relationship between
      the Christian missionaries in Hawaii and indigenous women in the 19th
      century, by the native Hawaiian/Samoan writer Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl;
      Alanis King will helm Laura Shamas's Chasing Honey tomorrow, featuring the
      Canadian actress Tamara Podemski. The latter has previously received a
      workshop production at Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto.

      Other Canadians taking part include playwright Daniel David Moses, Yvette
      Nolan and Jennifer Podemski, all of whom helped to curate the festival by
      serving on its advisory board. And Monique Mojica, Michelle St. John, and
      Billy Merasty will appear in the third play, Eric Gansworth's Re-Creation
      Story, a playful alteration of the Haudenosaunee creation narrative.

      Many are also participating in the various field discussions - closed to
      the public - designed for members of the industry to talk openly about
      issues affecting native theatre.

      Hackett noted that, during a field discussion last year, the native
      Americans expressed mild envy of the sense of community and government
      support enjoyed by their Canadian cousins. "I think Canada is challenging
      America to say, 'How can you support your native artists on the same level
      that we do?' That's a big issue for native artists living in America."

      Nolan, the artistic director of Toronto's Native Earth, echoed the
      sentiment. "We seem to the Americans that we're quite organized and have
      some kind of solidarity they don't necessarily feel. They feel more
      far-flung. I don't know if that's true; that's just our perception of each
      other," she said on the phone from Toronto yesterday, during a brief break
      in rehearsals for A Very Polite Genocide, which opens next month at
      Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. "I can name five, six, seven native
      theatre companies in Canada, and the Americans don't have that kind of
      depth and breadth."

      Still, Nolan noted, while government funding in Canada is greater than in
      the U.S., "from where I sit, it doesn't feel like enough."

      So, naturally, one of the goals of the festival is to see some of the work
      on the Public's stage in a full production. "We are looking for
      relationships with theatres like the Public, where the work can be shown,
      so we're not always doing nickel-and-dime theatre because we only have
      nickels and dimes, to have our work seen by a broader audience."

      Nolan recognizes that Eustis is inundated with pitches for full productions
      from all quarters of the theatre world. "At least he's listening to us. We
      know he's interested because he's having this festival, we know he's
      honourable because he's been producing work at Trinity Rep by Drew [Hayden
      Taylor], so we know it's not just lip service, that there will be an
      opportunity for somebody, somewhere."

      Hackett says, in planning future seasons at the Public, "these plays are
      absolutely infiltrating our discussions."

      The Native Theater Festival continues through Saturday at New York's Public
      Theater (http://www.publictheater.org or 212-967-7555).
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