Our work as artists should be to subvert and transform the previous generation’s assumptions, to question their approaches and attitudes, and to challenge their authority over our understanding of the world in general and in our work and artistic practices specifically.
As theatre artists we have a tendency to get precious. We even get precious about not getting precious. But sometimes we need to slaughter our sacred cows. Not just to feast on their flesh, and nourish ourselves from the meat of their work, but also sometimes to examine what makes them sacred, and even to determine what makes them a cow. And sometimes we just need to bathe and relish in their blood.
Often the works of Shakespeare are more enjoyable for the artists and academics who worship their every stanza than for the audiences who can barely make tops or tails of his ancient references and unlikely situations. Yet obsessively we are constantly doing Shakespeare, wherever Shakespeare can be done. As if his were the only words worth doing in the English language; repetitively mining each soliloquy, archaic expression and double entendre as if by finding some novel way of expressing them, we will have revolutionized the industry, or reveal some universal truth necessary for understanding our current reality; miraculously prognosticated centuries earlier by the great Bard himself. Lucky us.
The conservatism of the theatre can also get in the way of the creation of new art, and what we end up with is a reiteration of an over-told stories, revisited continuously as though by repeating them we will again learn something new and profound. And perhaps we will… eventually, after enduring the grind of repetition and re-examination and partly because we’ve convinced ourselves and our audiences that consuming these stories is good for us. Like intellectual roughage. Two scoops of Chekov and you’ll be able to squeeze out a healthy intellectual turd on the regular. Three scoops of Bard and you’ll be squirting iambic for days.
It’s not out of disrespect for Shakespeare or any of the other masters of our art form and the considerable magnitude of their genius that this rant originates; it is our insistence on their permanence in our culture despite all. The multi-billion dollar Shakespeare industry is as much a tool of British Colonialism and English Hegemony as it is a relevant and necessary part of our modern culture. Our need to inflate his cultural importance is an artifact of English supremacy, a reminder to the colonies where the important stories originated from. Shakespeare is seen as the answer.
But I’m being irreverent. I’m thumbing my nose. I’m also Indigenous and North American. I founded a company called Savage Society and I’m running the first Indigenous Theatre department at Canada’s National Arts Centre, it’s practically my job to foster a healthy sense of irreverence to the classics.
Professional Indigenous Theatre as we understand it today is very new. However, ceremonial and performative storytelling is a very ancient tradition, as is the case in all cultures of the world; with styles and methodologies particular to each tribe. What we call Indigenous Theatre today borrows heavily from western commercialized forms of theatre. But we are searching for distinction, redefining what we do on our own terms. And in our milieu we have our share of elders and trailblazing theatre makers as well. All of whom, I respect deeply and of whom I am indebted to, and most of whom are still alive and creating today. Artists like Margo Kane, Marie Clements, and Thomson Highway to name a few. More like sacred Eagles, Wolves and Bears than cows. Artists who did it their way, in their own words, from their world view, and with their own set of heroes and elders that inspired them. But even their work should be open to artistic interrogation. We should always be willing to question, it is the centre of the artistic process.
We all have our masters and idols that we are eternally grateful for, who teach us and inspire us and from whom we steal and plagiarize from, out of honour of course. These elders of the trade, gods of the canon, and paragons of the proscenium should be acknowledged and respected like all elders and ancestors of any culture or community. We owe them for everything that we take for granted. The Bard included. Our responsibility is to acknowledge their contributions to our own artistic practices and to the milieu within which we make our living. But once that acknowledgement is done we should actively and deliberately begin to question our own reasons for needing to perpetuate their work and in so doing, reaffirm their relevance and importance to it, or begin to dismantle and rebuild the work from our own vision.
We are of course obligated to acknowledge the masters and trail blazers of our art form; partly because we are forever indebted to them and partly because of our selfish need to justify our own artistic journeys. Mostly though because they were and are brilliant examples for all of us to follow and aspire towards. They helped make us who we are and without them we wouldn’t be here doing what we do in the way that we do it. We stand on the backs of giants after all. It is our duty as artists, to get off of them.
Kevin Loring is the Director of Indigenous Theatre at Indigenous Theatre Department at the National Arts Centre: