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EDGEYK Tip: Northern Drama Returns

Something for next week: an ambitious and impressive attempt to repatriate northern theatre for northern audiences

Reneltta Arluk is a creative migrant. The Inuvialiut-Gw’ichin-Chipewyan Cree actor/playwright/impresario was born in Fort Smith, and has since spent her career appearing in film, television and onstage, across Canada and internationally. She currently lives in Vancouver, but estimates she spent maybe a month and a half there last year. It’s this restless career that has inspired her ambitious new project, which opens this coming Monday at NACC – 2nd Space.

The Northern Play Reading Series brings a group of actors from across Canada and from Yellowknife’s theatrical community together for a week-long presentation of carefully curated plays about the North, spanning place (“I wanted a sense of the circumpolar North,” she tells EDGEYK.com), time (the works are of a variety of vintages) and point of view (there are plays written by both southerners and northerners).

Showing the South the North

In Arluk’s cultural travels, she often found herself interpreting the North to southerners, like a recent appearance in a Boston production of , a Baffin Island-set play by Chantal Bilodeau that featured a not-particularly-accurate Inuktitut-language performance. “Because of being down south and cast in these plays I went ‘I wonder what people up North would think of this story? I wonder what their thoughts would be on this production?'”

She’d already co-presented the Human Cargo/Christopher Morris play Night at NACC in 2014, and found it a rewarding experience, importing culture about the North back up here. But her Sila experience in Boston “solidified it for me: that’s what I’m going to do this year. I’m going to focus on getting these northern plays researched, and then I’m going to put them together as a reading series, and then at the end, I’m going to listen to what the people have to say about what they’ve just heard, and I’m going to document it. I just want to know.”

So Arluk hired a dramaturg, the playwright Joanna Garfinkle, to help put the series together. “She researched plays, I researched plays, and we came up with, I don’t know, something like a 100, 50, some massive amount of plays written about the North. Then we just condensed it, condensed it, condensed it, and took the best.” The two of them also wanted to make sure that they showed a variety of approaches in theme, in location, in genre and in authorship.

“In the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, the people writing about the North weren’t northerners, they were southerners. And then in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, we started looking at our own voice in the artistic realm, and then what we created was more multidimensional, adding elements of dance and music.”

She’s assembled a remarkable cast mixing actors from Yellowknife’s theatrical scene with performers from Iqaluit, Halifax and elsewhere. (Local names presenting at the series include Tiffany Ayalik, Denezeh Nakehk’o and Snookie Catholique.) “I hired as many local actors as I could. I wanted a core group that I could work with every day. I just wanted everyone in a room to really sift through the text. And I just need people who are very experienced working with text. Because we’re two rehearsals and a reading, two rehearsals and a reading.”

To get as much variety into the series as possible, many of the evenings will offer a selection of excerpts of plays, rather than great undigested slabs of drama. “Some of the plays, they’re epic, too epic, and unnecessarily epic for what we wanted, so we thought we’d do excerpts. And for some plays we thought there was some value in seeing the whole piece from beginning to end.”

After the readings are done

The project is unprecedented, Arluk says, and is already garnering interest in theatrical circles outside of the North. “No one’s ever done anything like this. There are people down south that Joanna was talking to, and they’re like ‘We want to know how this goes. We’re curious to know how this is going to go.’ So there’s already people interested in knowing the outcome. And there’s also people whose plays are being read, and I’ve said if you want to know how your play was received in the North, I will send it to you.”

Aside from generating an increased interest in northern-related theatre, Arluk is hoping for audience feedback from post-reading discussions.

“I’m going to get people to vote for their favourite. Not everyone is going to come to every night, I realize. I would love it, and that’s why it’s pay-what-you-can. I just want people to come and be a part of the process. I don’t need to make money. The value is coming out of the words. But what I hope is that people will tell me, or vote for, or send me their favourite play. And I’d like to produce that play. I really believe in giving people a voice, and so I thought let’s ask the community what stories they relate to, and tell which story they think is the best one and let’s invest in that, and produce that.”