Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

Yellowknifers: The Street Performer

Gilles Amyot is a Cirque du Soleil veteran and sometime film star

Gilles Amyot and his street theatre pals were on a bus. Their scenario: they were transporting the English crown jewels to a vault in Montreal’s towering neoclassical Sun Life Building. Terrorists on the loose were hoping to nab the treasure, but Gilles was well-armed with prop guns.

“We forgot to warn the police,” Gilles tells me, “and at one point there was a scene where I was holding a gun, it was a standoff, and a police woman in uniform pulled up. She took out her gun, two hands on it. ‘Freeze,’ she says, right in the middle of the play.

“That was the kind of fun we were looking for,” says Gilles, a puppeteer, actor, and circus hand from Quebec who has lived in Yellowknife for the past nine years. “It’s fascinating when you get into theatre, to play with reality and fiction and try to take things from reality and enhance your fiction.”

Gilles grew up in Valleyfield, Que., where he fell in love with theatre while at CEGEP. He moved to Montreal to study drama at L’Université du Québec then began his career doing “arrogant, rebellious and shocking” theatre (like the city-wide crown jewels piece) and staging larger-than-life puppet shows in Montreal’s parks and streets.

He got some big puppeteering gigs — creating a gigantic puppet Jacques Cartier for a historic anniversary in Quebec City, for instance — but tired of living in poverty as a street artist, and segued into working on the technical side of theatre production. This led him to circuses, where he ended up doing big-top set-up and lighting for a touring circus run by the Shriners. He travelled Canada and the U.S. for four years, then moved over to Cirque du Soleil for another three years on tour in Europe and the U.S.

“Cirque du Soleil was a much easier gig to do. Instead of doing two set-ups and tear-downs a week, I’d do one set-up and tear-down every two months. We were living in hotels, very well-lodged and well-fed. We had at least six chefs in the kitchen. It was very nice. Still you’re living in your luggage and you’re living on the road.”

Following the death of his father In the early 2000s, Gilles moved back to Montreal. Finding it difficult to settle back into the noisy world of Rue Saint-Urbain after so many years on the road, he took off again in 2006, following a childhood friend and former partner, Diane Boudreau, up to Yellowknife.

Since moving up, Gilles has had a tough go of it – a heart attack, difficulty finding employment, a bad bout of the depression he’s battled with since childhood. He’s been living in the Salvation Army shelter, on and off, for several years now. Still as anyone involved in Yellowknife’s arts scene knows, Gilles has managed to weave himself into the fabric of the community, a familiar face at local concerts and jams, acting in films and working at the Snow Castle.

“I guess it’s the adventure of life. You can never foresee what’s going to happen in a year or two. That’s what I learned, I’m coming back slowly, accepting it, and going as it comes.”

What are your earliest memories of Yellowknife

The cold was a big part, I moved in October, so right away I got into the cold season. The streets were frozen. I ended sliding right in the middle of Yellowknife. I said, ‘Okay, winter is coming, here we go!’ Then there was integrating into the community and going through the difficulties of figuring out where to get things. You’re like, ‘What, I can’t find the fuel for my fondue here in Yellowknife?’  It was strange, because I’m from a small city, but it was near Montreal. Here you’re an 18-hour drive away from the big city, so it’s not as easy as when you’re right around the corner. You want to make a mask, so you want some plaster. The only thing they’ll sell you is things like this [Gilles makes a diminutive hand gesture], but you need a pouch. But they don’t have a pouch, because there’s no demand.

What is your favourite thing about Yellowknife?

Winter and summer. The extreme of the two seasons. Summer, you got sun 20 hours a day, beautiful weather, not too hot, lots of air, the big lake just in your courtyard, big fish. It’s like la pêche miraculeuse every time you go; you put your line in, five minutes, you got five fish.

Winter because it’s very peculiar; it’s dry cold, so it makes it tolerable. I wouldn’t want to see a cold climate in the humid condition. I’ve been around Christmas time to London, England, and it is awful. It’s not -30, it’s only zero, but the cold and the humidity that penetrates, it is worse than Yellowknife.

How do you spend your winters?

The most important part about the winter is you got to be inside. What’s challenging is trying to stay inside, find activities and places as a homeless person. Of course, the library is the best. I think it’s good for everybody. I do a lot of reading during wintertime, mostly fiction, all kinds of fiction. I’ve discovered Ken Follett. When he started with The Pillars of Earth, his big saga, I was devouring his writings. I also like Alice Munro. And the Book Cellar is another favourite place, when the new books come out. I’ve become a fan of the English culture too; I’m here discovering all the time, what I’ve ignored for the great part of my life. I was very involved in French with theatre and art, so I only got a glimpse of what’s happening in English. But here you’re right in the middle of it.

How do you spend your summers?

Working outside: construction, painting. And also wood-fire parties and gatherings, camping, it’s so much easier in the summertime. That’s what’s so exciting about March, because you know it’s only April, May, then June and July and you’ll get the full nine yards of 20 hours of sun. You’re at the party and you look at your watch, and damn, it’s four o’clock and you haven’t seen the time go, and the sun gives you energy. You have to be a bit careful, because you can end up very tired, because you don’t watch where the time goes. But it’s great.

What’s one thing you’d change about Yellowknife?

It’s difficult to say because I consider myself still new. Of course there’s always something when you come in, and you say ‘Hey, this is impossible, why does it work like that!’ But change never comes quick, so you got to melt in. And when you’re trying to melt in you don’t want to see things change because you’re just trying to tame whatever is, so if it changes, it will be more work to do. So, I got no major criticism. Maybe the old confrontational attitude between French and English is still there. It’s not open, but you can feel a little bit of racism in Yellowknife, that saddens me. Of course I’d like to see that change, but that would mean changing the nature of the human condition, and that’s a big job.

What opportunities have you found in Yellowknife that you haven’t found elsewhere?

There’s opportunities, but at the same time because people are more open, you can hit a knot more easily. You think you got a good friend, then suddenly there’s a big conflict. There’s more energy into the mingling of people here than there is in the south, because of less manners, less civility. And I like that. I’m sensitive but also I like it when you can be more rowdy – not even more rowdy, but not all self-conscious and afraid of everything. Sometimes you get slapped in the face, but it’s only a slap in the face.

Are you a Yellowknife Lifer?

Oh ya, I think so. The only reason I’d move is because of health issues. That would be the only thing that would chase me away from here. I thought of going back, because I came here with Diane, I was running after her, but she ran faster than me and I couldn’t catch up. That really upset me and I thought of leaving, but at the same time I said, no, I’m going to stick around and do it and integrate into that community. Yellowknife challenges you; it’s like you’re curious to see how you function here, how can you get involved. And there’s so many sweet people here. The warmest group of people I’ve met are here in Yellowknife. I’ve been eight years and it’s getting more and more pleasant.

Below, Gilles stars in the award-winning short film 2015), directed by Pat Kane and Jay Bulckaert:

Maxwell from Dead North on Vimeo.