Fringe Indigenous Artist Program: a conversation with Elowynn Rose

Image: Elowynn Rose.

As part of this mini Fringe celebration, we wanted to highlight some of the artists who bring the Victoria Fringe to life. We’re sharing conversations with four artists who have taken part in Victoria Fringe’s Indigenous Artist Program. The program was developed in 2017 by artist and activist John Aitken and Intrepid staff, and is open to local artists who identify as Indigenous, incorporating collaborative mentorship as well as access to resources, a bursary and support. Read more about the program and applications here.

Elowynn is currently developing work as part of the 2020 Indigenous Artist Program, and will present her show at the Victoria Fringe in 2021. She and Associate Producer Holly talked about her move from the music industry into theatre and dance, bringing Indigenous ways of thinking into non-Indigenous theatre settings, and how Covid-19 has given her time to get to the heart of what she wants to create.

Q: Can you start by introducing yourself?

My name is Elowynn, and I’ve always practiced art on some level, sometimes less, sometimes more like I am now. I’d say the past five years has been more of a time that I’ve redirected my focus towards creating art or performance of my own work. Previously, up until last year, I was working in the Vancouver Island music community. After a while, I really wanted to start focusing on my own stuff more, and the opportunities began to kind of naturally come in, which was really cool. I was able to do my first presentation of a little mini concert in Centennial Square two years ago for the Eventide Indigenous Music Series. In the spring of 2019, I was accepted into an Indigenous learning exchange program at the Belfry Theatre. Even though I had worked in event coordination and music production, I didn’t really know about the theatre side of it as much, and so it was a really good opportunity for me to learn lighting and patchwork, costuming––the basics of everything in a theatre. From there I went on to take an intensive in Vancouver last spring for character development, and that pushed my work forward, and then in the fall, I established, with several other women, a group called Visible Bodies Collective, which is a dance collective for Indigenous women and BIPOC people, so that’s very new and still being established. We performed our first piece this past February, called Red on Red. Then I was accepted into the Fringe program in January, which has been very exciting so far.

Q: What are you working on currently, or hoping to work on next?

For now, when I think of my artistic practice, it’s kind of bringing a culmination of everything I’ve learned until now into focus for this Fringe show that I want to produce. I would like to have that as my main focus this year––I am really excited to present something next year. It’s a first for me, and it’s a good challenge.

[An upcoming project in development is] for a series by Lindsay Delaronde called Mother and it’s an online presentation, or will be an online presentation. From what I understand, it’s different performers expressing the relationship with the land and Mother Earth in respect to an Indigenous lens.

[Another recent project, a reading for Gwaandak Theatre] was a live stream. Some of us had initially worked with Falen Johnson, who is an Indigenous playwright, and she was the source for helping with development of stories or scenes or playwriting, depending on who was presenting. For me, I created a scene out of what I would be potentially presenting at the Fringe, but it was more of an opportunity for me to be pushed in my storytelling and my writing, and get feedback from people from all over Canada. It was a really fantastic experience. The online offering was called In Progress, so everybody who was presenting had a piece of work that was in progress.

Q: What’s your connection to the Fringe; how did you come to be involved in it?

It was quite serendipitous, actually, because last year at this time, I was in the Yukon, and me and another woman had discussed for over a year that we were going to do a podcast about our experiences in the foster care system. I thought a podcast sounded cool, but because I had been in the Belfry knowledge exchange residency, I kept seeing it as a theatre piece.

That was what I kept seeing in my mind’s eye, but I’ve never produced live theatre, so I wasn’t sure how that was going to happen. So I went ahead and flew to the Yukon and said, “Okay, let’s do the podcast.” Then whenever we kept trying to make things happen, it just wouldn’t gel, or something would interrupt, or someone got sick––it just was not happening. I left feeling rather disheartened, but focused my energies on the Visible Bodies Collective, and then at the last minute, I think I was scrolling on Facebook, and a friend in my Métis circle had posted the Fringe Indigenous artist program. It was literally the 11th hour––I think it was 11pm on the last day––and I was like, “What the heck, what have I got to lose?” So I signed up, filled out the paperwork and sent it in, and then I got it. It was really cool because I really saw [this story] as a piece for theatre, but I just never knew how that would come about.

So far, I’ve played with concepts and the exterior design of the show, but as far as the actual storyline, I haven’t really established one yet, which was bugging me for a while, because before Covid-19 I was supposed to have something ready now [for Fringe 2020], so I was already building storylines and felt like I was just trying to get something happening as quickly as possible. When Covid-19 came along, like everything else, it got shut down for a while, but it’s really working out in my favor because it gives me more time to get inside the heart of what I want to create. I think if I’d created something for right now, it would be a small snippet of what I can actually accomplish over the amount of time I now have. Instead of slapping together a storyline for presentation purposes, I’m now able to really do some big work and do much more research than I would have been able to. Even though my storylines are up in the air again, I don’t mind because it’s allowing me to perceive other layers to work with and develop.

Q: You’ve already touched on this a bit, but what has your experience being part of the Fringe Indigenous Artist Program been like so far?

Everybody has been really offering a lot of their time and advice and care to me during this process. It’s not an easy work for me to produce because it’s very personal, so the sensitivity around it has been really respected, and there’s just been a lot of support for the process––maybe more so now, because people are available, which is not to say people wouldn’t have been supportive otherwise, but it just would have been a little bit different. Right now, I’m receiving a lot of support in terms of development. And, things like being able to work with Gwaandak Theatre and do that process, I don’t know if that would have happened [if the Fringe 2020 had gone ahead] because of time: there’ve been all these other opportunities that are arising from the current state of things. I guess there’s a sort of sensitivity towards everybody because we’re all in this sort of limbo. There’s a greater awareness, I think, that’s happened. And so I’ve appreciated that in a lot of ways.

Q: What would you like to see in the Fringe and in the theatre sector in regard to equity for Indigenous and other BIPOC artists?

I’ve been thinking about that question, and I’m still thinking about that question. In some ways, I don’t totally know how to answer it because I don’t feel like I’ve had enough experience in producing theatre, but I have a lot of experience with music production and the westernized framework in that industry. That’s common through pretty much everything––there’s a hierarchy. In my own understanding, I think traditionally in Indigenous cultures, there’s more of an awareness of your place in the wheel, in the communities, so everybody has a role––the hierarchy concept wasn’t as much of a thing, where there’s this pyramid or this ladder you have to climb up. That’s not really a traditional Indigenous concept. So I think what I would like to see is more of that way of thinking. I think this can happen through establishment of more Indigenous theatres and artists in their own right, or if there’s a way to encourage that throughout the traditional western framework as well.

I’ve tried to do that in certain respects, tried to bring in roundtable concepts. Even though I know that it’s still a very hierarchical framework, I still feel that it’s significant to bring in, because there may be opportunities where that is beneficial and recognizes members of the community, in spite of the fact that there is still a hierarchy. [That organization or group’s system] is not going to change necessarily, but it may help recognize Indigenous peoples’ way of working. I’m just speaking from my experience, because certainly I’ve been in situations where the westernized framework takes over in Indigenous communities as well. It’s a bit of a strange balance in bringing in traditional values and concepts of Indigenous people and––I don’t know if you would use the term ‘fusing’–– but fusing it with westernized concepts. I don’t think that’s always going to be the case and isn’t always what we want. A lot of Indigenous people just want to be sovereign in their own right, and not work at all from a westernized cultural concept, which is totally fair. I think for some people like myself, I feel like I’m kind of a bridge builder, and I want there to be more flexibility and movement. I want to be able to move between and have recognition of the value in different influences. I really do think there’s value in different ways of doing things. I think it’s really recognizing people’s  capacities and unique differences, and how they can work best together to create fairness, equity, and sense of value. And it does require acknowledgement and change. Hopefully, that can happen more.

Q: Who’s another Indigenous or BIPOC artist Fringe audiences should check out?

I had connected with Kemi Craig and we’ve worked together. I became aware of her work through the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, doing a program about critical thinking through art for grades three, four, and five. We went to different schools and set up group themed critical thinking activities that were built in art-based creation: like, taking a bunch of found objects and creating something, but it was in relationship to thinking about them outside of your landscape, sometimes with topics like Indigeneity and cultural landscape. It’s not that children don’t understand things like that, but there needs to be another way to get that education across, and visual thinking strategies are a good way.  So the focus was primarily on Kemi’s work. I learned some things from her that I hadn’t thought about myself through that process. So I would say Kemi Craig is really awesome.

I would also say Michelle Poirier Brown, who’s a Cree Métis poet in Victoria. She’s another one I’d give a shout-out to.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to have included in the blog post?

The other thing I wanted to say is, just the importance of including the cultural background of Indigenous people in the landscape. That lens is really valuable. And so I think that’s where I’d like to see the equity shift as well, is in people being able to hold more positions of power, in terms of the allocation of resources, and that sort of thing. There needs to be more streams for Indigenous people to have access to and be able to have their culture expressed, seen and valued in a positive way.

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