Fringe Indigenous Artist Program: A conversation with John Aitken
Image: John Aitken and Shelley MacDonald performing in The Gift. Photo credit: Roy Mulder.
As part of this mini Fringe celebration, we wanted to highlight some of the artists who bring the Victoria Fringe to life. Over the next two weeks, we’ll be sharing conversations with four artists who have taken part in Victoria Fringe’s Indigenous Artist Program. The program is open to local artists who identify as Indigenous, and incorporates collaborative mentorship, as well as access to resources, a bursary and support. Read more about the program and applications here.
In 2017, artist and activist John Aitken and Intrepid staff devised the Indigenous Artist Program. As well as being part of its development, John was the participating artist in the program’s inaugural year, and presented his two-person show The Gift at the 2017 Victoria Fringe. In 2019, he also took The Gift on tour, performing in Wells, North Vancouver, and Gabriola Island. John chatted with Associate Producer Holly about shifting his creative practice during the pandemic, the importance of Indigenous artists telling their stories their own way, and his upcoming children’s book.
Q: Can you start by introducing yourself?
A: My name is John Aitken, he/him/his. I am a mix of Coast Salish, Haida, Hawaiian and Scottish lineage. I identify as Indigenous. I also identify as a 2 Spirit. My primary artistic focus prior to Covid-19 was theatre. I am now focussing my energy on documentary filmmaking. I also dabble in photography, wood carving and writing. Before this pandemic began, my main focus was performing a two-person theatre piece titled The Gift, which is based on the fact that I did not begin to speak until the age of 18 and survived domestic violence/dysfunction. I was also developing a solo performance piece titled Mixed Up which explores my mixed ancestry and its celebrations and challenges.
Q: What are you working on currently, or hoping to work on next?
A: I am currently working on co-writing a children’s book based on seven years of conversations I have been having with my friend Jess Willows (who is a teacher and is currently going for her PHD in Education). The age group for this book (or books) is eight to ten. The premise is the adventures of Johnny and Jessie as they explore reconciliation and their friendship as an Indigenous boy and a girl from the Settler community. The book will be written to be used as an educational tool as well as for simple pleasure reading.
[On shifting his writing practice from theatre to a children’s book:]
I think the difference was just a matter of figuring out the collaboration when it changed to “let’s write a book.” Who’s doing what? And then Jess said to me, “You’re the storyteller, you just write.” She became the natural editor of what I was writing. I thought, we need to get a skeleton of what the book’s going to look like, with introducing reconciliation and friendship between Jessie and Johnny as kids, and also dealing with a lot of stuff that I’ve already dealt with in my own community. There are similar things that have happened with me in my community that happened in the book, and have happened to many Indigenous people, when it comes to land acknowledgments or National Indigenous Peoples Day––those type of situations–– and the Indigenous kid or the Indigenous person being put on the spot to do this or that. How do Johnny and Jessie deal with that? And then [the story] just all sort of came out. We found an illustrator quickly after that (multimedia artist AJ Kutchaw). The book is still in the creation stage.
I am also currently developing the concept for two documentaries, which I plan to create in the future.
Q: Is there a way audiences can seek out or support your work right now?
The best place to find information on the work I do is on my website: www.truthandhealing.com
Q: What’s your connection to the Fringe; how did you come to be involved in it?
A: I began a creative friendship with Intrepid Theatre beginning in 2015 when Janet Munsil was their Artistic Director. In 2016 Intrepid Theatre presented The Gift in their season. In 2017 I was introduced to the Fringe by Sammie Gough, Producer. And, that happened to be the same year that Intrepid Theatre had the idea of the Indigenous Artist Program. I was asked by Sammie to help develop this brand new program.
Q: What was your experience like being part of the Fringe Indigenous Artist Program?
A: My experience with being part of this program and helping develop it were two very distinct experiences. Helping develop the program required all involved creating it to be willing to fumble to find respectful ways to frame it. There are very few Indigenous people involved with theatre in Victoria. Our goal was to create a program that was inviting to Indigenous folk (like myself). I was the “test trial” for this program. It was good to be immersed in a program that was being developed to learn what worked and what did not. As a participant of this new program I learned a lot about the world of Fringe and its culture. The first iteration of the Indigenous Artist Program was a success! Three other Indigenous Artists have participated thus far and hopefully it will continue to grow beyond this pandemic.
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?
A: More of us submitting our names. More of us understanding that there is a place for us to tell our stories and to tell our stories our way. We are story telling people. And, Indigenous people need more non-Indigenous folk they can trust, who can provide the necessary support to work together to facilitate these many varied stories to be told. Trust is key to building these relationships, and non-Indigenous people will need to accept that Indigenous people will be telling their stories their way and not be afraid of this! These stories only need to make sense to us––I repeat this because it is vitally important for non-Indigenous folk to hear this and to understand this. I can only imagine that this will be relatively the same for many people of colour as more theatre companies become more inclusive.
Q: Who’s another Indigenous or BIPOC artist Fringe audiences should check out?
A: I’ve been witness to Yolanda Bonnell’s production titled Bug. I think many people need to witness this powerful solo production.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to have included in the blog post?
A: This pandemic has meant that all of us artists have needed to adjust and create our own brand new possibilities within our personal focus. Artists have been forced to change. In my situation, it was all good. I was ready for a change and to redirect my creative energy. Another thing I didn’t mention is that I got into the very first all Indigenous Fringe Festival, in Peterborough, Ontario. [The Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival was scheduled for June 2020 – it will premiere in 2021 instead.] So The Gift was getting some legs, and then everything stopped. It looks like with the pandemic I’ll be focusing more energy on filmmaking, but I’m always willing to dust off The Gift. You can tell stories in many ways. Hopefully this pandemic will end up being a catalyst for some very positive changes in the world of theatre and many other artistic practices!