Fringe Indigenous Artist Program: A conversation with Nyla Carpentier
Image: Nyla Carpentier. Photo credit: Matt Reznek, Reznek Creative.
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.
Nyla premiered her solo show Dissection of a Mixed Heritage Woman at the 2019 Victoria Fringe. She spoke with Associate Producer Holly about her works in development, the need for theatre institutions to give over power to Indigenous artists, and the freedom in being allowed to fail as well as succeed.
Q: Can you start by introducing yourself?
A: My name is Nyla Carpentier. I’m of the Tahltan and Kaska First Nations. I’m also French and Scottish. My work is primarily in creating theatre shows and being a performer. I’m also a powwow dancer, workshop facilitator, artistic producer, and have done almost any job in theatre, from performing to administration. I consider myself a multi-faceted artist with strong connections to my Indigenous culture that I grew up with, which is specifically powwow dancing. I’m also a Capricorn, engaged to a great Aquarius, I have a fur baby named Sparky and a bird named Quorra, and there’s some fish!
The biggest/most recent highlight was the debut of my solo show, Dissection of a Mixed Heritage Woman. This was a show that I started creating about 10 years ago, and I finally premiered it at the Victoria Fringe Festival in 2019. I went on to the Vancouver Fringe Festival, took it to Orlando, Florida, and did a reading of it for the Gwaandak Festival. Before that I had worked with Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg and Cercle Molière, doing a wonderful show called The Flats, which is so much fun, written by Ginny Collins. But the most recent was my own solo show.
Q: What are you working on currently, or hoping to work on next?
A: I’m still figuring out what the next step for Dissection of a Mixed Heritage Woman is. Covid kind of put a stall on my plan, so I’ve got to figure out what I want to do for development of the story, and also try to develop production elements––will I bring in projection, will I add more to the set? The set was a powwow chair and a side table, and I think in the spirit of Fringe, I might keep all my sets that minimal. That’s where I’m at with that piece. I’ve decided that all the pieces of theatre I create, even if they get published in the future, will always be in development and grow. I’m also always learning new things about my own family, and that kind of impacts the story itself, too. [Being in a continual state of development] also honors the fact that our family stories keep changing. As an example, for years, my mom would tell me the story that she was going to name me Elizabeth. But then just a couple years ago, she was like, “Oh, no, I wasn’t going to name you Elizabeth. I was going to name you Catherine.” So I try to keep understanding what stories I used to tell myself about my own heritage, versus what narratives I tell myself now, and I think that’s a very important theme of that show.
I’m also developing another show, a six-hander play about the spirit world. The working title right now is The In Between Place. That’s a piece that I’m going to be reading at an online version of the Vancouver Fringe, as part of Ruby Slippers playwriting program, where I’m actually an artist in residence for 2021.
One other project that’s in development stages is another solo show that has sprung from Dissection of a Mixed Heritage Woman. I wouldn’t say it’s a part two, but it’s an exploration of how powwow dancing impacted my life. I found when I was developing Dissection of a Mixed Heritage Woman, a lot of people I was working with wanted to know more about powwow dancing. And I was like, that’s a totally different show. So that’s going to be in the works as well, as a new solo show that specifically delves into powwow dancing, and its impact on my life and culture.
Q: Is there a way audiences can seek out or support your work right now?
A: I will be doing a reading with Ruby Slippers online for the Vancouver Fringe. [See vancouverfringe.com/ for updates about details.] I do also have an Instagram account, where I post about my shows that I’m doing or any online performances. So if you are on Instagram, you can follow me @nyla.c.artist.
Q: What’s your connection to the Fringe; how did you come to be involved in it?
A: I think I first heard of Fringe in my late teens, growing up in Ottawa, Ontario. But my first memories of actually becoming involved or seeing a friend’s show was in 2006 at the Vancouver Fringe. And then it was in 2007 or 2008 where I was able to volunteer for the first time. I volunteered for subsequent summers, with the goal of eventually getting a show in, and my first show was at the Vancouver Fringe––21st Century Tricksters––in 2013. It was neat because it started off with me being a volunteer, volunteering at the Fringe and seeing the different types of shows that can be offered. Fringe offered an avenue to be able to create shows that didn’t have to be polished, because many artists don’t have the production funds to have something super duper polished.
Q: What was your experience like being part of the Fringe Indigenous Artist Program?
A: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is that a lot of Indigenous artists, performing artists or theatre artists, we don’t get an opportunity to have a show at the Fringe and let it just be a mediocre show. For some reason, there’s a weird expectation for Indigenous artists to have these beautiful, inspirational, polished pieces of work. That is not the same expectation for non-Indigenous artists. How many mediocre shows have you seen done by solo white male artists? So many. And they’re allowed to do that, but it’s this odd expectation for Indigenous artists for it to be something profound. They’re not allowed to create mediocre shows or to fail.
Indigenous artists, due to economic reasons and systemic reasons, don’t have access to funds and financial support for fees to enter the Fringes. With the Indigenous Artist Program, that’s taken care of. You have a chance to be completely and utterly mediocre without fear of it costing you so much money, and you’re supported. I myself, I’ve built a network of people and I do have some people who are able to support me creatively, and I’m able to write grants and things like that. But there’s other artists out there who are not able to do that. Because of this program, you’re allowed to create a show, and it can be whatever it can be, and you can have the marketing support and guidance. My meetings with Heather and Sammie were really fruitful, and I really appreciated their guidance in the creation of my piece, but they also were very hands off. They weren’t like, “Okay, you should do this with your piece to fit our marketing.” But they did let me know that Victoria Fringe audiences were predominantly white and that is the reality of older theatre audiences in Victoria. This was really helpful to marketing and outreach. I love the Fringe, don’t get me wrong, but it was like, “There’s a certain demographic that comes to shows, just so you know. So be aware of that when you’re going in, you’re going to have to do some extra marketing [to Indigenous audiences].” There were things that they were honest about, which was great, because marketing is important. You need to learn about that, about press releases, etc., so I was actually prepared to navigate that and I was aware of some of Victoria’s audiences. And word of mouth is so important. Because I was a newish not-from-Victoria artist, getting as many volunteers and people to see my show the first weekend made a huge difference. By the time the second weekend came around, we had much bigger houses just because of word of mouth. So that’s the thing too, building a base. Being part of the program was very important, and I think it offered an opportunity to create a show and not have to worry about those extra costs. It gave me the ability that if I failed, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world for me. I didn’t fail, in my mind, and I’m very proud of the work, but it gave that freedom. It was nice to have a program that offered guidance, but at the same time was very much allowing me to be the artist that I am in my creation process.
I also, as an artist, chose not to invite critics. I didn’t stop them from coming, but I also decided not to make my show about critics coming because I have found as an Indigenous artist, about 80% of the time, critics don’t really understand the show, and that’s fine because it’s not a well made theatre play. It’s going to be what it is. Of all the reviews I got, there was one reviewer in particular who totally understood the show. How they understood the show is they went into their own heritage and realized their disconnect. And that’s what the show’s purpose was, to make you think about your own heritage. Whereas other critics focussed on the acting and the dancing, that one critic discovered the core––other critics didn’t talk about the core, they just talked about the glitter around it.
Q: You’ve touched on this a bit already, but 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: The Indigenous Artist Program for the Victoria Fringe is in place, and I hope that more Fringes pick that up, across the country would be fantastic, and even globally. If they could do a global Indigenous program, that would be amazing. There are Fringes in Australia and Australia has an Indigenous population; New Zealand has an Indigenous population; there are Indigenous populations all over the world. So that would be a beautiful thing, to see opportunities for that kind of exchange.
For Vancouver Fringe and Victoria Fringe, because I know them, what is needed is to continue that work that they’re doing, don’t stop, continue growing, continue building on these programs. I really wish theatre companies across Canada would know that creating equity is an ongoing process. Creating space for equity won’t end––it’s going to be ongoing work. You’re going to have to create a working document, and continuously adapt, so that that space is there for Indigenous artists. It’s not just about giving space, it’s about keeping space open, allowing that space to simply exist. I feel like people create these spaces and then they’re like, “Okay, we did it, we’re gonna take it down now.” No––that space is now there, keep it open, let it grow, and also hand over the keys to the car and let people drive that car, and sometimes they might crash the car, or ding the car. For theatre organizations and institutions, if the funds are there, hand over the keys and let Indigenous people drive their own artistic practices. Don’t drive for them. If they crash the car, then they crash the car, you have insurance, you can cover the crash, the failure. If it’s a mediocre car, then it’s a mediocre car, let it drive off into the sunset. Allowing for success as well as failures of Indigenous artists––basically, hand over the funds, let the drivers drive, and check in every now and then. That’s what I would say institutions need to do. Big time. It’s simple, but it’s also really hard for people to give up power for some reason.
Q: Who’s another Indigenous or BIPOC artist Fringe audiences should check out?
A: Two artists that I’m going to shout out: one is Monica vs. the Internet. If you don’t know this show, you need to know this show. I met Monica at Victoria Fringe and watched their show (directed and co-created by KP Dennis) and it was just so good. I highly recommend you follow Monica Ogden and KP Dennis, and their production company, Rage Sweater Theatre Productions. I think amazing things are going to be coming from them. They are going to be the company to watch, because they’re going to shake everyone up and it’s going to be fantastic. The next is Kim Harvey, who has an amazing blog. I worked with Kim years ago and I watched Kim’s career grow––talented actor, right into playwright and director. What I like about Kim’s work is that it gives public voice to a lot of Indigenous ways of working that people have been developing for so long. Follow her blog––her blog highlights so many things that are going on with theatre institutions. That’s another individual that is absolutely amazing. Those are two companies that I would say are movers and shakers, who I follow and love.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to have included in the blog post?
A: Something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit is that the path to creating theatre, or the path of performing/acting––there are so many different paths. You may find yourself thinking that you’re just an actor for hire, but then discovering you want to be a playwright, you may find yourself thinking that you want to direct. You may change your goals and dreams in theatre. And I think that Fringe festivals allow an artist to really explore all those avenues of themselves, and all those paths, even if they change, are perfectly fine. I think that’s another thing––we tend, as artists or as creatives, to be extra hard on ourselves. And really, there’s no need for that. It’s all about exploration. In the end, it’s not about the work that you create for your own accolades. It’s actually what you give to your community that matters the most. So however you choose to do that, to do that giving, and even if your path changes, that’s okay. Allow it to shift and grow with you.