The show must go on: world’s first Indigenous fringe festival comes to Peterborough this summer

Postponed from 2020 because of the pandemic, Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival will proceed as outdoor festival with COVID-19 safety protocols in place

The Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival, the world's first fringe festival exclusive to Indigenous performers, will take place in Peterborough/Nogojiwanong on June 21, 2021 (National Indigenous Peoples Day). The outdoor festival will feature comedy, music, storytelling, and more. (Supplied photo)
The Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival, the world's first fringe festival exclusive to Indigenous performers, will take place in Peterborough/Nogojiwanong on June 21, 2021 (National Indigenous Peoples Day). The outdoor festival will feature comedy, music, storytelling, and more. (Supplied photo)

This summer, beginning on National Indigenous Peoples Day (June 21), Peterborough will host the world’s first and only Indigenous fringe festival on the treaty and traditional territory of the Michi Saagiig Anishinaabeg.

The Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival (NIFF) has put Peterborough on the map. Look no further than the official website for the Canadian Association for Fringe Festivals. There, you’ll find a list of major cities — Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, New York — and on that same list, you’ll now also find Peterborough, Ontario.

The inaugural NIFF was originally slated to launch in 2020; alas, like every other fringe festival, it was postponed due to the pandemic.

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But festival organizers on the NIFF collective have been hard at work planning to make sure the festival will run — outdoors and online — no matter what the summer will bring.

It all started with a tweet.

In 2019, award-winning playwright, author, columnist, and filmmaker Drew Hayden Taylor of Curve Lake First Nation, took to Twitter asking: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do a fringe festival?”

Playwright, author, columnist, and filmmaker Drew Hayden Taylor first suggested the idea of an Indigenous fringe festival on Twitter in 2019. (Photo: Paul Kemp Productions)
Playwright, author, columnist, and filmmaker Drew Hayden Taylor first suggested the idea of an Indigenous fringe festival on Twitter in 2019. (Photo: Paul Kemp Productions)

Professor Joeann Argue, who teaches Indigenous performance and storytelling courses as a Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies faculty member at Trent University, came across the tweet.

“I thought that would be a really good idea, so I tweeted back saying that we have space [at Trent], and that was where it started,” Argue explains.

“I brought it, then, to my colleague, Lee Bolton, who is the Nozhem coordinator, and discovered that she had all kinds of fringe festival experiences, including managing them. So it just seemed like something we could possibly pull off.”

From there, a dream-team collective of powerhouse artists was formed to turn the idea for the world’s first Indigenous fringe festival into a reality.

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“I contacted Drew outside of Twitter and asked him if he would like to be a mentor, and he agreed to do that, which is really wonderful,” explains Argue.

“We also have a relationship with Spiderwoman Theatre out of New York City, which is the oldest native feminist theatre collective — possibly in the world — they’ve done a ton of work at Nozhem. So I contacted Muriel Miguel of Spiderwoman and asked if she’d be interested in being a mentor as well and she said yes right away.”

With two well-known superstars in Indigenous theatre backing the festival, grant funding secured, official festival paperwork submitted, and applications from potential artists all over the country streaming in, NIFF was well on the way to launch the inaugural festival in the summer of 2020.

Muriel Miguel, a founder of the feminist Native American collective Spiderwoman Theater, is considered a grandmother of the Indigenous theatre movement in the United States and Canada. Along with Drew Hayden Taylor, she has agreed to be a mentor for the Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival in Peterborough. (Photo: Annie Tritt for The New York Times)
Muriel Miguel, a founder of the feminist Native American collective Spiderwoman Theater, is considered a grandmother of the Indigenous theatre movement in the United States and Canada. Along with Drew Hayden Taylor, she has agreed to be a mentor for the Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival in Peterborough. (Photo: Annie Tritt for The New York Times)

Then the pandemic hit.

“At that point, in March, we didn’t know what was going to happen,” recalls Argue.

“Could we do something? Could we do a smaller thing? Pretty much, every fringe festival was in the same place. We really didn’t make the call — that the festival wouldn’t be a go — until the end of April. By that time all of the festivals were starting to shut down.”

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“But we thought that trying to have our first festival in a pandemic in some really modified, tiny form just didn’t make sense,” Argue adds. “Especially because most of our artists were coming from across the country.”

After making the tough call to cancel the 2020 festival, the collective had to decide whether or not to try again the following year.

“We decided that this was important and we needed to focus on 2021,” says Argue. “We had to make extensive changes to how we will run the festival. At this point, unless things change drastically between now and June, we’ll be an entirely outdoor festival.”

“We have some really nice sites around the Gzowski College area that we’re offering artists. There are a couple of fire pits and there’s a storyteller who wants to tell stories by the fire in the evening.”

Beginning June 21, 2021 (National Indigenous Peoples Day) and running until June 27, audiences will have the opportunity to see 40 outdoor and COVID-safe shows over the course of five days.

Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival co-founders during the original 2020 announcement of the Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival, before it was postponed until 2021 because of the pandemic. Pictured are Joeann Argue, assistant professor in Indigenous performance at Trent University, Lee Bolton, theatre coordinator of Nozhem First Peoples Performance Space at Trent University, and Drew Hayden Taylor, the award-winning Indigenous playwright, author, columnist, and filmmaker. (Supplied photo)
Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival co-founders during the original 2020 announcement of the Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival, before it was postponed until 2021 because of the pandemic. Pictured are Joeann Argue, assistant professor in Indigenous performance at Trent University, Lee Bolton, theatre coordinator of Nozhem First Peoples Performance Space at Trent University, and Drew Hayden Taylor, the award-winning Indigenous playwright, author, columnist, and filmmaker. (Supplied photo)

“Some of the performers we have so far are stand-up comics and musicians. We’ll hopefully have a play if an artist is able to come from B.C. There’s a storyteller.”

“We’ll also have Shirley Williams, a residential school survivor and professor emeritus at Trent, who is going to talk about the dances that they learned at residential school — because none of them were Indigenous dances — so she wants to talk about culture being placed over top.”

Although the call for applications for NIFF officially closed on January 10th, the NIFF collective appreciates how sideways things can be during a pandemic.

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As such, if you’re an Indigenous artist with an idea for a show, or a performing arts company with 50 per cent or more of your members who self-identify as Indigenous, and you’re currently living within 300 kilometres of Nogojiwanong/Peterborough, Argue strongly encourages you to contact NIFF at indigenousfringefest@gmail.com.

For more information about the world’s first Indigenous fringe festival, visit www.indigenousfringefest.ca.

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