The Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival (NIFF) will offer live, COVID-safe outdoor-performances from Wednesday, June 23rd to Sunday, June 27th on the treaty and traditional territory of the Michi Saagiig Anishinaabeg and Chippewa Nations, collectively known as the Williams Treaties First Nations, at Trent University in Peterborough.
A Facebook live event is scheduled to open NIFF — the world’s first Indigenous fringe festival — at 6 p.m. on National Indigenous Peoples Day (Monday, June 21st), with performances beginning on Wednesday evening.
In this two-part series, we introduce you to the artists performing at NIFF. This story profiles Sarah Gartshore and Lois Apaquash of Zaagi’idiwin Collective, Tiger Will Mason, and Olga Barrios and Norma Araiza of Vanguardia Dance Projects.
Zaagi’idiwin Collective: Streetheart
Note: Due to an unexpected and unfortunate family situation, Zaagi’idiwin Collective will not be performing Streetheart at NIFF this year.
“I am a helper,” states Zaagi’idiwin Collective founder Sarah Gartshore. “Everything that I do — whether that’s mothering, being a daughter, community building, theatre, doing outreach, doing mental health supports — whatever role I’m in, I am Oshkabaywis. I’m a helper.”
Gartshore first fell in love with the theatre as an actor. However, much of the material she encountered fell short — most scripts were neither raw nor real enough — so the actor decided to write her own plays.
“But when I wrote my first play, I thought my work was crap and I thought it could never be staged because it didn’t look like any of the shows I had seen or performed in,” Gartshore explains.
However, after seeing a production of ‘The Scrubbing Project’, directed by Muriel Miguel (NIFF mentor and founder of Spiderwoman Theatre in New York Muriel Miguel) and performed by The Turtle Gals Collective, Gartshore was inspired to continue writing.
“What that play did for me was it kind of gave me a wink and a nod,” Gartshore recalls. “It said ‘Your stuff can be staged.’ It made me realize the wildness of my plays is okay.”
Since then, Gartshore has become a prolific playwright whose work has been featured in major festivals such as Nuit Blanche, Native Earth Performing Arts, and Fringe North. She held a prestigious residency as the Ontario Arts Council’s 2017/18 Playwright-in-Residence.
While Gartshore may be the person putting pen to paper, her plays are necessarily collaborative and inclusive. Interested in processes, most of Gartshore’s work is created through interviews, workshops, and rehearsals with the Zaagi’idiwin Collective, whose members have lived experience with homelessness.
“The people I’m talking about are on the street,” explains Gartshore. “So if I’m not including those people, what am I doing? It’s all about the process for us. It’s about taking care of community — of the people we’re working with.”
Gartshore points out NIFF is taking place during a time of immense for the Indigenous community, referring to the remains of children already found in unmarked graves in a B.C. residential school and the untold remains yet to be found at other residential schools.
“A lot of the content that we deal with is pretty heavy stuff. We need to be very careful with each other when we’re rehearsing. Everyone in the company knows that, even when we’re not in this space of mass grief and trauma.”
“It’s medicine, really,” adds Lois Apaquash, Zaagi’idiwin Collective actor and Gartshore’s mother, of the context in which NIFF will be held. “This is ground-breaking. This is the first Indigenous fringe festival in the world. It’s going to be a great group of people, mentors, and Elders.”
“There’s going to be a lot of knowledge sharing, which is going to be a comfort I think, and we’ll have ceremony as well. So we’re going to have that safety net around us. It’s going to be emotional, there’s no doubt about that. But we need to feel that, and the audience will feel it as well. It’s a real honour.”
Tiger Will Mason – The Music and Stories of a Modern Mohawk
Everyone’s heard of the six degrees of Kevin Bacon — the theory that, by six or fewer degrees of social connection, every actor is linked to Kevin Bacon. Evidently, it ought to be called the six degrees of Tiger Will Mason (formerly Andy Mason).
You name it, this artist has done it all. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a big name in showbiz that isn’t somehow connected to Tiger Will Mason.
He’s toured the country multiple times working as a musician, an activist, and a television/film/stage actor. Mason has worked with the likes of Oscar-winning filmmaker Deepa Mehta, actor Graham Green, and numerous notable musicians such as Jackson Browne, Floyd Westerman, and the hit 70s funk-rock band Redbone — to name but a few.
“One of the highlights of my career was opening for the legendary Redbone,” Mason says. “Their big hit, Come and Get Your Love, was used for the opening scene of Guardians of the Galaxy.”
“We ended up going back to the hotel afterwards, singing songs together until about three in the morning — ’til the hotel staff got mad and kicked everybody out,” he laughs.
Mason has many amazing stories to tell and a gift for telling them. He weaves these stories — detailing a fascinating life of love, loss, activism, and good old rock and roll — into his musical act, to present a beautiful and entertaining fringe show for NIFF audiences.
“I had many great teachers and I carry a little tiny piece of all of my teachers with me both on the stage and in my life,” he says. “I get to stand on the shoulders of giants.”
In many ways, Mason’s NIFF performance closes a circle.
“In the beginning of my career, I was involved with one of the first Indigenous coffeehouses in Canada, and now I get to play the first Indigenous fringe festival in the world,” he says. “It’s perfect.”
Vanguardia Dance Projects – Hybrid Women
As independent Latin-American Indigenous dance artists working in Toronto, Olga Barrios and Norma Araiza were tired of adapting their artistic practices to fit into mainstream dance genres or categories. So, in 2008, they decided to create their own collective, and Vanguardia Dance Projects was born.
“Our work is not very mainstream, it’s more independent,” says multi-award-winning artist Olga Barrios. “We didn’t have many opportunities or platforms to present our work. So we created our own platform.”
“We had to create it because, otherwise, we were working alone all the time,” adds professional physical theatre performer and dancer Norma Araiza. “It was very difficult to always be a part of somebody else’s piece or project. I did collaborate with people when I could, but I did my dance career pretty much by myself.”
Since founding the Vanguardia Dance Projects collective, Barrios and Araiza have supported contemporary dance artists’ professional development by providing numerous artistic opportunities such as their biannual festival, and producing or presenting artistic works, workshops, and touring.
Hybrid Women, Vanguardia Dance Project’s NIFF performance, is an experimental dance-theatre-ritual-action. Departing from the pulsating of the body in connection with and in response to nature, the show explores the connections and disconnections between our actions, our rituals, our thoughts, and our political points of view.
“It’s kind of a sensation,” explains Barrios. “It’s sort of surrealistic, in terms of the imagery — it investigates how we become particles of nature and how we live on the planet. It explores those places in between — in between the dream world; in between the beauty, the strength, and the perception of the planet in connection.”
“It’s experimental dance theatre and it’s also a ritual action,” adds Araiza. “It’s a mix that exists between the spaces.”
“I think that this is very, very important for the Indigenous artistic communities to have this festival,” Araisa says. “It’s an amazing opportunity and platform for people, from all over Turtle Island, to express ourselves.”
“This is big,” Barrios adds. “It’s the first time something like this has ever happened. I feel honoured to be able to perform. I just feel blessed, at this moment, that we are able to do it.”
To learn more about the world’s first and only Indigenous fringe festival and the amazing participating performers, visit NIFF’s website at indigenousfringefest.ca.