By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Hello. My name is Sheldon Elter. And I’ll be your Native comedian for this evening.”
Sheldon Elter, the startlingly multi-talented Métis actor/ playwright/ screenwriter/ musician/ director, shudders when he thinks of the jokes he told as a teenage stand-up comic. There’s a blistering barrage of them, escalating in awfulness, volleyed humourlessly from the stage in Métis Mutt.
The younger self he conjures is, he tells us from the comedian’s mike, half Indian half white. “Half of me wants to assimilate you into my culture. And the other half is just too lazy to do it.” It gets worse. And worse.
After 15 years, the solo show Elter built from the raw material of own tumultuous life, is back at Theatre Network, one of its original homes. And it’s newly rethought and rewritten for this One Little Indian production directed by Ron Jenkins — and for the thoughtful and accomplished 39-year-old that Elter is now.
It’s a story of horrifying domestic violence, turmoil and guilt, racism, constant relocations, booze and drugs and craziness and showbiz in all their bizarre reaches. And it’s told in songs, fragments of comedy routines, a succession of younger Elters in dramatic scenes.
They immerse us in the life of the boyhood Sheldon, his mom, and his little brother constantly on the lam from a dad with a predilection for violent abuse. And its story gathers looped memories and for this new version refracts them, says Elter, he says, for the vision of the “the man I am today…. I’m just not the same person.”
“I’m a better artist this time around,” Elter muses over lunch last week, “more familiar with the techniques of theatre….” The queasy stereotype jokes, eliciting nervous laughter as an indictment of systemic racism, “feel less like audience entrapment and more like a clear device. It’s showing you that Sheldon the actor doesn’t find those jokes funny any more. Now in the play you get to find out why I was telling those jokes. What I was doing wasn’t quite right, and I was worried about it.…”
Edmonton audiences know something of the startling breadth of the creative talent that was hatched up north in a string of communities (and women’s shelters) starting in Peace River. We’ve seen him in Shakespeare: as the star-cross’d Romeo and the racial outsider Othello (with an eagle and medicine wheel tatted to his chest). His musical theatre chops are expandable — from classic Broadway, like Crazy For You at the Citadel, to the daffier repertoire favoured by The Plain Janes (It’s A Bird! It’s A Plane! It’s Superman! (he was a funny, earnest Superman) to innovative musical experiments like Catalyst’s Nevermore.
He’s at home in comedy (Teatro La Quindicina’s Marvellous Pilgrims), in farce (One Man Two Guvnors), in avant-gardiste dance/theatre (Hroses: An Affront To Reason) or Canadian grit (Kill Your Television’s The Crackwalker). He plays in the ukelele cover band The Be Arthurs
Now, fresh from a starring role in Matthew MacKenzie’s Bears that played to packed houses in Toronto and last week here, Elter is revisiting the traumatic, and traumatizing, events of his own life, in rehearsal for Métis Mutt.
Elter says, “I’m just not the same person” who created a seven-minute comedy sketch in 2001 or the Nextfest play or the Theatre Network revival of 2003 — much less the teen stand-up who “might have been perpetuating negative stereotypes and not understanding why I was saying those things. And who was rewarded with laughter, which was a bit confusing….”
As Elter describes, that teenage Elter of yore was at Grand Prairie College, with a goal: “teaching Grade 1.” And when the teacher’s friend who ran a bar/pool hall called Breakers needed a host, Elter found himself onstage, “an amateur hosting an amateur night,” he rolls his eyes. “It usually ended up with one of my friends winning, which was a bar tab.” An actual weekend job at an actual Grand Prairie comedy club, Dave’s Comedy Saloon, ensued. A stand-up was born, one who knew the world of hard-ass venues and unforgiving crowds who’d rather be watching football on TV.
By the time Elter got disenchanted with teaching (student teaching can do that to a person), theatre was invading his dreams. In the summer of 1998, Elter was down in Edmonton, doing a Fringe show with Aaron Talbot. Elter remembers it as “a Romeo and Juliet-type story about an anglophone and a francophone, and then Quebec separates…. A terrible tragedy. And the reviews (it was awarded a “bomb scare”) were fairly tragic, too.“I worked all summer and got $34.67.” He smiles genially.
It was Talbot who gave him the idea of Grant MacEwan College’s musical theatre program as a good fit. Elter sighs. “I was such a lazy young man. I did no research whatsoever….” And post-audition, he and his pals had “a debauched drug-filled experience at Woodstock ’99…. On our way back, across the States in a van, we had to get rid of the drugs we had before the border. It was, I think, North Dakota. We took them all….”
He toured with hypnotist Marc Savard, who recruited him after seeing a stand-up set at the WEM Yuk Yuks. It was on the day off after a New Year’s Eve gig in Manning, Alberta, that Elter expected a visit from his unpredictable father, a member of the Michel First Nation. “We’d tracked him down and I was going to introduce him to this girl I was thinking of marrying. And he didn’t show. I was furious!”
When they arrived at his girfriend’s parents’ house, the news came: Elter’s dad had died in a car accident. “I had cursed him and his name, and I didn’t comprehend the guilt I was feeling. A week later I was back on the road….”
When Elter arrived at Grant MacEwan for what he now calls his “first first year,” it was a foreign world, full of kids who knew all the lyrics to Sweeney Todd since infancy. And he was falling apart.“I didn’t even know what I was going to till I got there. What? Am I on the set of Fame or something? I didn’t know what I thought musical theatre was…. ” He’s said wryly that he was the only one in his class who knew more about Chet Atkins and Hank Williams than either Rodgers or Hammerstein.”
“In the first four months I dropped 50 pounds. My teachers and fellow students were concerned: ‘do you have food?’ ‘Yeah, I do; I just don’t have an appetite’…. To save face, because I was probably going to fail and get kicked out, I asked (program head) Tim Ryan if I could leave, get myself together, and come back….” Ryan agreed.
It was a rough time, Elter says. He took “crazy amounts” of ecstacy, “seven times a night, three or four time a week, and get depressed from it… I thought about suicide, “and made an attempt.” He was rescued from this race with destruction by by Savard. “All he said was ‘go get something to eat, drink water…. I’m not saying don’t kill yourself, I’m just asking this: I’m coming into town in three days. Can you wait till I get there?’”
Savard’s simple wisdom proved profound for Elter. “See, all you have have to do is make a choice. And you’ll be doing that every day for the rest of your life.” And this, from Savard’s hypnotism technique: “What’s expected tends to be realized.” Says Elter, “that statement changed me.”
Savard took Elter out on tour, with the proviso that “I had to quit everything clean: no coffee, no cigarettes, no anti-depressants….” It saved his life.
“I was such a wreck. Trying to figure out who I was, spiritually. I didn’t know. And I was scared to say I didn’t know,” says Elter. “I knew I had to change up my material…. I think I knew darn well that what I was doing wasn’t quite right, a lot of it felt inappropriate and racist. But I was too young and cocky to admit it.”
And suddenly he knew he had to go back to theatre school “and finish what I’d started.” That was when he found himself, at 20, in Kenneth Brown’s vocal masque class, scrambling to come up with “some kind of theme that defines us as a person, broad strokes…. I’d procrastinated and I had nothing. So when it came to my turn I blurted the first thing that came into my head, which was Métis Mutt. Everyone laughed.”
“Then I had to figure out what the heck that meant. So I figured maybe I’d just start with the some of the jokes I used to do stand-up. That’s how it all started….”
It was Brown who offered to help him turn that sketch into a one-man play. “Largely the actor I am today is because of Ken Brown,” Elter declares.
As a full-fledged solo show, Métis Mutt and its creator/star startled audiences at Nextfest in 2002, and then in a remount at Theatre Network the following year. The history of the show is a veritable microcosm for the way theatre happens in this theatre town, with its make-your-own spirit and artists.
Since then Elter has found himself doing Métis Mutt in community halls on reserves (“like a motivational speaker,” he grins), hip urban studio theatres, mainstages, major national festivals like Magnetic North. He remembers playing one Alberta reserve, and hearing that “the entire community is going to come! Great! But the only problem is that there’s no babysitters. So there’ll be a lot of little kids.”
Elter remembers tentatively objecting that the content was awfully, er, adult, for that kind of mixed crowd, and hearing “we think our kids can handle it! There’ll be an activity for the little kids, and the bigger kids can sit and watch.”
“We get to the hall, and the lights are pot lamps on faders, a lot of them burned out. So, OK. And I brought my own sound gear. So, OK. And there’s gonna be a big fest after, and would you and your stage manager like to stay? Sure!”
In the event, “they cooked the meal at the back of the hall the entire time, banging pots and pans, with the smell of deer stew and fry bread. And the activity for the little kids at the back of the gym? Floor hockey. And in the in the middle of show, the kids in the front row, Grade 6 or so, get up, very politely, sorry sorry, and leave holding cigarettes, opening the door so more light is pouring in. And then they come back, very polite again, and the same thing happens….”
“A cellphone? A crinkly candy wrapper? NOTHING!” grins Elter, nothing if not a seasoned trooper. “It reminded me, if I just stuck to the story, just told it, did my job, they were with me!”
Last year Ryan Cunningham (a co-founder of Alberta Aboriginal Arts) called Elter with a proposal to do Métis Mutt in Toronto for the first time, at Native Earth Theatre. “If I’m going to do it, it has to change,” Elter thought. “I wanted it to be a more theatrical piece. I want to embrace design, lights….” And he wanted it to be more of a story and less a kind of life collage.
“I have to be careful that I’m not re-traumatizing myself,” Elter says. “It’s hard. I spend a lot of the day on the edge of tears, or actually crying…. My team is very good at recognizing that and telling me to take a break.”
“Sheldon the man has to work through, in order to tell the story properly. When they come away, people will understand that through my own unique Indigenous experience, despite all the things in my life, the history and oppression, the family violence, at some point I have to take responsibility for myself…. I’m going to have to dig deep. And do it myself. Hopefully, by doing that I can create positive change for myself, one day at a time.”
And he’s “constantly reminded,” he says, that “though the story is mainly about my relationship with my father, without my mother I wouldn’t be the man I am today…. When I feel the pressure of trying to inspire my Indigenous community — look at you, breaking a cycle of family violence! — it wasn’t me it was her! So brave!”
In the joke department it’d take a lot to surprise Elter. “Even as a young man I knew when I got up onstage, people felt like they had permission to tell me racist jokes, all of them terrible…. I coulda written a book. I’ve heard them ALL. ‘Hey, maybe you could use this in your act….’”
Elter sighs. “In what other jobs does this happen? Can you imagine going up to a doctor and saying I gave my sister a cup of soup and it worked. So maybe you could use this in your practice.”
“I’m proud of where I’ve come to,” says Elter of a career that’s included award-winning writing for the TV series Caution: May Contain Nuts. “I have to remind myself that in 1998 I walked out onstage with a lopsided braided wig, playing a garbage pail.” He winces at the memory.
“People would ask me questions and expect that I’d be speaking for all Indigenous people. As a young man, I’d take on that stress and let it overwhelm me…. I thought I had to have all the answers.” Now he has questions. And a show.
Theatre: One Little Indian, at Theatre Network
Written by and starring: Sheldon Elter
Running: Feb. 15 to March 4
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca