By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“I’ve always been a storyteller,” says the Saugeen First Nation playwright/ actor/ improviser/ director Josh Languedoc. “It’s just been there … in my bones.”
He can thank his Indigenous heritage, and its great oral tradition for that. And he does — as you’ll see in Rocko and Nakota: Tales From The Land, with its animal spirits and myths. A “test run” version of the show comes to the Thousand Faces Mythic Arts Festival this weekend before it hits six Fringe festivals, including Edmonton’s across the country this summer.
“It’s always been a part of me, Indigenous stories and culture. But sometimes it’s been in the background,” says the genial Anishinaabe artist who’s playwright-in-residence at Workshop West this season. Theatre has always been embedded in q multi-limbed career that includes improv musicals with Grindstone Theatre and improv Shakespeare with Thou Art Here. And it’s resurfaced in full force at a long overdue moment in history when, adrenalized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Indigenous voices are being heard as never before.
“It’s told me that you can be a voice,” Languedoc has heard from his mentors. “You should have been a voice all along.” He laughs. “It’s more than time…. My passion has good timing!”
The engaging Languedoc, whose Ojibwe dad was adopted off the reserve (“another story! there’s a play in that!”) grew up in St. Albert, a theatre kid and self-styled “musical theatre junkie.” No surprise that, encouraged by his father, whom he credits for his cultural interests, he gravitated to the St. Albert Children’s Theatre. Sondheim? Yes, he says, but “Disney was my big jam. Lloyd Webber. All of it.” Vic, the performing arts high school, was a natural fit. And a playwright was born there.
His first play? Question, he recalls. “Ten pages, four scenes, little moments of what it’s like to be a teen: how to come out to your parents if you’re pregnant, friendships, girlfriends…. Typical teen shit!”
At the U of A he got a degree in sociology, with a specialty in the sociology of Canadian theatre, “its narratives, its themes,” and then a teaching degree with a double-optic focus in drama and science.
The play that Fringe audiences from Ottawa to Victoria will see is framed by two characters, a lonely young boy sick in the hospital and his grandfather who arrives with a cache of stories. “It’s all about oral storytelling,” says Languedoc of the Native tradition, “sucking people in in real time….”
In contrast to the marginalizing of the old in white culture, age is respected in Indigenous culture, as he points out. “Elders are knowledge-keepers. Everyone looks to them for guidance.”
In Rocko and Nakota, the latter is remembering his seminal boyhood encounters with his grandpa, and the transporting inspirations of his stories. “It flips back and forth to the present,” when Rocko is telling his own stories. Languedoc mines a store of traditional Indigenous myths; he creates others. “I embody everything in the stories! Animals, warriors, elders, animals. Trees! It keeps me moving!”
Languedoc credits his mentors for “pushing me along the path.” It’s a list headed by Workshop West artistic director Vern Thiessen — “he’s helped me in so many ways; I owe so much to that man!” — and including playwrights Kenneth T. Williams, Colleen Murphy and Reneltta Arluk, the head of the Banff Centre’s new Indigenous arts program.
These days Languedoc has a sense of re-committing to an identity that was there all along. He’s been working as a substitute teacher, and he’s poised to plunge into the world of theatre full-time when he heads to the Ottawa Fringe mid-month.
“It’s been the last year or two that I realized ‘I can’t ignore this any more, if I’m going to go forward’…. It’s a gift, and I want to use it in a big way!”
Thousand Faces Festival of Mythic Arts
Where: Alberta Avenue Community League, 9210 118 Ave.
Running: Friday through Sunday, full roster of shows and schedule at thousandfaces.ca
Admission: by donation