By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“It sits differently in my body, in my voice,” says Josh Languedoc, musing on his widely travelled solo show Rocko and Nakota: Tales From The Land. “Something has shifted this time around.”
It’s been that kind of year. A year that reinforces in every way the need for Indigenous voices to be heard, their stories to be told. And in honour of National Indigenous Peoples Day Monday, the Thousand Faces Festival (with help from EPCOR’s Heart and Soul Fund) is reviving Languedoc’s play (on Facebook Live), the one that really launched the career of the multi-talented Anishinaabe artist on the national stage.
In Rocko and Nakota, an 11-year stuck in the hospital — a situation Languedoc lifted from his own life — gets a visit from his old grandfather. Rocko arrives with a cache of stories, and Nakota is transported into the past, and a whole world of myths, animal spirits, warriors, elders … all in a complex relationship with the present.
“A turning point? Absolutely!… It brought my voice to places I didn’t think I’d get to for a while; it became such a major platform for me,” says the affable Languedoc, whose roots are in the Saugeen First Nation in Ontario. He remembers the start of the accelerating adventure three years ago. “I remember being really nervous,” he says of his preparations for a cross-country Fringe tour, with a stop at the Blyth Festival in Ontario. “There’s this deadline and I have to make a show for it! This was me memorizing the show as I was doing it!”
“I was prepping for expressing myself on the Fringe circuit. And I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received.” Doing a solo show of any sort is a challenge to be risen to, “and it’s even more challenging when it’s your story…. There’s a lot of you in there, too. It’s not just revealing your skill as a performer, but as a person!”
Languedoc, who grew up in St. Albert in the musical theatre milieu of the St Albert Children’s Theatre, comes from an inspirationally artistic family. “My mom is a visual artist and singer; my dad (an Ojibway who was adopted off the reserve) is a thousand percent a storyteller and musician.” Some of the stories in the multi-character Rocko and Nakota are part of that blue-chip inheritance; others “are dreams, things that happened to me, turned into aural stories.”
The Josh Languedoc of 2018 was an actor, yes (and an improviser, witness appearances with Grindstone Theatre’s The 11 O’Clock Number. More than that, though, “I was a budding playwright, with a few different projects on the go.”
At the U of A, studying sociology (the sociology of Canadian theatre was his specialty), “ I got obsessed, and so angry, with the ‘starlight tours’, the horrifying news stories (Neil Stonechild is but one victim) of Indigenous people picked up by police, driven to remote ex-urban locations, and abandoned to their fate. “I started playing around with character voices … and what started as research turned into a play,” says Languedoc. Starlight Journey, now called The Eyes of Spirits (commissioned by Workshop West, Toronto’s Native Earth Performing Arts, and Dreamspeakers), was “my first venture into writing Indigenous stories, voices, ways of being and ways of knowing, and bringing them onstage.”
He’s kept at that two-act six-actor, now on draft #11, “for damn near a decade,” encouraged by Workshop West’s former artistic director Vern Thiessen, whom he counts a mentor. “I was young, naive, still finding myself. But Vern said ‘you need to keep writing this play; Indigenous communities need your voice’.”
“Using my gifts as a storyteller to represent my community” gave Languedoc, he says, the experience of tapping his family background, and his “cultural side. What does that mean to bring it into the open? It’s a very authentic and real part of my journey now.”
“So Rocko and Nakota wasn’t my first play. It was my first that came from me, from the inside out!”
The Fringe tour was a life-changer, Languedoc says. “People were quite surprised by it; they didn’t know how to relate to me, how to support me….” The reception was both warm, and revealing: “The dynamic was ‘we have never seen this at a Fringe. Ever.. Finally, an Indigenous voice on the circuit’”
Except for one September showing, Languedoc hasn’t performed Rocko and Nakota for a year. The revival we’ll see Monday, live from the “very cool” new National Stiltwalkers Headquarters (Languedoc is amused by this) isn’t changed materially in the text, save a line here and then, from the Fringe version. ‘But it’s shaped differently,” he says. After the Fringe tour, Theatre Prospero included Rocko and Nakota in their school tour season, directed by Barry Bilinsky. “He helped slow it down.. It was a bit manic and out of breath. Now it’s smoother and more legato…. I had written a 55 or 60-minute play, and performed it in 45. I’m not trying to do the show in one big gulp.”
These days Languedoc is working on the play, IN-COR-RI-GI-BLE (a commission from the Blyth Festival, that will garner him a master’s degree in theatre practice from the U of A. It’s based on (and named for) an autobiography written by his father. He’s spent the year venturing into arts administration and facilitation, as “youth education/outreach co-ordinator at Workshop West,” connecting with youthful playwrights digitally. And he’s got a gig, yet to be announced, with Fringe Theatre.
What’s changed for Languedoc since the Fringe tour of three years ago? “I’ve grown. I’ve matured …” he says. And as for the “news” about residential schools that isn’t really news since Canadians have known about it all along, “Why now? Now is when society is ready to hear it,” he thinks.
On the subject of progress in the relationship between the Indigenous and colonial cultures, he counts himself “fairly optimistic,” with major qualifications. “A lot of important conversations are happening now. There’s still a lot of work to be done. A lot of communities still have a lot to learn about making connections. But most places seem to get it, at least to some degree. Some are being pro-active, trying to move things forward; some aren’t.”
“I grew up in a white suburban city, never seeing my people, my stories anywhere…. It’s a bit different now, in schools, in art galleries, in gas stations (laughter). I see a lot of hope.”
National Indigenous Peoples Day
Rocko and Nakota: Tales From the Land
Theatre: Thousand Faces Festival
Created by and starring: Josh Languedoc
Where: Facebook Live, 7 p.m., school performance 1 p.m. with talk-back to follow.
Tickets: free, donations very welcome, with 50 per cent going to Indspire.