By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The name, in Cree, means “meeting place.”
That’s how Josh Languedoc explains pêhonân, the Fringe incarnation of the Roxy on Gateway (temporary home of Theatre Network). “And not just gathering…. It’s a waiting place that’s welcoming, that celebrates and honours diversity. A space of change. Perfect!”
Pêhonân is an official Fringe venue like no other, an Indigenous space that features Indigenous artists, voices, stories, and generates conversations surrounding them. Even theatre rituals like ticketing and curtain times feel different, “softer,” at pêhonân than elsewhere on the Fringe’s 11 indoor venues, as Languedoc explains, in his genial way.
The Anishinaabe actor/ playwright/ improviser/ artist, creator and star of the hit touring show Rocko & Nakota, is the Fringe’s new director of Indigenous strategic planning. In conversation with Fringe director Murray Utas and interim Fringe Theatre executive director Megan Dart — who “want to have more Indigenous voices at all levels of the Fringe, from volunteers to bartenders to administrators” as Languedoc puts it — he’s taken the phrase “making space,” a staple metaphor of the diversity lexicon, at its word. Pêhonân is actually a physical space specially for Indigenous artists at the Fringe.
“It starts with someone looking at the Fringe website and maybe saying ‘look at all those Indigenous artists … maybe I belong there!’”
Languedoc himself, who grew up in St. Albert as a musical theatre triple-threat kid, knows what it’s like to feel like the odd person out. “On the (cross-country) Fringe circuit, I often felt like the lone person doing the lone work,” he says of Rocko & Nakota performances. “I found that people were at least curious.” And curiosity, he points out, is a start.
Not only is Languedoc part of a Fringe improv show The Trip (“having fun playing with my friends”), but his own new play Feast premieres at the Fringe, not at péhonân but the Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre. It’s under the banner of his company Indigenized Indigenous Theatre (“I liked the sound of the name”).
The six-actor production has a variegated Indigenous/ settler texture. We meet two lovers, in a play that, as Languedoc describes, “exists in two worlds: the real one where you’re watching a relationship grow and the fall apart, and the spirit world.” The characters in the latter, “fully fleshed out and talking,” are the four animals of the Anishinaabe medicine wheel, set in motion (by choreographer Rebecca Sadowski) in a combination of contemporary and traditional Indigenous dance and physical movement. “They have a relationship with the boy, speak to him, watch over him, as and now that he’s an adult, reconnect with him, and discover what they can offer him now.”
On eight of 10 Fringe nights, Pêhonân will showcase a one-off show by Indigenous artists. The range is wide — from Rebecca Sadowski’s unique amalgam of Métis and contemporary dance, Cree poetry and traditional finger weaving (The Sash Maker) to an Indigenous version of the musical Grease (Lightning Cloud Presents Bear Grease). And Languedoc has curated an Indigenous cabaret, ayisiyiniwak, for the last Saturday night of the Fringe (Aug. 21). Two new plays will get staged readings: Danielle LaRose’s The Amazonomachy and Talk Treaty To Me by Theresa Cutknife and Samantha Fraughton.
For the shows you need a ticket in hand to get in — “a ticket or some sort of proof of exchange.” But “in the interests of make the venue accessible,” the ticketing system is uniquely flexible, non-linear, and un-systematic, as you’ll see online. “You offer what you will,” says Languedoc, “as a gift.” It’s an exchange — perhaps cash, perhaps something artistic like a beaded vest. And the Fringe, against its usual practice, has made the artists a financial guarantee.
In Indigenous cultures, explains Languedoc, “when you seek knowledge from someone it’s an offering, a reflexive, responsive relationship…. Nothing’s ever static. Like water, it’s always moving, changing, reflecting. We’re hoping this will be the start of a back and forth exchange that may change how people think about theatre.”
Languedoc takes us through a day in the life of pêhonân. The venue is open eight of the 10 Fringe days, noon to 3 p.m. “We throw open the doors,” no ticket required. During six of those days, from 2 to 3 p.m., Languedoc will host conversations with a variety of Indigenous artists. “People can hang out, talk, grab food from an Indigenous food truck….”
The venue closes from “3:30-ish to 6:30-ish,” so the artist of the day can have a full technical rehearsal. The doors re-open to audiences at about 7, for shows that begin at 7:30 — or so. “We’re experimenting with not having really really hard start times…. We’re trying to be a little softer.” So pêhonân is the only Fringe venue where you can be a bit late, and still come in. And if you’ve ever been turned away at the door of a venue (and what fringer hasn’t?) because your watch and the volunteer gate-keeper’s watch don’t exactly coincide, the difference is striking.
There’s no prototype for running a Fringe theatre venue this way. Languedoc laughs. “This is the (original) Fringe spirit of taking a risk. We’re the Fringe’s next risk. And we have no clue if it’ll work. it’s really a test, a first step we’re excited to take! What works and what doesn’t? What can we build on?”
“I’m nervous as hell. I hope people come!” Languedoc says cheerfully. The Fringe is back to its risk-taking roots in a summer full of experimental challenges. “This is the year to try something wacky and see what happens!”
The Fringe runs Aug. 12 to 22. Check out the full range and schedule of pêhonân offerings at fringetheatre.ca.