By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In the play you’ll see Saturday night — either live on Fringe Theatre’s Westbury stage or live-streamed on Fringe TV from there — you’ll meet two little Indigenous brothers, 10 and seven. They’re out on a secret nocturnal adventure through the woods to a great lake.
What Henry and his little brother Thomas are after in the late summer of 1973, on the Sucker Creek First Nations reserve on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake, is a really big fish. What they have in mind is a family feast, with their prize as the centrepiece.
In Lake of the Strangers, you’ll also meet older generations, and future ones too, as the past and the future are woven into the present, and the story is woven into the Nehiyaw mythology that threads its way through the starry firmament.
It’s a test for the magic of storytelling in the theatre: there is but one actor in Lake of the Strangers, the production that launches the Fringe Theatre season. He’s Hunter Cardinal, a co-creator of the play with his sister Jacquelyn Cardinal. And for him, at 28 one of the country’s new generation of accomplished, multi-faceted Indigenous theatre artists, something has changed since the play’s 2019 premiere directed by Ron Jenkins in an outsized reflecting pool at the Backstage Theatre.
“There’s a massive shift in how the story is being told, and who is telling it,” says Fringe Theatre’s Murray Utas, who directs the new production, in progress since July. “It exists in the present, the past, and the past-present,” the latter that mysterious storytelling verb tense that unhinges time from chronology. “And we have cast the audience; they are there with us, not sitting in the dark!”
“If we’re pausing storytelling,” says Cardinal of the pandemical moment (in Utas-speak “The Great Fucking Pause”), “we have to pause the assumptions we’re bringing into a space…. We’re asking ‘why?. Why are we telling this story now? That resonated for my sister and me.”
“What are other ways we as storytellers and me as a performer can honour the people who inspired the story?”
The Cardinals, brother and sister co-playwrights, are co-founders of Naheyawin, a consulting agency that help clients build community and see the world through an Indigenous lens. They are joint heirs to a venerable Cardinal family tradition of sibling accomplishment.Their dad is the notable human rights activist and educator Lewis Cardinal; their uncle Lorne Cardinal is the stage and screen star for whom Theatre Network’s studio space at the new Roxy Theatre is named. The grandparent generation is Cree elder Don Cardinal and his brother activist/writer Harold. It’s a distinguished lineage, spinning ever outward from the Sucker Creek reserve. Have a look at the 2019 12thnight interview with Hunter Cardinal, where he talks about his mentors.
Cardinal, a U of A theatre school grad, plays “not just multiple characters but generations of characters,” as he says. And “since I really wanted to root it in Sucker Creek,” that has meant “different generations of accents.”
He repaired to the CBC archives to listen to great uncle Harold in interviews, and to extrapolate from that to capturing Henry and Thomas’s dad, a hunter. “And that became an exploration of physicality, “of how he walked….. And what two little kids would sound like in 1973, and how they would sound 20 years into the future … being exposed to the popular mainstream.”
It is, to say the least, an intricate acting challenge. But this time out, collaborating with Utas, Cardinal was determined to transcend virtuosity into a realm where the audience and the performer “share” the space and the story. He and Utas both talk a lot about “the journey” and “the process” rather than “the show.”
“I’m sharing something that’s bigger than me,” says the actor. “It’s not about me, but I’m bringing myself fully into that process, with everything I’ve learned…. It’s all about sharing.”
Cardinal, an exciting young Hamlet in Freewill Shakespeare’s 2018 production, thinks his performance in that dauntingly signature role would be much different now. “The most difficult part for me was finding a way to relate to it. It took me a long time to get there,” he says. He understands more fully now what it takes to “bring to it my unique experience as an Indigenous dude, a young guy who’s feeling what it’s like to have a forced Western masculinity that causes so much strife and feeling of shame … the drive to be something you inherently are not.”
Lake of the Strangers in 2021 has the added complication of an audience that is, simultaneously, both in-person and at home in front of a screen. “It’s an offering to both audiences,” says Utas. He enlisted veteran filmmaker David Baron. Their question, a seminal one for theatre artists through these pandemical times: “How do you create a moment that resonates for both? How do create a relationship between artist and audience when they don’t exist in the same plane?”
As Utas points out, even time works out in the two forms. “What’s a 60-minute show online? Those minutes are different.” If you see Lake of the Strangers in person, the camera crew isn’t hidden; you’ll see on screens in the theatre what the at-home audience is seeing.
Cardinal thinks of theatre and film as “two portals into the same place where we all end up together…. It’s the place you go to when you’re reading, and immersed, and you forget you’re reading.” It’s the place, he says, that Baron is trying to find through film, Kris Harper through music, Brianna Kolybaba through design. “We’re all in this together.” And that includes the audience, who bring with them “the stories that are important to them, a huge night-time sky of stories.”
“We’re not re-inventing storytelling; we’re returning storytelling to its essential form,” as Utas puts it. “It’s not so much about ‘doing’ a show, but how we treat the audience in this process,” says Cardinal. “What do we care about? How can we align ourselves with those values?”
Lake of the Strangers may well be “the most specifically Indigenous story some people will see,” says Cardinal. “It comes from my sister and I and our specific family…. But storytelling is a way we can connect and still be totally, beautifully, different. That’s the magic.”
“I think we’re all going through a re-envisioning of what storytelling is, in theatre and film, a larger storytelling process about who we are as Canadians. How can we look bravely at our past and present, and also look at the future? I feel we’re following that larger movement.… And that’s been really exciting for me!”
Lake of the Strangers
Written by: Jacquelyn Cardinal and Hunter Cardinal
Starring: Hunter Cardinal
Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Saturday only (in conjunction with Fringe Theatre’s Lakes & Streams, and a Friday performance by the Jay Gilday band)