Theatre rooted in the land: Ayita, premiering at SkirtsAfire. Meet creator Teneil Whiskeyjack

Teneil Whiskeyjack, Ayita, SkirtsAfire Festival 2022. Photo by Noella Steinhauer.

By Liz Nicholls,

The mainstage centrepiece of the 10th anniversary edition of SkirtsAfire — the multidisciplinary arts festival devoted to celebrating and showcasing women and non-binary artists — is a new play.

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Distinctively Indigenous in its inspiration, creation, and performance, Ayita is the work of Teneil Whiskeyjack. For the Plains Cree artist from Saddle Lake First Nation, a TV and film actor since childhood, it is a debut venture out of that world and into the world of live theatre.  

Teneil Whiskeyjack, Ayita, SkirtsAfire Festival 2022. Photo by Noella Steinhauer

We caught up with Whiskeyjack this week to find out something about her path towards the production, a fusion of theatre and contemporary Indigenous dance that tells a complex, multi-generational story of transcending trauma and creative healing. Ayita premieres on the Westbury stage through March 13. 

Where did her artist’s life begin? “I started in the film and television industry at the age of nine, with a role in an animation series (Stories From The Seventh Fire) told in both Cree and English, that continued well into my teen and young adult years.” Whiskeyjack calls herself the family’s “the first-generation performance artist”(her 18-year-old daughter Miika, also an actor, is “the second generation artist”). She remembers being drawn to old Hollywood films and artist biographies. 

Why theatre? What was the appeal? “It wasn’t until 2014 that I was introduced to the world of theatre. That was it for me. I loved the rush and immediacy of live theatre, and the energetic exchange between yourself, the audience, and your fellow performers. I was interested in the intricacies of weaving together stories and creatively building them for a stage. For people of all backgrounds to gather and be taken on a journey…. I’ve come to appreciate the art that is theatre and want to continue creating for the stage and land-based productions.”

What was the seed that grew into Ayita? It sprouted, as Whiskeyjack says, during her last year as a drama major working towards a B.A. at Concordia University. “I wanted to create a story that was completely organic and connected me closer to who I am as a Cree woman. The original inspiration came from my late grandmother Bernice. She was a fierce, strong, and wise woman. I remember doing ceremonies with her growing up. Many would come to see her for healing; she was a herbalist. I wanted to create a piece that showed the Indigenous woman as empowered, embodied and connected to her roots…. I had never written a play before.” 

After she graduated, Whiskeyjack presented a short staged reading of Ayita at the 2019 Nextfest. And that’s where SkirtsAfire artistic director Annette Loiselle caught sight of it, and was intrigued. 

SkirtsAfire’s Loiselle has talked about what she’s learned of the striking differences between theatre creation that’s Indigenous in spirit and practice, and more hierarchical Euro-centric models (see the 12thnight interview here). How does playwright Whiskeyjack describe that difference? “In Indigenous creation, we observe the nature world — the land, plants, animals, cosmic intelligence and its patterns in relation to our own bodies — to tell stories,” she says. “This relationship is rooted in reciprocity, gifting, and held in ceremony, being out on the land, harvesting, oral teachings…. We are not separate from the natural world but a part of creation, so we are guided by principles that derive from Indigenous ways of know and doing. They call on you to find the spirit and essence of the story, and work collectively.”

A multi-faceted career just got more expansive. What’s next? “These past couple of years have been exciting,” says Whiskeyjack, who founded and runs Spirit Flame Consulting (cultural practice through a Cree lens). “The television series I play a part in, Tribal: Season 2 aired this past fall and is currently airing again on APTN and LUMI. After Ayita wraps at SkirtsAfire, I will be travelling the U.S. on tour with Bear Grease, a musical comedic parody based on the classic film Grease (it sold out every performance last summer at the Fringe). I also will be focusing on learning more about land-based Indigenous creations through movement, facilitating wellness workshops, and enjoying being a mom to my two children…. There are times when I would like to create, just to feed my own curiosities, and explore new ways of expressing myself.” 



SkirtsAfire Festival 2022

Created by: Teneil Whiskeyjack

Directed by: Lebogang Disele and Sandra Lamouche

Starring: Teneil Whiskeyjack, Janira Moncayo, Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, Rebecca Sadowski, Skye Demas, Shammy Belmore, Deviani Bonilla, Mackenzie Brown

Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns

Running: March 3 to 13




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