The healing touch of humour: Drew Hayden Taylor’s Cottagers and Indians at Shadow Theatre

Davina Stewart and Trevor Duplessis in Cottagers and Indians, Shadow Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Humour is the WD-40 of healing.” 

That’s what an elder from the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta once told Drew Hayden Taylor. “I liked that. So cool. Almost T-shirt-worthy,” says the well-travelled Ojibwa playwright/ filmmaker/ TV scriptwriter/ storyteller/ columnist/ essayist/ novelist. “And I realized that could be my path….”

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It’s a path full of unexpected zigzags that’s taken Taylor across the country and around the world, through cultural minefields, political arguments, ethnic frictions, the nuances of political correctness, to write about the Native experience. It’s taken him on 19 lecture tours of Germany.

“They bring me in to talk about Native literature, Native culture, Native humour, Native storytelling,” he says of a German obsession with North American Indigenous culture that dates back to the 1890s. Taylor, who’d discovered the German connection during a writer’s residency at Pierre Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon, was intrigued into creating a fascinating CBC documentary (Searching for Winnetou) on the subject. It was screened at the “Indianer Festival in Stuttgart two year’s ago, Taylor’s last pre-pandemic excursion abroad.  

And in 2018 the path took Taylor to the hit play that opens Thursday on the Varscona stage in a Shadow Theatre production. Cottagers and Indians: even the title, with its nod to the old kids’ game Cowboys and Indians, is cheeky. “The I word” as Taylor has called it in an essay for the Globe and Mail, has fallen into disrepute. When the play ran in Ottawa, the box office got calls objecting to the title. Callers, all of them white as Taylor notes in some amusement, were outraged by the affront to political correctness, and taken aback to learn that the playwright was Indigenous. 

“It’s an outdated term,” says Taylor. “But when I look back at my earlier work, wow, I used it quite frequently…. In many communities, including mine, we still use it amongst ourselves.”  

The play was inspired by a real-life conflict in Ontario cottage country, and a central player (James Whetung) from the Curve Lake First Nation where Taylor is from and where he lives. The heart of the dispute is water. More precisely it’s wild rice, and the attempts of an Indigenous local to revive an Indigenous tradition (and improve the local Indigenous diet) by seeding it in a lake surrounded by upscale white cottage-owners who’ve been there, boating and fishing, for decades.

On opposite sides of the stage, two characters, the entrepreneurial Anishinaabe man Arthur (Trevor Duplessis) and the Toronto cottager Maureen (Davina Stewart) argue their cases. From the start, it was popular, “bizarrely popular,” says Taylor, laughing. “I was surprised that a play about wild rice would have such an appeal to a general audience, Native and non-Native.” 

After a premiere at on the Curve Lake Reserve, three of the four weeks of the run at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre sold out. And it’s been much produced across the country since. In 2020, he turned Cottagers and Indians into a CBC documentary of the same name, “exploring Native/ Non-Native land and water issues across the country. It was quite eye-opening,” he says. He adds, in passing, “a lakefront cottage within three hours of Toronto is as expensive as a house in downtown Toronto.” 

As for the play, “I didn’t try to make it funny; it just sort of came out that way,” Taylor says. Do Indigenous audiences react differently to the play’s sense of humour? He uses the example of Arthur’s wry observation that he likes his wine the way he like his women, “warm and red, not cold and white.” Native women, he says, “just burst out laughing. White women don’t know if they should or not.” Indigenous productions with largely Indigenous audiences are apt to run three to six minutes longer “from sheer laughter,” and leave actors waiting onstage for a lull.  

Drew Hayden Taylor

A prolific and witty writer in many forms, Taylor didn’t start out in theatre. “I’d always wanted to be a writer, but was actively discouraged by my English teachers and my mother,” he says cheerfully. “Accidentally” is the word he uses for his entry point, TV and film, into the world of the writer. In his mid-teens Taylor got a gig as a production/casting assistant for Spirit Bay, a series getting shot in northwest Ontario. And in the course of that, he “inadvertently” learned the structure of a half-hour TV show. After that “I got an opportunity to adapt Native stories into television,” and he wrote a magazine article about that. “I talked to all the story editors and producers I could find in Canada.” 

 And then, at 25, came his first professional TV writing credit: an episode of The Beachcombers. Episodes of Street Legal and North of 60 start popping up on the Taylor resumé. In the Taylor vernacular, “opportunity knocked and I answered.”

“I never liked live theatre then. I thought theatre artists were pretentious. I didn’t really understand it,” he says. It was during a writer’s residency at Native Earth, the country’s premier Indigenous theatre (Taylor was artistic director there in the ’90s) , that he came to realize that theatre is “the next logical progression from the oral storytelling of my culture…. It’s taking the audience on a journey using your mind, your body, your imagination. Once I realized that, it really opened up theatre for me.” He hit that theatrical ground running: six plays in two years. His break-through first? Toronto At Dreamer’s Rock in 1989. It was tough-minded, touching, and funny, a signature Taylor combo. 

“One thing I realized working at Native Earth was that the vast majority of contemporary Indigenous theatre, novels, poetry etc. was dark, depressing, bleak, sad and angry,” says Taylor. ‘When an oppressed people get their voice back they’e going to write about being oppressed. What is it (playwright/novelist) Tomson Highway says? ‘Before the healing takes place, the poison must be exposed’, the poison of colonization.” 

The young Taylor was, he admits, a bit daunted by this. “In order to be an Indigenous writer am I going to have to write stories about people who are oppressed, depressed, and suppressed? I wasn’t that delighted with the idea.” Enter the Blood Reserve elder, with his wisdom about the importance of humour. Says Taylor, “I’ve travelled to over 150 First Nations across Canada and the U.S. And everywhere I went I’ve been greeted with a small, with a laugh, with a joke.”

“I wanted to celebrate, highlight that Indigenous sense of humour. And I didn’t just want to write Native humour, I wanted to write about Native humour. He co-directed an NFB documentary, Redskins, Trickster and Puppy Stew, “exploring and deconstructing Indigenous humour.” The essay collection he compiled, Me Funny, addresses the same subject. It contains, he notes, Tomson Highway’s essay arguing that Cree is “the funniest language ever created.”  

Taylor’s theatre is never without humour. A seriously entertaining (or is that entertainingly serious?) conversationalist, he says he writes four types of plays: “plays for young audiences, dramas with a lot of humour in them, full-fledged comedies that are just celebrations of the Indigenous sense of humour, and what I refer to as intellectual satires that deal with specific areas of Indigenous culture … wrapped in humour and parody.” 

The pandemic has stalled many a project, of course. But Taylor has been far from idle. Going Native, his APTN documentary series that’s a deep dive into the Indigenous past and contemporary Indigenous culture, has taken him across the continent on location, to talk to architects, artists, pop musicians, traditional craftspersons, sash-makers…. Season 2, which has several stops in Alberta including the Badlands, is nearly ready to go.  He’s starting work on a CBC doc “about people who claim to be Indigenous but can’t back it up.” 

He’s been writing wry and insightful essays for the Globe and Mail on everything from Indigenous identity to whether only Indigenous directors should direct Indigenous plays and only Indigenous critics should review them.  

“I’ve been dabbling in dramatic television more: several nibbles at the hook but nothing birthed yet.” Oh, and Cold, his “Indigenous horror novel,” is coming out (McClelland and Stewart) next winter. And did I mention Taylor’s first short story collection, “Indigenous sci-fi”? His play The Berlin Blues is becoming a movie, likely shot in Alberta this summer. And theatre audiences will be happy to know there are two new Taylor plays looking for a home. “I was in Banff two months ago working on them.”

The path of humour never ends.

PREVIEW

Cottagers and Indians

Theatre: Shadow Theatre

Written by: Drew Hayden Taylor

Starring: Trevor Duplessis, Davina Stewart

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave. 

Running: Thursday through March 27

Tickets: shadowtheatre.org 

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