The Edmonton International Fringe Festival is the longest running and largest festival of its kind in North America. Inspired by the Edinburgh Fringe, Founder Brian Paisley began the theatre festival in Edmonton in 1982 with 25 shows in five venues in its first year.
This year, there will be between 220-240 shows, 1600 performances and upwards of 130,000 people in attendance. The Fringe has become a world-wide phenomenon because of its founding principles: 100% of ticket value goes back to the artists and the art itself is completely uncensored. Murray Utas (MU) is Artistic Director and Adam Mitchell (AM) is Executive Director of Fringe Theatre Adventures.
Fringe Theatre Adventures has been a Tatataw member since Spring 2017 when Murray and Adam attended the Tatawaw Inception Ceremony.
How did you become involved in Tatawaw?
MU: I have known the Cardinals for some time. More recently, Hunter and I have become quite close. When he took off on his ventures to Toronto, he reached out a few times and we would meet up and talk about art and life and he expressed that storytelling and teaching, as well as acting needed to be part of his life’s work.
He started to tell me about Naheyawin’s journey and we talked about the evolution of the Fringe and how to open up the space to better welcome those first voices on this land and the original story tellers. We were both trying to get back to what the treaties intended and already walking side by side, without really knowing it at first.
Our involvement in Tatawaw started in that moment.
Why did you decide to become a member?
AM: We believe wholeheartedly in the work of Naheyawin and Tatawaw. From a very personal point of view, both Murray and I had a strong desire to find a way to commit both personally and organizationally to change in a post apology era, and in our own personal journeys in life and experiences and friendships.
As an arts organization we are privileged to have this facility and work in this space on this land and one of the things we have been focused on in the last couple of years is making this a place of gathering for the arts community, but also for the entire community.
MU: One of the things I have found in the journey is we have a lot of conversations about inclusion and diversity, but a lot of times, that first voice was being left out of that conversation. It wasn’t purposely, but it seemed to be an oversight. Everyone needs to be included in every cultural conversation.
What are your goals as an organization?
We want to be part of the decolonization of art.
AM: Western theatre is an incredibly colonized system. And yet, we are directors of a Festival and operators of a building where we are constricted by very little. We do some of our own presenting and some of our own producing, but the whole purpose for the Festival is to provide the backbone, the location and tools for artists to come and express themselves, try new things and be inventive without barriers. I would say one of our goals for the organization is to build that same environment in this facility year-round.
MU: And the barriers that do exist have not always been deliberate, but I think people were afraid of traversing to somewhere else in case they didn’t understand or recognize what was going on in the theatre space anymore.
One of the most important things we need to consider is “Are we representing what our true community looks like?” We want to give all artists all the tools they need and get out of the way, so those voices are given the space they need. It’s not about us getting a pat on the back for being inclusive and committed. That’s not what it should be. It’s about time that we are using a different framework to approach this work. We are way overdue.
Why is this important work?
MU: There are many stories that have been silenced for too long. If we are only being fed one narrative, we are not building a foundation of who we are, it’s been incomplete up until this now. And it’s the job of the theatre to reflect and keep a pure reflection of where society is at. It should challenge society, move it forward, connect it. When we do that, the doors fly open. Theatre doesn’t tell us how we should think or feel, but we walk away somehow affected.
AM: We are often focused in on telling a story that will please the traditional Caucasian audience, instead of telling a story for everyone. Also, our role in the theatre ecology is different. We are not a producing company and choosing to engage an Indigenous artist and produce an established work. We have to find ways to provide access to self-creation to connection and mentorship to young artists along the way.
Also, we need a shift of power. Right now, you are talking to two very privileged, white cis males who are leading an arts organization about creating change. That has to change as a dynamic. It’s the process we are in right now. We need to be setting up the systems so that they no longer excluding people who are on the path to this chair. We also need to fast track some folks along the way as well.
Where can Tatawaw conversations take us?
MU: Tatawaw can break down systems that may no longer serve us. And instead of alienating the community, we invite the community to be part of that change. Succession planning is also key. Ten to fifteen years from now, it can’t be 50-year-old white guys at the table that are the only option to fill the Artistic and Executive Director positions. Everyone needs to be at that table and represented. It’s correcting a systemic issue so we don’t keep repeating it.
AM: Stories are being more intentionally produced right now. And that is part of the progress that we have to make to get to the point where those forgotten voices become part of the fabric of our society. It’s true, we are adopting practices that are very intentional right now, but in theatre communities, they are also being very universally adopted. But if you are trying to resolve every historical thought, concern, wrong-doing, or issue in one piece of art, it’s never going to happen. Tatawaw can teach all artists to be critical of their experience and that will eventually cast a wider net to include the voices that have not been heard for a long time.
I was recently at the PACT (Professional Association of Canadian Theatres) conference in Ottawa and one of the questions they asked all the executive directors on the first day was “Can you acknowledge the land that you are working on, that you occupy?” What was truly amazing that weekend was the number of people in the room that weekend that could do just that. Without prompt, without script, and that is a reflection of the work being done at an organizational level and that is a real indication of it happening in this industry. I don’t think it’s happening at the same level or same speed in other industries that everyone would like, and if we can develop and nurture a culture in which we can point to art and the theatre and say “look, it’s happening and there are good examples you can model yourself after,” we have done something to contribute to the greater good.
MU: Also, it can’t be about entitlement. No one is getting pushed out. It’s just about making room. Engaging Naheyawin and having Hunter on staff and having Elder Francis on our board, we have been granted access to networks of people who can guide us.
How has Tatawaw impacted your life?
AM: I think Hunter and Jacqui have impacted our lives like you would not believe. Tatawaw is so much a part of that. I have been so enamored with that family and the work they are doing. The desire to connect with them as individuals and support their work is unrelenting.
MU: I feel like I am in a perpetual state of learning. The teachings I get daily from them helps me propel forward. It’s such a fresh perspective where they are coming from, and a narrative I have not heard up until this point.
AM: I also want to acknowledge how generous Naheyawin is. They introduce Tatawaw to everyone by telling Jacqui’s story about Standing Rock, and whenever we engage or sit around and have a conversation, it comes from that place of being presented with ways of how to be an ally. There is no preconception or assumption that I should know how to be there in an effective way. And Jacqui and Hunter’s actions speak to that every day. The emotional labour that comes along with their work is unbelievable. That is the thing that really strikes me when I see them work and interact with people. They make it easy to take that first step and continue walking with them.
Thank you Adam and Murray!
Tatawaw empowers businesses and organizations to use build community capacity, integrate abundance into core values and create room to welcome all peoples and fulfill treaty relationships. Want to be part of the Tatawaw movement? Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org