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The World’s First Indigenous Fringe Festival Opens This Summer

Joeann Argue, creator of Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival, talks about why there usually isn’t a lot of Indigenous participation in fringe festivals By Robyn Grant-Moran
  • Left to right: Joeann Argue, Lee Bolton and Drew Hayden Taylor / Photo courtesy of Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival

Update (June 23): The Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival announced yesterday that two of the original artists scheduled to perform have had to cancel due to unforseen circumstances. Murial Miguel, artistic director of Spiderwoman Theatre, will be stepping in. This article originally stated that there would be six Indigenous arts companies and 18 drive-in performances in the festival, and has been ammended to reflect the recent line-up change. 

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Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., is welcoming the world’s first Indigenous fringe festival. First sparked in the imagination of Joeann Argue, assistant professor of Indigenous performance, during a late-night Twitter scroll in 2019, not even a pandemic could stop it from springing into existence. 

Now, two years later, Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival (June 21-27) boasts five Indigenous arts companies and a total of 15 drive-in performances. It opens tonight at 6:00 p.m. ET on Facebook Live.

Argue explained that, historically, there isn’t a lot of Indigenous participation in fringe festivals. Feeling safe to explore personal stories is likely a barrier for some. For others it might be a lack of performance experience, so it was important to Argue to build professional development into the festival. Miriam Miguel, the founder and director of Spiderwoman Theater (the longest-running Indigenous women’s theatre company on Turtle Island), and Drew Hayden Taylor, playwright of Cottagers and Indians (and more than 20 other plays), are both serving as mentors to the participants. 

“I think it will become an important stepping-stone that maybe will give people confidence to then apply to all these other fringe festivals,” said Argue. And for the audiences, “This allows them to see Indigenous performance with whole new eyes.” The festival includes dance, theatre, comedy, storytelling and music, which, according to Argue, can expand audience members’ perceptions of what Indigenous performance art actually is. 

This isn’t the first Indigenous theatre performance festival to take place at Trent. In 1982, the university hosted the first World Indigenous Theatre Festival. It’s a point of pride for Argue to be a link in a chain of theatre history, as well as history that many are unaware of. 

Having a space like Nogojiwanong is a powerful gift to the playwright Sarah Gartshore. It’s a space where she feels free to create without feeling pressured to sacrifice her ethics or navigate a system that doesn’t necessarily share her values. 

“This allows them to see Indigenous performance with whole new eyes.” - Joeann Argue

 

Gartshore and the Zaagi’idiwin Collective will be performing Streetheart, a collection of monologues based on conversations she’s had with community members, family and friends who have lived experience with homelessness. Telling stories of homelessness, sex work and drug use can be daunting at the best of times but especially so in a colonial theatre setting. The kind of vulnerability that is required can be antithetical to agendas, and timelines can lead to an unsafe working environment for the artists. Respecting traditional protocols and acting with integrity to maintain the safety of all artists is Gartshore’s main priority. 

“You need to centre the community members before the deadline and before what the institution you may be working with – or for – is going to think of you,” Gartshore explained. Her mother has been a guiding force, ensuring protocols and safety are maintained. Gartshore laughed as she talked about working with her mom: “When I’ve been getting really close to screwing up, as I came to theatre in a really colonial way … my mom would pull me back.” Nogojiwanong is a place where those relationships and protocols are honoured. For Gartshore, “It feels so exciting and revolutionary.”  

“Because of the pandemic, [there are] actors who aren’t able to go for their own reasons, so I’m taking on more of a role as an actor. So it’s affected me in a way that it never had before.” This is Streetheart’s third production. Gartshore described how the show has evolved: “Knowing that we’re performing it in this container of care is allowing me to see the vulnerability in the piece. It’s intense work, so you have to wall up to a certain degree so that you can show it.” 

Another side-effect of the pandemic is that the structure of the performance itself is changing. Where it would have been inside on a stage, Streetheart will be performed outside on a staircase. There won’t be theatre lighting or sound that has the cast diving deep into the characters and exploring the staging, but it’s been a fun playground for their artistic expression. “We all need some fun right now,” Gartshore said with a hearty, good-natured laugh. 

The festival has faced an unusual set of circumstances to come into being, and it doesn’t look at all like the original plans. Argue explained, “We almost look at this as a trailer because it can’t be the whole festival that we hoped.” Perhaps not, but it is certainly a unique memorable debut into the festival circuit.

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