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Pawâkan Macbeth. Photo: @stoometzphoto

How Pawâkan Macbeth became more than a touring theatre show

When Reneltta Arluk began developing Pawâkan Macbeth, a “Cree takeover,” she couldn’t have imagined it would lead her home so many times.

Pawâkan Macbeth is a retelling of the Shakespeare play in which the characters and setting – a Scottish king, witches and others in the Middle Ages – are transformed into Cree leaders of the 1870s, accompanied by coyote-like spirits.

The show has led Arluk, an Indigenous theatre specialist from Fort Smith, to many varieties of home – including the homes of her cast and crew, breaking bannock with grandparents, siblings, parents and friends.  

Early in the tour, the group brought the performance to Millbrook, Nova Scotia, the hometown of Lisa Nasson, who played the leading role of Kâwanihot Iskwew (the equivalent of Lady Macbeth).

Pawâkan Macbeth at NACC. Bill Braden/NACC

“Half the audience was her family and it was so beautiful. When you have so many people in the audience you know, it just makes the show so much more special,” said Arluk.

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Stew and bannock became a staple after performances in Indigenous communities.

Barry Bilinsky, who worked as an artistic director on Pawâkan MacBeth, recalled an experience while touring. They stopped for a performance at Blue Quills University – the site of an old residential school in Alberta.

Afterward, Bilinsky said, an Elder in the audience told them: “When you visit some place, it’s really important for you to sit across from people and eat with them. That’s what is important.”

“It really cracked my mind open. Like, this thing doesn’t start when the lights go down… this thing begins from the first time that you reach out,” Bilinsky said.

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“We’re being welcomed into these communities, and there’s sort-of a reciprocal responsibility.”

Bilinsky’s role developed into ensuring the production maintained the integrity of Indigenous protocols. When he heard concerns related to a cannibal spirit that plays a role in the show, he said, he began smudging at the start and end of rehearsals.

A scene from Pawâkan Macbeth. Photo: @stoometzphoto

Shared experience

Pawâkan is the coming together of many minds, according to Arluk, who has described herself as being of Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and Chipewyan-Cree descent.

“There’s so many important people that this show wouldn’t have been done without,” she says.

Bilinsky says each group of actors brings distinct gifts to the play, allowing it to grow as a cumulative project. Some gifted a song, for example, or their insight on the Cree language. Bilinsky was literally gifted an Owl feather.

“Every time that a new cast comes together, some people add something,” he said. “A lot of it is looking at the piece and then giving an offering.”

Kâwanihot Iskwew and a group of spirits. Bill Braden/NACC

“I always invite knowledge-keepers, I always invite Elders, I always engage in land. In practice, I always have meals,” said Arluk. “There’s always conversation, and collaboration, and ensuring that everyone feels like they have a voice that can be heard.”

Arluk said the shared experience of theatre allows people to “come in, sit down and do deep listening, and watching, and thinking and reacting.” Afterward, they can exchange views with the cast over stew.

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“We’re all breathing emotion in the same space together, and there’s really nothing else that asks us to do that except for theatre – music as well,” Arluk said.

“When we come together and we breathe and we deep-listen, we become empathetic and compassionate. And we become a bit more centred with our heart and our mind, and true change can happen that way.”

Coming home

Pawâkan Macbeth’s two October shows in Yellowknife featured Arluk’s friends peppered in the audience, laughing at characters who all bear some likeness to Arluk.

“They basically said they saw six versions of me at times,” Arluk laughed.

Actors respond to a standing ovation at a Yellowknife performance. Bill Braden/NACC

The tour ended in Fort Smith, Arluk’s home community, on October 26.

“It made me really nervous. Thankfully, I knew it had done really well. I know the play’s really good,” Arluk laughed. “I just have to tell you, I shed so many tears of just joy.”

Arluk feels her distinct sense of humour was best-received in Fort Smith, where residents might have picked up on more than the average.

“One of the characters’ names is Larocque, and he was named after my grandfather,” Arluk explained. “When they kept saying Larocque, I would just see people’s shoulders laughing up and down, because they’re hearing a name in their community on stage.”

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Since the tour ended, Arluk has resumed her work as a senior manager within the National Gallery of Canada’s Indigenous Ways and Decolonization unit. Arluk says her work to foster communities continues in that role.

“I’ve really made that a priority myself, as an artist, but I’m also an administrator,” said Arluk.

“I think doing arts leadership, it’s a service. It’s not about you. It’s about making space and creating space for Indigenous arts at every level.

“That even itself is part of the decolonization. Decentring of an institution is allowing the people who are part of that world to still do what gives them joy.”