Helping young people find their passion through theatre is the aim of a partnership between the National Arts Centre Arts Alive learning and engagement platform, NAC Indigenous Theatre, and the Highland Arts Theatre and the community of Eskasoni, both in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
Launched in the summer of 2021, the Eskasoni theatre camp allows young people from the Eskasoni First Nation to meet with theatre professionals and learn the basics of theatre arts.
“It’s an opportunity for the young people to get an overview of theatre, to learn more about dancing, singing and acting, and to know what to expect if they decide to pursue a career in the performing arts,” says Garren Lucas Denny, Family and Adolescence Counselor at the Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselling Association of Nova Scotia (NADACA).
Both editions of the theatre camp have sold out, despite the pandemic. In 2021, 10 participants were introduced to theatre, while in 2022, 14 youth ages 10 to 25 attended, some for their second consecutive year.
While the NADACA centre coordinates and hosts the camp, it was the Highland Arts Theatre artists, under the direction of Wesley Colford, who led the workshops over the five days of the camp this summer. “They shared their thoughts, offered advice, and described their journey,” says the Eskasoni-based coordinator.
The young people also got to enjoy (virtually) Mi’kmaq performance artist shalan joudry’s storytelling skills, while representatives from NAC Indigenous Theatre talked about the work that goes on behind the scenes. “They talked about what they do, the departments they work with, how to put together a program,” recalls Denny.
One thing leads to another
The NAC’s relationship with the community of Eskasoni has grown over the years. It began with the NAC Orchestra’s Rita Joe Song Project in 2016, which featured original songs created and performed by youth in Eskasoni and four other Indigenous communities. The following year, the NAC Orchestra performed a memorable concert in Eskasoni, which included the NAC commission I Lost My Talk by the Canadian composer John Estacio. The work was inspired by a poem of the same name by the esteemed Mi’kmaq Elder and poet Rita Joe, and was created in consultation with Rita Joe’s family and the community.
The NAC Orchestra and Eskasoni reunited once more in 2019 for Apiksiktuaqn Day, a day to make music and art in a spirit of forgiveness and healing. It brought together musicians from the NAC Orchestra and Symphony Nova Scotia, and Eskasoni artists Ursula Johnson and Richard Poulette. That’s when the idea for the theatre camp was born. Various artistic disciplines were already offered at the local NADACA centre, but the potential for theatre was still untapped.
“The interest was there, but there was no support for learning in this area. We didn’t know anyone here who was involved in theatre,” says Denny.
Garren Lucas Denny has been working for several years on prevention initiatives for young people in the Eskasoni community, offering them a safe place “away from the problems of the world, away from alcohol and drugs” where they can meet and do activities.
Given a safe and stimulating environment and the right tools, young people can find and pursue their passion.
Going the extra mile
The Eskasoni Theatre Camp has awakened passions over the past two years, Denny says. Examples include a young girl who, after five days at camp, decided to sign up for classes at the Highland Arts Theatre.
“The camp gives participants the space to be and express themselves in a supportive setting. They get to see professionals perform and talk to them about what they do. It’s inspiring for these young people and it encourages them to do what they love. The camp can help ideas germinate and flourish.”
The centre’s coordinators are also “now better equipped to guide young people who want to continue in this field.”
The young people weren’t the only ones captivated by the theatre camp: Denny himself also fell in love with the stage. “When I went to see a show at the Highland Arts Theatre for the first time, I loved it! I even auditioned for a few roles in the upcoming season,” he proudly reports.
It goes without saying that Garren Lucas Denny hopes the theatre camp will be offered every year, so it can continue to spark a passion, a vocation, or an artistic career. “Thanks to this program, one day we may see more actors, singers, or theatre experts from Eskasoni.”