huff, from award-winning Aboriginal writer, actor and musician Cliff Cardinal, is wrenching yet darkly comic, a journey into a First Nation heart of darkness in a land called Ontario. A charismatic storyteller who combines ancestral history with brutal honesty and biting humour, Cliff Cardinal portrays dozens of characters, including two beguiling brothers. Vivid images fuse harsh reality with gas-induced hallucination in a spellbinding tale of family, love, despair, and the possibility of redemption.
Over the past year, huff has toured across Canada, recently to the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in Vancouver before arriving at the NAC. The play from Cardinal/Kantor Productions in Toronto, closes out the Studio Series for English Theatre this season.
We chatted with playwright and performer Cliff Cardinal and designer and producer Elizabeth Kantor about the production, their tour across Canada, the NAC’s all-Aboriginal production of King Lear in 2012, and what it has meant for them to present huff at the National Arts Centre.
Cliff is currently studying playwriting at the National Theatre School of Canada, where Elizabeth is a recent graduate of Production.
What inspired you to create the play?
CC: huff began, like all my stories do, as a creative exploration of the pain of those living outside the mainstream: the weirdos, the addicts, and the romantics. To take the characters to their lowest, where they hurt the most, and to find them there with love. huff represents the people whom I believe are Canada’s most taboo subculture: First Nations youth abusing solvents, at high risk of suicide. The challenge of telling a story so bleak is to draw the audience in, not push them away; to inspire hope, not hopelessness; and especially to incite others to tell their own stories. It’s this last reason that inspires me to keep crawling into this mess of shame and redemption, to keep telling this story. The creative journey for me and my co-creators, Elizabeth Kantor and Karin Randoja, has been compelling and exciting from the very first breath. This was a very rewarding collaborative process and I am extremely grateful to Karin and Elizabeth for their fearless investigation of the subject matter and their dedication to hope and truth.
You’ve toured several cities, including Edmonton, Whitehorse and Vancouver, how have audiences responded?
CC: The audience response has been phenomenal. They laugh, they cry, they sit in silent shock, and when the lights come up at the end of the show they hold each other a little tighter. After each show we make ourselves available in the theatre lobby, and without fail are approached over and over again by audience members with their own stories to share, or who simply want to stand with us in acknowledgment of what they've just witnessed and experienced. It has been a humbling gift to go on the journey of this story with audiences across the country.
How did you feel when you were asked to present huff at the National Arts Centre?
EK: It was an absolutely surreal feeling. The invitation from the NAC was unanticipated and beyond what we'd dreamt would be possible for the show at such an early phase in its presentation history. It was just a mere eight months earlier we were in the rehearsal hall building the show.
To provide further context, Cliff and I were both still in school at the time, and just three years prior, I had been working in the NAC Box Office, selling subscription packages and saving money for my National Theatre School tuition. So it's all felt a little bit like being suddenly launched into space. Like we built this space ship with cardboard and sweat and tears and love and determination - and then it actually took off and took us to the moon. It's exhilarating and terrifying in the best of ways.
“That was a very important moment in my career as a theatre maker, and as a First Nations person. It was one of my first thoughts when we were invited to play at NAC: what an honour to be a part of that history.”
CC: I’d only been to the NAC once and that was on Mother’s Day a couple years ago when my Mom (Tantoo Cardinal) played Regan in King Lear directed by Peter Hinton. I was honored to be in the theatre for Mr. (August) Schellenberg’s performance of Lear. Kevin Loring touched my heart when he asked “why brand they us with base?”. My blood ran cold watching my mother, as Regan, expunge the eye from Gloucester’s head while the storm of terrible anger gathered above her (”Be simple answerer, for we know the truth.”). That was a very important moment in my career as a theatre maker, and as a First Nations person. It was one of my first thoughts when we were invited to play at NAC: what an honour to be a part of that history. Now Mr. Schellenberg has passed on, and how grateful I am for every word he ever said to me. My mom’s still here. So is Kevin. And so are the other amazing performers who were part of that cast; and because of the work they’ve done through the years to cut a trail through this cold and dark Canadian wilderness, I’m here too.
What’s next for the production and for Cardinal/Kantor?
EK: huff will be presented at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival and will continue touring nationally and internationally in 2015. In the fall of 2014, we will be remounting our hit production Stitch, with producing partner Culture Storm, and we’re currently developing a play for young audiences titled SideWalk Chalk.
What do you hope audiences take away from the production?
The National Arts Centre's presentation of huff is made possible in part by Ridley Terminals Inc.