Volume 194, Spring 2023, pp. 9-12

This article asks, Which stages are we sustaining within and across North American theatre spaces? Whose theatre, stories, and narratives are normalized and entrenched in contemporary art and cultural practices? Can or should they be sustained when such practices reinforce Eurocentric norms while displacing the original storytelling and performance practices of this Land? Ought the industry and systems that uphold the mainstream stage be sustained? It spins an allegory to address these questions featuring Ol’ Waboos, who goes to the theaataah!

In this article, we ask the question: Which stages are we sustaining within and across North American theatre spaces? Whose theatre, stories, and narratives are normalized and entrenched in contemporary art and cultural practices? Can or should they be sustained when such practices reinforce Eurocentric norms while displacing the original storytelling and performance practices of this Land? Ought the industry and systems that uphold the mainstream stage be sustained?

As Indigenous artists with embodied, Land-based practices, working to innovate and reimagine ways to prioritize how process is the product, we are looking at how to work outside of hierarchical theatre structures. We privilege recentring Indigenous knowledges and Indigenous bodies rather than reproducing and perpetuating a Eurocentric way of being, knowing, and doing. Drawing on continuity of past, present, and future knowledges and experiences, we bring forward Indigenous epistemologies and concepts of care rooted within our respective Land-based creative practices.

We question how the stage is defined, through which historical narratives, and whose cultural identities maintain the hegemonic status quo of the discipline. Consequently, who does this shut out or alienate? Who becomes collateral damage or otherwise relegated to outlaw or at best outlier status? Mohegan theatre artist Madeline Sayet raises similar questions about the theatre education system in North America and specifically challenges the notion of the Shakespeare System and its inherently oppressive structures that are used to alienate and silence all other forms of theatre creation, knowledge, and expression. Sayet argues, “Promoting Shakespeare as the ‘best’ writer of all time is a dangerous and white supremacist viewpoint. Until the Shakespeare field as a whole learns how to examine that, theatres that produce his work cannot be welcoming spaces for people whose ancestors were beaten and forced to give up their own languages and learn Shakespeare’s” (Sayet, par. 3).

Our commitment to working outside of hierarchal structures of practice requires our active disengagement and non-cooperation (Trudell) in creating a product for consumption by a theatre industry. Instead, we enact radical Indigenous reclamation of Land, culture, and language—a resistance to hegemonic systems and institutions that perpetuate the colonial project. Consequently, our artistic practice reroots Indigenous bodies on Lands and reweaves and repairs our relationships with these sites from which we have been systematically removed. Further, our creative processes help to re-establish Indigenous knowledge sovereignty including Indigenous Nation-to-Nation diplomacy and economic trade, scientific knowledge, texts/literacies, and our place within an artistic ecology.

We question how the stage is defined, through which historical narratives, and whose cultural identities maintain the hegemonic status quo of the discipline.

We propose a different stage, one that recognizes the Land we are on, the stories the Land tells, and the healing that is urgently needed to restore and rebuild our relationships to the living Land. As intentionally provocative artists working from intersecting practices in theatre, storytelling, music, and dramaturgy, we strive to better understand and reflect on how we condole the Land and our non-human relatives. What role do storytelling and performance have in doing this work? How do we move beyond theoretical language, jargon, and buzzwords toward more authentic and humane process and practice? Finally, which stage are we sustaining? Perhaps Ol’ Waboos can lead us through a gory allegory to find some answers?

We propose a different stage, one that recognizes the Land we are on, the stories the Land tells, nd he healing that is urgently needed to restore and rebuild our relationships to the living Land.

Ol’ Waboos was fine. They had a sleek coat and the longest ears that peeked up like periscopes from the high grass. Ol’ Waboos had powerful hind legs that could zigzag here, there, and everywhere, confounding all predators trying to track them down. Ol’ Waboos had the cutest little cottontail that one could find on this side of Lake Superior. Ol’ Waboos could detect a scent from many miles away, with whiskers that could pick up frequencies like hi-fi antennae.

Ol’ Waboos had been raised a TV rabbit and enjoyed watching such mythical heroes as White Rabbit, Roger Rabbit, Peter Rabbit, Ricochet Rabbit, Crusader Rabbit, Peppy Hare, Thumper, Buster Baxter, Benjamin Bunny, Captain Carrot, Lola Bunny, Harvey, Skippy, Peter Cottontail, March Hare, and Bunnicula, and of course all the commercial marketing celebrities like Energizer Bunny, Cadbury Bunny, Trix Rabbit, and Bugs Bunny, the most famous rabbit there ever was next to the saucy Playboy Bunny.

Ol’ Waboos had never been to see any live theatre and was always a little curious about what the fuss was all about. Or was it just much ado? After all, what could be better than television with rabbit ears and the silver screen? Those are the best things since Creation itself, in which the multitalented, charismatic Ol’ Waboos played a starring role. However, when they were gifted a comp ticket while attending a carrot feast at old MacDonald’s farm, they thought it was time to check it out once and for all. So, when a production of The Taming of the Hare was announced at the most esteemed Theatre in the Forest, they hopped at the chance. They put on their finest fur coat, oiled up their ears until they shone nice and bright, manicured their lucky rabbit’s feet, buffed their little cottontail, and bounced off to the good ol’ theaataah.

“Waboos and friends go to theathaah” (2023), digital print.

Image by Spy Dénommé-Welch.

As Ol’ Waboos arrived at the box office, they were greeted by Wolverine, who clicked her polished acrylic gel claws, bared her teeth, and snarled, “Well well well, what have we here? I didn’t expect to see you, Ol’ Waboos, at the theathaaaaaaah. Where’d you get a comp? Who do you know? You are aware this is Wiley-Willy-Shakes-His-Spear? Are you sure you can comprehend this fine poetry written by the finest poet in all the world? After all, Wiley-Willy-Shakes-His-Spear is the greatest playwright in all of history! Really sets the bar high.” Wolverine pulses a chant under her breath: “I want, I want, I want a standing O!”

Ol’ Waboos paused for a moment, pondered, and then declared, “I am here to witness the great Indigenizing of Wiley-Willy-Shakes-His-Spear! A powerful, historical production. I come representing my warren, my colony of cottontails! I am grateful for the opportunity to benefit from witnessing this landmark moment in time, never-before-seen Re-pre-sen-ta-tion, featuring species-blind casting! Groundbreaking production values! I will live to tell the tale of the gut-wrenching story of The Taming of the Hare! A cross-species play for all seasons!”

In response, Wolverine fouled the ticket booth and slid the comp ticket across the counter. Wolverine then cried out, “Weasel! Take care of our … friend.” Smiling from ear to ear, clicking her claws, Wolverine loosened her musk glands and released a stink. To which Ol’ Waboos thought, “Ew! The nerve,” and feeling great offence to their olfactory receptors, they hoppity-hopped over to the coat check feeling just the slightest bit bruised. There, they were met by Weasel, Wolverine’s number-one sidekick.

“Ohhhhhhhhh, what nice fine fur coat you have there, Ol’ Waboos … Where’d you get it? Off the sale rack at Honest Hare’s? How much d’you pay for it?” Weasel snickered. “Looks like faux pelt to me. Hmm … might you be a Faux-Hare? Give it here, I know just the place to hang it. I want, I want, I want a five-star review!”

Ol’ Waboos had heard tell of Weasel’s weaselly ways and reminded themselves, “Whatever you do, don’t look them in the eyes. They’ll hypnotize you with their Weasel Waltz, and’ll steal your soul and appropriate your intellectual property.”

Although Ol’ Waboos’s whiskers tingled in warning, they pushed their bunny senses aside in favour of civility and extended the benefit of the doubt. Ol’ Waboos handed over their wonderful, magical rabbit suit to Weasel and asked, “Do I get a number?”

Weasel sneered, “That isn’t necessary. We don’t do that here. Right, Wolverine?” Wolverine snickered back across the room: “Right, Weasel. We don’t do that here. I want, I want, I want the BIG grant.”

Ol’ Waboos twitched their long ears and hopped off to find an usher. Meanwhile, in the recesses of the coat check, Weasel ran his weaselly paws over Ol’ Waboos’s magical coat, burying his muzzle in it, and whispered: “Ohhhh, my Precious, you will line the walls of my burrow tonight. I want, I want, I want the big awards.”

In the lobby, Ol’ Waboos was met by the usher, Badger, working the front of house. “What’s your seat number?” Badger growled while peering at Ol’ Waboos’s ticket with their shifty eyes and stated, “Here it says second row balcony.” With a long vicious-looking claw, they pointed, “Up those stairs, then take a right. I want, I want, I want the biggest slice.”

Once in their seat, Ol’ Waboos was trembling in anticipation of the awe-inspiring The Taming of the Hare. As the lights started to dim, and a hush came over their fellow audience members, a tinny canned voice wafted over the house PA system with a newly minted land acknowledgement statement: “The Theatre in the Forest would like to acknowledge the Mole Nation, on whose Lands we’re gathered today to work, play, and perform sleight of hand, which is now settled by wolverine, weasel, and their ilk. Land! Now you see it, now you don’t! And we’re not GIVING none of it back! I want, I want, I want ALL THE LAND.”

Then the curtain rose. Onstage, Ol’ Waboos saw all the woodland creatures on display: Possum in tights, Heron with a feather in their hat, Skunk in a starched-lace collar, and Raccoon’s girth stuffed into a laced bodice. It was quite the scene, listening to the words of a poet from centuries ago and oceans away being recited by the woodland lot. Ol’ Waboos was confused, and, looking around, they were surprised to see the house was enthralled by the pantomime.

“How could this be?!” Ol’ Waboos asked themselves. “Why with all the beautiful, magical stories of our own on this Land would my fellow woodland friends play dress-up just for glitz and glamour in the name of the Great Re-pre-sen-ta-tion?”

Ol’ Waboos was overcome with dread, fearing that the thought alone would put their very life in danger. “It was easier when I just watched TV,” they sighed. “Now I can’t unsee.” Longing for their old hero, Bugs Bunny, Ol’ Waboos felt their eyelids becoming heavier and heavier until they jerked awake at the end of the first act to thunderous applause as the house lights came up. “I hope I wasn’t snoring,” they thought. With that, they looked for the nearest exit and headed toward the coat check to retrieve their wonderful, magical pelt.

Once at the coat-check counter, Ol’ Waboos looked for Weasel, but there was no Weasel to be found. And the same for their coat; it was gone! Ol’ Waboos started to panic. “What am I going to do? I can’t go around without my pelt; I’ll freeze in these bitter winters.” As they grew more and more distressed, Ol’ Waboos worried that their pelt had been stolen by Weasel and their weaselly ways. “I knew I should’ve listened to the twitching of my ears and whiskers,” Ol’ Waboos thought. They then twinkled their nose, sniffed the air, and picked up a scent of Weasel. They followed the trail to Weasel’s burrow, and once there, Ol’ Waboos found piles and piles of pelts scattered throughout the home. But there was no sign of Weasel, as he had already returned to the theatre to catch the second act.

Everything everywhere was draped in the furs and pelts of various woodland kin: chandeliers, doors, tables, chairs, sofas, bookshelves, and floors were all carpeted in the fleeces of fellow creatures. Ol’ Waboos shivered at the grisly sight but quickly searched high and low for their own furry pelt until finally they spotted their wonderful, magical coat on Weasel’s bed. “What’s this?” Ol’ Waboos cried out, “My foot is missing! Oh, that poacher, Weasel, he took it to hang on his keychain. I might need a cane like Uncle Wiggly from now on, but it won’t bring that ruthless Weasel any luck!”

As Ol’ Waboos left the burrow, they thought, “I must break this spell cast by gatekeeping Wolverine and conniving Weasel which lulls my fellow woodland creatures into a drooling daze, mesmerized by the illusion of the Great Re-pre-sen-ta-tion.” And Ol’ Waboos used their remaining powerful back foot to thump out a heartbeat across the living Land. It reverberated and echoed across the lakes, woodlands, marshes, and skies, waking up all who were attuned and aligned with its frequencies. An encoded, vibrational message pounded urgently: “We can make our own theatre, with our own songs, our own stories, our own ways, our own rhythms and melodies, shapes, and colours. Moccasins on the Ground!”

We can make our own theatre, with our own songs, our own stories, our own ways, our own rhythms and melodies, shapes, and colours. Moccasins on the Ground!

All the woodland beings whose hearts aligned with that thumping message were awakened from their state and converged on a clearing in the wood. The fur stood up at the ruff of their necks, their noses caught the sweet scent of truth, and their heartbeats fell into sync as deep ancestral memories surged down spines, tails, and tailfeathers. A sense of calm determination emanated from the pads of their paws into the sweet woodland moss as they threw heads back, thrust their beaks into the air, and howled, “Moccasins on the ground!” While Hawk kept a lookout, Otter, Raccoon, Raven, Robin, Frog, and Heron danced a mighty circle around their performance arena to protect their work from the ruthless opportunism of Weasel and the fouling megalomania of Wolverine. They danced until their moccasins were worn full of holes. Once the circle was drawn, all the clans got to work: Beaver and Muskrat built the set because they were the best carpenters and architects, and their designs also filtered and cleansed the waters; Hummingbird, Goldfinch, Sparrow, Cicada, Peeper, and Woodpecker composed beautiful music and designed the soundscape which helped clear the minds of their woodland kin; Firefly and Dragonfly created the lighting which allowed everyone to see clearly; Spider sewed the costumes that told old stories of creation through elegant beadwork and embroidery; Opossum and Bat hung upside down from Moose’s antlers, supporting a beautiful curtain woven by silkworms from dew and starlight. Still, they needed the heart: Bear, Wolf, Deer, Fox, and Bobcat said, “It’s time to ignite the heart.” With that, they each pulled out a smouldering ember from a tree that had been struck by lightning, waiting to be used for lighting a sacred fire in the centre of their circle. “Now, the stories are ready to be told. Now, we share and pass on old knowledge and new knowledge,” Ol’ Waboos said. “Stories from the stars and stories from deep within the earth; stories from the rivers, mountains, valleys; and stories from the dreamworld that remind us of our purpose here on earth.”

And now we can begin.

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Trudell, John. “John Trudell, I’m Crazy?YouTube, uploaded by czarwright, 12 Dec. 2010, youtube.com/watch?v=ctUecTdPEO0. Google Scholar