*Photo by Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity

Beginning November 1, 2017, BFA Acting graduate Reneltta Arluk will become Director of Indigenous Arts at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

Arluk’s predecessors to the position had each brought their own focus to the program, from dance to visual arts to even international relations with the New Zealand Maori. As a theatre artist herself, Arluk plans to bring the focus back to Indigenous theatre.

Her journey to this position is filled with global experience as an actor, playwright, poet, director and producer, committed to stories inspired by Indigenous language and culture. She founded Akpik Theatre in 2008, a Yellowknife based company that develops theatre, film and audio artwork based on Indigenous stories of the circumpolar north.

Arluk graduated from the University of Alberta BFA Acting program in 2005, also as the first Indigenous female graduate of the program. “The program opened a lot of doors for me,” she says. “I was able to audition for a lot of different theatres because I was well trained, and thankfully I got to work with a lot of different companies.”

Unlike many of the other BFA Acting students, Arluk didn’t have any experience with theatre until she was 19, not having access to the same opportunities.

“I’m from the Northwest Territories, I come from poverty, my mom’s a residential school survivor, so obviously this was deeply impacting — broken home, not much direction in my life… I never took drama, dance or singing. None of those opportunities were part of my landscape,” she recalls.

“What got me into theatre was me starting to explore ‘what is my culture? How can I impact my culture to help it move forward?’ I was attracted to the storytelling element — we always remember when a good story is told to us. So my desire to get into theatre was to make sure the stories I told, having to do with the north and my identity, were remembered in a really good way, and for a long time.”

Arluk in a 2005 U of A Studio Theatre production. (photo by Ed Ellis)

When asked about the subject of Canada 150, Reneltta answers candidly:

“It’s a struggle for me, because Canada 150 is basically celebrating colonialism — it’s like celebrating a partnership that was never a partnership. So a lot of Indigenous people who are my friends and co-workers are very conflicted about what this Canada 150 means.

“But I am taking part in two or three 150 projects, and the only way I can reconcile it is that this can’t be a one-off — these things I agreed to be part of cannot just be this one time. If you’re going to say this is Canada 150, let’s look at Canada 150 to the future, and let’s really have a discussion and a partnership and equality. Not just ‘let’s celebrate you this one time because we got a bunch of money to do that.'”

Arluk is hopeful for the future, praising companies like the National Arts Centre for launching an Indigeneous theatre program led by Kevin Loring, and now the Banff Centre for growing their own Indigenous arts program from a 6-month term to a full year, and providing Arluk with the boosted resources needed to properly represent her community.

“Now we need to get our emerging artists into the Banff Centre, and receive training and encouragement and mentorship so these spaces that have been created for them can now be filled by them. The path for us as Indigenous artists has never been clear. We need to make that path clearer for these emerging artists.”

To do this, Arluk plans to engage Indigenous master artists, exploring ways to support them while enabling them to share their knowledge with emerging artists.

As she prepares to take the reins at the Banff Centre and usher in an exciting year of Indigenous theatre, Arluk has been busy at Stratford, directing the world première of The Breathing Hole by former U of A playwright-in-residence, Colleen Murphy, set in the Arctic with an Inuit cast including 24 performers. In an interview with CBC, Arluk says “The thing with Stratford and other big theatres in Canada is that Indigenous people have never been able to be a part of those stages. So this is what makes it a really big deal — Stratford has not only brought in Inuit actors but they have brought in their first Inuit director, which is about breaking down the power structure.”

The Indigenous community clearly has a passionate and powerful champion in Arluk. If you’re in the area, don’t miss Arluk’s The Breathing Hole at Stratford (July 30 – September 22), and stay tuned for the exciting things she has in store for the Banff Centre.

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