Lara Lewis selected as Festival Antigonish inaugural Emerging Indigenous Artist In Residence

ANTIGONISH: Lara Lewis is finally getting her big break in the theatre world.

Late last month, Festival Antigonish was pleased to welcome Lewis as the inaugural RBC Emerging Indigenous Artist-in-Residence for their upcoming 2022 season.

“I’ve always wanted an opportunity to dive into writing more, and I felt like I never really had the time or the space,” Lewis told The Reporter. “So a program that could very specifically give me that kind of space to work and to create was really attractive to me.”

While the initiative to help develop Indigenous artists like herself is thrilling to be a apart of, she suggested right now it also seems somewhat daunting.

“I’m a fool, and said I would write a play,” Lewis joked. “I’ll start writing in about a month, but right now I’m going to just procrastinate a little bit. It’s one of those overwhelming feelings that anything could happen, so you just have to do something. It’s really exciting.”

In partnership with RBC, the program’s objective is to support and promote an emerging Indigenous theatre creator through funding and professional supports including exposure to new audiences, networking and mentoring, talent development, production resources, access to Festival Antigonish’s venue and offices, and opportunities to collaborate with established artists.

“We are delighted to welcome Lara Lewis as the inaugural RBC Emerging Indigenous Artist-in-Residence with Festival Antigonish,” Regional Vice President Cape Breton and North East Nova Scotia at RBC, Todd Strickland said. “RBC has a long history of investing in emerging artists and we cannot wait to see Lara’s personal playwriting project develop through this residency. Elevating Indigenous voices and stories is important, and we look forward to seeing both the impact she has on the community and the advancement of her career in the years ahead.”

As for her experience in theatre, the queer, mixed Mi’kmaq theatre artist from Kjipuktuk (Halifax) indicated she can confidently say she has never seen a piece of theatre that fully reflects her experience in the world.

“Many of them reflect aspects of my experience, but I don’t think I have ever seen a play or read a play and have been like that’s me,” Lewis said. “But that is the goal with this project, is that, fingers crossed my play will be more reflective of my life and experiences.”

According to Festival Antigonish’s Artistic Director Andrea Boyd, the program builds on the 35-year-old company’s ongoing process of internal reflection and critical evaluation of existing structures, relationships, and practices to determine how we can best promote equity, diversity, and inclusion, in this case as it specifically relates to Indigenous neighbours.

“It’s been in the works for a few years, it came out of looking around at who our neighbours are and who are under-represented at the theatre, and of course Paqtnkek is a close neighbour,” Boyd told The Reporter. “At that time we programed Cerulean Blue by Drew Hayden Taylor, who is an Indigenous playwright and did outreach into the community and started to make relationships.”

However, Boyd advised she wanted to take that further and create a meaningful relationship with someone, rather than just having them in-and-out for a day or a workshop, as they would be able to provide support for that person, they can find appropriate mentors, and they can give them space in the theatre.

“So we decided not to define the parameters too much, as to what the creative output would be, or what the person would want to do, except it being in the creative sphere,” Boyd said. “And somebody that we thought we could help realize their potential.”

As artist-in-residence, Lewis will be a part of the team from April to November, collaborating with Boyd and other established artists, and working with Indigenous mentors, on the development of her original play. The play will be showcased in a workshop production on stage in late November. Other aspects of the residency will include participation in Festival Antigonish and Theatre Antigonish productions, community outreach, and artist talks.

“A few years ago, we put it out there as a dream, and all of us here are really thrilled,” Boyd said. “Lara’s passion for theatre creation was clear from the moment we first met her. We are excited to welcome her as part of her team, and to support the development of her first play. Making space for Indigenous voices is so important, and we look forward to growing alongside this talented artist.”

Lewis comes to Festival Antigonish a graduate of the University of King’s College and the Fountain School of Performing Arts and has trained as a dramaturge under the mentorship of Pamela Halstead, Natasha MacLellan, Jenny Munday, and Ann-Marie Kerr, among others.

Since beginning her training, she has worked with writers across the country on projects big and small and is also a Merritt Award-nominated actor, having worked with companies like Theatre New Brunswick, Villains’ Theatre, Heist, and Zuppa Theatre.

As for what she’d like to get out of the experience, Lewis is keeping it very simple, yet personal.

“I mean, the very utilitarian answer is, I’d like to complete a draft of a play and workshop it,” she said. “But I think the real answer is develop a more consistent artistic practice, really empower myself to make creating a part of my routine.”

Outside of creative roles, Lewis works for the Mayworks Kjipuktuk/Halifax Festival of Working People in the Arts, and is the chair of the Bus Stop Theatre Co-op. She is a founding worker-owner of the Glitter Bean Café Union Co-op, and is a proud member of Glooscap First Nation.

“She wants to write her first full play and it’s an exploration of her identity and we’re really excited to support that in its own sense,” Boyd said. “I think it’s our responsibility to do this, so it does mean a lot to me, it feels necessary, it feels like it’s time, that our theatre is doing this kind of work, we’re just at a point where this is necessary and crucial and I’m thrilled that this is happening.”

At the end of Lewis’ residency, Festival Antigonish will be doing a workshop production of her play on their stage.

“There are a lot of plays that get developed and remain on the page, and it’s really important to get work up on the stage and out into the world,” Boyd said. “So Lara can hear it and further develop it, you learn so much from that process that you can’t when you’re just at a computer.”

Festival Antigonish recognizes that much work needs to be done in the Canadian theatre sector to address systemic barriers for Indigenous artists and stories, and they wish to acknowledge the generous support of their program partner RBC to make this residency dream a reality.

“It is a one year program at the moment,” Boyd said. “But we would love to see it develop and have a yearly, or even a bi-yearly that is Indigenous or other marginalized community that we could bring in for similar programs.”

After the past two years with all the uncertainly that surrounded the global COVID-19 pandemic, Lewis suggested being provided with this opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time.

“It’s really exciting, in a lot of ways with things opening up the way they are, it kind of feels like a light at the end of the tunnel, something really exciting is on the horizon,” she said. “I’m really thankful for the opportunity, I feel deeply unworthy and I’m going to try very, very hard to make sure that I’ve earned it.”