Featured Playwright Q & A with Drew Hayden Taylor

Drew talks about being a writer-in-residence, the role of the playwright in Canadian Theatre, and his new play Spirit Horse.

Q: You recently held a position as Writer-in-Residence at Wilfred Laurier University. How do residency positions help you to advance your work?

A: What it allows me to do is to focus on a project or various projects without the dust and debris of freelance hustling.  Various residencies have allowed me to start or complete many of my plays and novels over the years, without having to worry about other avenues of making a living. Also, it gives me the opportunity to engage with students and other faculty as I lecture and mentor.

Q: How do you think the role of the playwright in Canadian theatre creation has evolved within the past few years?

A: That’s hard to say. I think the multicultural voice has definitely sharpened and become stronger.  When I was in high school, I definitely got the impression that Canadian theatre consisted entirely of dead white men.  And since I didn’t know any dead white men, and didn’t speak iambic pentameter, theatre was not an avenue to pursue.  Now, the field is much broader and more interesting. There’s always room for a robust comedy or drama featuring dominant culture characters, but now there are many more theatrical options to explore.

Q: You have recently adapted the Irish play Tir Na N’Og by Greg Banks. What drew you to this piece and compelled you to adapt it?

A: The adaptation called Spirit Horse was a direct commission by Roseneath Theatre.  Originally the play was about Irish Gypsies, but there were some concerns that perhaps Canadian youth might not be able to fully grasp some of the concepts or cultural references in the original play. So I was contacted about adapting the story into a more Canadian, and First Nation environment.  After some research, the play now takes place amongst the Stoney Nation in the foothills of Alberta. Both cultures have a strong horse tradition, and a rich storytelling tradition. It was an interesting project to work on.

Q: How does the humour in your work help communicate what you are trying to convey more effectively?

A: I don’t know if I can answer that very effectively.  Humour, within the Native community and other marginalized cultures, has two purposes. It is to heal and to protect.  One prominent Native American writer whose name escapes me, said “sometimes the best way to know a people is through what makes them laugh.” Essentially, humour can build bridges and create a connection. If you are laughing, then you are open to suggestion and influence.  At least I believe so.

Q: Which Canadian playwrights inspire(d) you as an artist?

A: Obviously Tomson Highway. He gave me my first opportunity to stick my big toe in the sea of theatre.  My style and perspective is worlds apart from him but he was my doorway into this world and I will always be grateful.

Q: In which town or city would you like to set a future play of yours (that has not already been featured in one of your pieces)?

A: What an odd question….because I am now exploring the world of science fiction –my new collection of short stories, Take Us To Your Chief, just came out last week – maybe a city on the moon or another planet, dealing with the issues of contact, but with Native people being the settlers.  Could be kind of interesting….

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring playwrights? What advice do you wish you had received when you started writing?

A: There are a couple of things I keep telling young people who tell me they foolishly want to become writers.  Some will be familiar, other’s maybe not so.

There is no such thing as a good writer, only a good rewriter.

All good writers are good readers. All great writers are great readers.

Create interesting characters that have interesting stories that take the audience on an interesting journey.

Q: What’s next for Drew Hayden Taylor?

A: I am working on two new commissions, one for the National Arts Centre.  For anniversary of Confederation, I was asked to write a play about John A Macdonald…I’m doing it from the Aboriginal perspective.  It’s kinda…not so flattering.  And I am in negotiations with Tarragon Theatre to write them a play about what I call the Wild Rice Wars.  A guy from my Reserve has taken it upon himself to seed some of the Kawartha Lakes with Wild Rice but some of the cottagers don’t want him doing that.  Evidently it affects the esthetic value of their view.  And I am toying with writing a personal history of contemporary Native theatre.