Pawâkan Macbeth - A Cree Takeover places the Scottish Play in Cree territory during pre-treaty, 1870s Alberta, with the cannibal spirit, Wihtiko. After touring First Nation communities, the play comes to Edmonton for the Chinook Series, February 6 to 8. Avenue spoke with Barry Bilinsky, the show's assistant director.
By Blanca Moreno | February 6, 2020
Asking Barry Billinksy
How was the idea first formed to adapt Macbeth?
The project started during a school residency with Theatre Prospero and Frog Lake, Alberta, where the youth were asked to work on a Shakespearean play — I believe it was The Tempest. But the students and their vice principal and drama teacher, Owen Morris, were like, “This doesn’t really speak to us, this isn’t a story that we’re interested in.” Owen had been working with this idea of the cannibal spirit, Wihtiko, this creature in Cree cosmology that eats humans and walks alone and eats his own lips, so we thought we’d like to make that comparison to Macbeth. Everyone really liked that idea, the students were into it, and the school was just so engaged in it.
Why is it important to tell this story from the Cree perspective?
I think with Cree stories, there’s so much richness and depth to them, but we don’t get to hear them very often because they were literally outlawed for a long time. Now, we get to see the power and weight of Cree cosmology, and Cree history, which is then balanced with British theatre (Shakespeare).
The audiences can expect to see a Cree world view — the Indigenous stories really dig into this structure of Macbeth and then ultimately take it over. The skeleton of Macbeth is still there, but I think the real meat of it is hearing this language and hearing these stories from Indigenous storytellers.
What was the process of turning this idea into an actual script?
The script is a story of its own, originated from Frog Lake. That’s where the story lives. We’re bringing a community telling of the story to Edmonton and back to the communities in the Northwest Territories. Reneltta runs Akpik Theatre, which is her company, and that is the company that has developed it. Stratford Theatre out of Edmonton had a hand in helping support it because it’s a bit more of a robust organization.
Reneltta felt that, the heart of this story, this coming together of the community, was sort of the antithesis of this greedy cannibal spirit, so that kind of sparked the idea that this should be a professional production that should have legs. Reneltta carried on developing the show, by going through a series of different writing residencies and working on her own to create the piece. Now we’re slowly getting to the place where it’s getting ready for two different styles of production.
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What will the Treaty 6 tour involve?
The Treaty 6 tour is the shorter storytelling production looking at going into communities and doing a community telling where there’s a lot of the other characters telling the stories. Then there’s the main stage production that Stratford Theatre is helping develop which is a full length show, and then eventually, it’ll be going on to a national or potentially international scale in the future, so these are the two different legs of the same project.
Where is the tour right now, and where are you headed next?
Right now we’re in Banff, developing a Treaty 6 tour concurrently with a workshop for Stratford. We’re doing the Treaty 6 toward the end of (January). We’re going up to Maskwacis, Saddle Lake, Kehewin First Nation, and then Frog Lake. So we’re bringing the show back to the community in Frog Lake, then we’re doing a run in Edmonton for a few days at the Chinook Series, and then we’re heading off to North Battleford to get that Saskatchewan representation on the Treaty 6 tour.
What can you tell us about the cast?
We’ve got a good indigenous cast from from all over Western Canada. There‘s six performers, and they’re playing a myriad of roles and storytellers, and they’re super stoked to be taking this back to the community. As Indigenous theatre artists, it’s a real treat to be able to go back and really work where the stories come from, rather than working solely in the colonial institutions that we often do. These communities don’t have a lot of professional theatres coming through them, so for some it might be the first time.
What is the importance of having professional theatre come to these communities?
Well, the importance of that is to see these Indigenous actors out there making a career in this theatre world. There’s value in storytelling on a national, and international level, and there’s weight to these stories. There’s an importance to realigning the Canadian idea of what indigenous stories are, and to take that ownership back, and they have the ability to do that by seeing themselves on stage.
What are the Wiyôyôwak?
The Wiyôyôwak are a creation from Reneltta — their name is literally the sound of howling in Cree, and so they are this driving force, this sort of menacing force, but they’re also representative of that Cree spirituality that exists. The idea is that you can’t have the good without the bad, you can’t have the bad without the good. If we’re going to keep our stories alive, we need to keep all of our stories alive. We can’t just cherry pick what we want. And so these Wiyôyôwak are fighting to remain relevant, and to keep that Cree history alive.