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Cliff Cardinal

"Artists have the right to say what they want, but great artists take responsibility for what the audience hears."

Courtesy of Cliff Cardinal

Joe Szekeres

Born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Cliff Cardinal has been called controversially subversive and a cultural provocateur. He has studied playwriting at Montréal’s National Theatre School.

His website ( also calls him a polarizing writer known for his black humour and compassionate poeticism.

He doesn’t seem bothered by these labels and calls them lovely. Cliff grew up as a punk rocker and played in punk bands. He loved George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Cliff doesn’t live in the mainstream of society. He says he still has this outsider perspective, and that happens whether he goes to the rez, the suburbs of the city or travelling. He’s always the outsider perspective, which is natural to him. Where Cliff comes from, this is what he talks about within his family. He doesn’t consider this controversial at all.

We chatted via Zoom recently just before his show ‘(Everyone I Love Has) A Terrible Fate (Befall Them)’ opened at VideoCabaret on 10 Busy Street, Toronto—more about the show shortly.

Who encouraged and influenced Cliff to continue in the industry. He said candidly:

“Everyone who doubted and tried to stop me and withhold resources…and everyone who said I wasn’t good enough. I truly could not be here without all of you.”

I couldn’t help but burst into instantaneous laughter. Cliff had this sly grin and relished the opportunity for me to laugh with him.

He grew up the son of actress Tantoo Cardinal CM. When he dropped out of high school, he showed up at the back of a theatre company, just ‘shut up,’ and listened at this theatre for his Grade 10 year. He spoke fondly of his mentors Layne Coleman, Michael Hollingsworth and his partner, the late Deanne Taylor. The latter two co-founded Toronto’s VideoCabaret, integrating videotape, music, and theatre.

He also spoke dearly of his director of ‘A Terrible Fate’ Karin Randoja. Cliff smiled and said they had been co-parents of all these shows they’d done together. She’s taught him a lot already, has come through, and is sometimes one step ahead of him. For Cliff, Randoja understands the craft of theatre in a way he doesn’t.

I was first introduced to Cliff’s artistic work in his two one-person solo productions of ‘The Land Acknowledgement’ at Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre and later at Mirvish Productions. The former production created a wave of controversy within the theatre community. The latter was an entirely different iteration but still used the exact text.

I wanted to explore this understanding of controversy within the theatre industry further and asked how far an artist can push the envelope regarding being controversial.

Cliff resolutely stated theatre doesn’t work as propaganda. If this is the objective for the artist, then he/she/they has/have the wrong medium.

He elaborated further:

“A theatre artist’s job is to be entertaining, exciting, dazzling, and marvellous and to present both sides of the argument. The theatre is an industry where we have a lot of people in the seventies show up. These people have read a lot more than I have.”

The idea that Cliff will teach someone in their 70s something or bring them around to his politics is naïve.

How far can a theatre artist go for Cliff, then?

“It all depends on the artist's relationship with the audience and how many times they have given the performance. You have to really try and listen as you have these ideas you fight for. Are they making the jump with me? Can they still suspend disbelief and project their imagination onto this moment, or have they checked out? Do they hate what’s happened to them?”

For Cliff, artists have the right to say what they want, but great artists take responsibility for what the audience hears.

I attended the opening night performance of ‘A Terrible Fate.’ When I asked him how he felt about opening night, Cliff said he had no idea what they all did. He knows opening night occurred but can barely remember it.

He calls ‘A Terrible Fate’ a compelling exploration of being the guy in this position and asking Robert to inhabit him in this solo piece. To go on this journey and explore it is an exhilarating opportunity. Cardinal has unending praise for VideoCabaret and Crow’s Theatre, the two companies that have produced ‘A Terrible Fate.’

He further adds:

“I’m just trying to soak up, be inquisitive and be curious about what is there. Maybe at the end of November, I’ll stop and ask, ‘What the fuck was that?”

And again, I’m laughing at his frankness.

Ironically, he and Jenn Stobart, the show's Stage Manager, were in Perth and just started talking about how everyone they have loved who had a terrible fate befall them. Thus the genesis of 'A Terrible Fate' was conceived. Cliff writes daily and said, “As soon as I tell you I love you, watch out because you’ll get sick, get hit by a car, or an anvil will fall from the sky and land on you. Watch out.”

What Cardinal finds intriguing is the redundancy, the idea he is presenting himself as this traumatized guy. Yes, Robert’s trauma occurs quicker than others, but that is the story of all of us. Cliff calls ‘A Terrible Fate’ a satire and magical realism but also a redundancy. He’s hoping that he can use the comedy to step outside of ourselves and look back at how we’re dealing with the worst fundamental truth, which is that this will end for all of us.

I love the candidness in that last line because it’s true.

And again, I started laughing, and Cardinal was smiling. He said: “See, you and I are laughing, so it’s all going well.”

What messages is he hoping audiences will take away from the play:

“We should be holding onto each other. We should be coming together. We should be more honest. We’re not good at grieving about those we have loved and lost in this culture. Great stories shouldn’t silence the room. Great stories should provoke us to tell stories to others. If that doesn’t happen, I hope audiences will leave having enjoyed a few laughs and a good time and purchase some artwork in the lobby.”

In true artist style, Cliff also added:

“I hope people are offended, and those who want to be offended are. Those who need to be triggered, come on down and get triggered.”

It’s not Cliff’s way to conduct audience talkbacks, so don’t expect there will be one after the performance. There’s something about audience talkbacks that doesn’t feel right.

He’s hoping ‘A Terrible Fate’ will tour other Canadian cities after the VideoCabaret run. It depends on how the show will develop from its incubation at 10 Busy Street.

And what’s next once ‘A Terrible Fate’ concludes at VideoCabaret?

A movie adaptation will be made of his ‘As You Like It’ by William Shakespeare. He’s a tad coy about sharing anything else regarding the film now, except that he is working on it with his friend, Daniel McIvor.

This film adaptation is one to keep an eye on in the future.

‘Everyone I Love Has’ A Terrible Fate (Befall Them),’ produced by VideoCabaret in association with Crow’s Theatre at the Deanne Taylor Theatre runs to November 12 at VideoCabaret, 10 Busy Street. I hear tickets are selling very quickly for the remaining shows. Visit for further information.

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