Keith Barker, Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts

Looking Ahead

getting captured

Joe Szekeres

The engagement comes in recognizing that it’s not about the queerness at all – it’s about the artistry in the work.

When I went through a press release and saw that Native Earth Performing Arts would be one of the ten members of a newly established coalition launching our country’s first ever National Queer and Trans Playwrighting Unit, I was pleased to be invited and interview Keith Barker, Native Earth’s Artistic Director. I wanted to profile Barker earlier in the Professional Artist Pandemic Profile Series I’ve compiled for the last two years so I’m grateful for this opportunity.

More about this coalition shortly and Native Earth’s involvement.

Throughout this series I do like to have a quick check in with the artist to see how he has fared during the pandemic.

Barker is thankful no one in his immediate family had Covid and that everyone was safe. His family felt no differently in addressing how the disease affected their lives and mental health, concerns we’ve all felt at one point.

Does Barker believe Covid has altered the trajectory of the Canadian performing arts scene?

Absolutely he does as it has led to modifications and re-examinations of so many items and issues within the professional theatre community, especially First Nations. For one, contingency plans have had to be put in place moving forward if the Indigenous performing arts community wants to ensure its voices continue to be heard even if its artists become ill with Covid. We talked about the use of understudies in Indigenous productions.

Additionally, Barker also spoke of the fact that Native Earth will continue to offer a hybrid model in offering productions to be seen live and virtually. He recognizes that people are at limits in watching online theatre as its resources are limited compared to those of film and television who have fared stronger during these last two years. However, digital presentations have allowed Native Earth to share their stories in rural and remote communities so future budgeting will have to ensure this opportunity can continue along with live performances.

The focus of Barker’s profile was this newly established consortium for the National Queer and Trans Playwrighting Unit and his professional involvement. The following theatre groups are liaised: Zee Zee Theatre (Vancouver), the frank Theatre (Vancouver), Gwaandak Theatre (Whitehorse), Theatre Outré (Lethbridge), Persephone Theatre (Saskatoon), Theatre Projects Manitoba (Winnipeg), Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (Toronto), Native Earth Performing Arts (Toronto), Imago Theatre (Montréal), and Neptune Theatre (Halifax).

For those who are interested in applying:

“2SLGBTQ+ emerging and mid-career theatre makers from across Canada are invited to submit applications by July 5, 2022. The selection process will see five artists announced in September 2022 to participate in a 10-month process, during which they will receive living wage compensation and one-on-one mentorship as they write a new work. The developed plays will be performed live and streamed online in September of 2023.”

This massively important undertaking holds gigantic implications for the Queer and Trans voice in the country. First Nations artists have also experienced similar implications in solidifying their voices to be heard as well and, as a First Nations artist himself, Barker foresees similar positive and challenging elements moving forward in the Queer and Trans community:

“It’s an opportunity to humanize all our experiences as Canadian citizens. There has been a noticeable lack both with Indigenous work and with the Queer and Trans artist voices across Canada that needed to be heard. Thanks to the work of Canada Council and federal grant money, artistic groups were asked how they are going to reflect their individual communities with a specific focus on the Indigenous and the Queer/Trans voice.”

One challenging element regarding this consortium for Keith:

“Post Covid, theatres have struggled financially. Additionally, audiences have also struggled as they have been locked up for a long time and may have become entrenched and only want to see comedies or something that make them laugh. I get that, we all want to laugh since we’ve all experienced one of the most awful times in our lives… But I’m confident in that as artists and theatre companies slate both fun and new and really good stories we’ve never heard before out there along with new voices, we will begin to cultivate audiences with challenging work and that is sure to start some great conversation. Artists are doing good work out there. If audiences are hesitant to respond, that’s the start of a conversation too.”

I’ve seen some really good stories from the Indigenous perspective since I’ve been reviewing so I fully concur with Barker as there is good stuff out there. I’ve been fully engaged when I’ve seen these productions, have asked questions and have learned in the process.

As artists and audiences emerge from Covid, are they simply at a survival stage for this next while in listening and hearing the Queer and Trans voices?

Keith believes we (including himself) are now at a crossroads where we have to begin that important conversation with the community. Look at what has transpired regarding our grappling with Residential Schools. We’ve moved beyond the recognition of Residential Schools and are now at the beginning of engagement with the issue.

The same exists in that we’ve moved simply beyond just appreciating that the queer and trans voices exist. We are now at the beginning of engagement with their voices. Changes begin in small acts. Keith then shared one personal element from his youth. When he was growing up, he was afraid of gay people until his best friend came out to him. He learned long ago that it didn’t matter to him if his best friend was gay. Keith ignored that label and saw the person of his best friend from years ago.

He then shared something from former Senator the Honourable Murray Sinclair regarding the Residential Schools issue. It took one hundred and fifty years to get into this mess and it’s going to take one hundred and fifty years to get out of it.

The same exists in engaging Queer and Trans voices and their stories. It’s not merely just a matter of survival for these individuals. They have every right to have their voices heard and their stories told. Barker stated that queer and trans stories are as good and worthy as other stories being told in theatres across this country.

It’s going to take time to engage with queer and trans artists as we live with them in this country. There are Queer and Trans Canadian artists whom audiences may know and not know. Native Earth was started by two spirited artists. The engagement comes in recognizing that it’s not about the queerness at all – it’s about the artistry in the work.

Keith concluded our conversation by saying it takes time to change. It’s a matter of playing the long game as instant gratification does not and cannot occur.

Thank you so much, Keith, for the conversation.

To learn more information and/or apply to the National Queer and Trans Playwright Unit, visit: zeezeetheatre.ca

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