Native Earth Performing Arts

Native Earth Performing Arts (NEPA) is Toronto's only professional Aboriginal theatre company and one of the few such companies in Canada. It was founded in 1982 by Bunny Sicard, Denis Lacroix and 6 other board members to "provide a unique artistic platform for the expression of traditional and contemporary Native themes" and to communicate First Nations cultural values and beliefs to "all peoples." It opened on 2 Oct 1982 with Native Images in Transition, a collective piece that showcased First Nations poetry, song and prose and was commissioned as a co-production with Kam Theatre Lab in Thunder Bay to celebrate the opening of the Thunder Bay Exhibition Centre - Centre for Indian Arts.

A Toronto-based touring company performing original Native productions, Native Earth was also created to encourage greater participation by Indigenous people in the performing arts in general. Workshops were offered in acting, drumming, dancing, mask-making, clowning and movement, both at the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto and as part of touring programmes in First Nations communities.

Early productions were mainly collective creations based on Aboriginal themes and legends performed and directed by people from all over North America. Under artistic director Monique Mojica (1983-85) the company began to, in her words, "take risks." In 1984 and 1985 Mojica presented the collective creation Give Them a Carrot for as Long as the Sun Is Green, directed by Muriel Miguel. This play, about 5 Aboriginal street people in a large urban centre, received bad reviews but, by deliberately attempting to link the absurdities of life conveyed in Waiting for Godot to contemporary experience, it marked a step forward for the company. In 1985, Trickster's Cabaret marked a departure from the usual production venues of community centres and coffee houses when it had a 5-day run at Theatre Passe Muraille.

The Trickster, a mythological character who is also called Nanabush, Nanabozo and Weesageechak, has remained a regular feature throughout the company's productions, serving to link contemporary Aboriginal people with both tradition and urban white society. With Tomson Highway'sThe Rez Sisters (1986) and Aria (1987), NEPA began touring internationally - to the Edinburgh and Aasivik (Greenland) festivals. While under his artistic directorship (1986-92), 4 of Highway's plays brought signs of growing respect from the performing arts community: The Rez Sisters won the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Play and the Chalmers Award for Outstanding Play in 1986; Aria was nominated for the 1987 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best Production of a Small Theatre Company; The Sage, The Dancer and The Fool was nominated for the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Play, Small Theatre Category, 1989; and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing won 4 Dora Mavor Moore Awards in 1989/90. In subsequent years, many productions of the company have been awarded or nominated for awards at the local, regional, national and international levels.

Highway's directorship also marked the beginning of an important initiative by NEPA to open doors for Natives in the performing arts. In 1989, the annual Weesageechak Begins to Dance workshop series began as a festival of new plays in progress, presenting stage readings from works by 3 to 7 writers, including those by later artistic directors Floyd Favel and Drew Hayden Taylor. Since then, several of the workshopped plays have gone to full production and continued to add to the company's list of awards.

Under the leadership of Drew Hayden Taylor, NEPA continued to present original plays along with the annual Weesageechak festival. Since Taylor's departure in 1997 the festival's aims - "to speak to Native audiences, to bring the experiences of Native culture to people of all cultural backgrounds and to create an atmosphere where Native people can communicate with each other and the world around them"- have been realized both within a co-operative administrative structure and under several other artistic directors, including Alanis King and Yvette Nolan.

Since the late 1990s NEPA has produced a number of works, including Drew Hayden Taylor's The Baby Blues in 1997, when Pamela Matthews served as interim artistic director. From 1998 to 2000, Sandra Laronde, Daniel David Moses and Alejandro Ronceria formed an artistic directorate team, and together they oversaw the production of Red River (by Jim Millan and Daniel David Moses) in 1998, followed by Darrell Dennis's The Trickster of Third Avenue East in 2000. As NEPA moved into the new millennium, the company produced works such as The Scrubbing Project, in association with The Turtle Gals, at Factory Studio Theatre in 2002.

Yvette Nolan stepped into the role of artistic director in 2003 and the company produced, in association with Theatre Passe Muraille, Terry Ivins's Time Stands Still, directed by Lorne CARDINAL. NEPA produced Alanis King's The Artshow (2004) and Marie Clements's The Unnatural and Accidental Women (2004), an award-winning play that was later adapted into the film Unnatural and Accidental, directed by Carl Bessai.

The years 2004-07 marked a new expansion for NEPA as the company produced Tara Beagan's Dreary and Izzy (2005) and toured Darrell Dennis's Tales of an Urban Indian to Kamloops, London, Vancouver and Edmonton in 2004 and 2005. NEPA also initiated an ongoing program called the Young Voices, in which emerging Aboriginal playwrights develop new work together. Excerpts from these works-in-development are presented at the annual Weesageechak Begins to Dance Festival under the direction of dramaturges/directors.

In 2007, NEPA produced performance, installation and dance-based productions, including UQQUAQ: The Shelter co-created by Genevieve Pepin and Laurentio Q. Arnatsiaq, and The Place Between, co-created by Michelle Olson and Lisa C. Ravensbergen.

In 2008, NEPA and the National Arts Centre co-produced Death of a Chief, directed and adapted by Yvette Nolan and Kennedy C. MacKinnon. That year, NEPA toured Turtle Gals' The Triple Truth and Annie Mae's Movement, and produced Melanie J. Murray's A Very Polite Genocide or The Girl Who Fell to Earth at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre; the play explores inter-generational effects of the residential school. This was a timely production, as it coincided with the year the federal government officially apologized to Aboriginal people for the residential school system.

In 2009, the company produced Daniel David Moses's Almighty Voice and His Wife, which was also presented at the Origins Festival in London, England.

NEPA staged a workshop production of Falen Johnson's Saltbaby (2009) at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace. In 2010, NEPA and An Indie(n) Rights Reserve co-produced the opera Giiwedin, by Spy Dénommé-Welch and Catherine Magowan, which was staged at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace.