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Performing arts fest plans to awaken artistic talent in Whitehorse and the rural North

‘A value of ours is to make theatre as accessible as possible.’
Awaken Festival organizers Meredith Pritchard, Colin Wolf, Martin Nishikawa inside the Old Firehall in Whitehorse on May 11. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

Bears are emerging from their dens and a 12-day theatre festival in the Yukon is hoping to similarly awaken some artistic talent across the North by providing free and online accessible workshops and shows this month.

The Gwaandak Theatre’s Awaken Festival, now in its second year, runs from May 11 to May 22.

The training festival offers workshops, residencies and events for both new and experienced artists who want to get more involved in the Yukon’s performing arts scene.

“They’re completely free to the public, all the workshops, all the performances,” said artistic director Colin Wolf, adding that everyone leading the workshops and participating in residencies will be paid for their time.

“A value of ours is to make theatre as accessible as possible. During these difficult financial times, removing the financial barrier’s a big way that we can just do that,” he said.

The Awaken Festival aims to bring together people brand new to theatre as well as experienced artists. Last year the festival had to quickly change offerings to an online format due to COVID-19.

“It’ll be very good to see people face-to-face in the same room. I think that’s a luxury we have here in Whitehorse that we definitely don’t take for granted. All our colleagues down South are not in the same position as we are. We feel lucky,” said managing director Martin Nishikawa.

Wolf said a lot was learned from moving online — including how to make workshops accessible to those living in rural areas.

“We’re trying to find how do we balance this great privilege of digital connection that allows people and artists in rural places to connect, but then also with the privilege we have to hold in-person gatherings. We’re finding ways to honour both and not just drop the digital part because so much of the digital stuff last year proved to be really amazing. We had rural participants saying, ‘This stuff was never accessible to us.’”

“We’re able to have residency participants in the Northwest Territories and in Dawson, and one of our performing artist residencies just lives in the bush outside Carcross. Because of the internet, we’re able to do that,” he said.

As an Indigenous-centered theatre company, Wolf said the accessible format has also allowed Gwaandak Theatre to keep to their goal of welcoming and supporting Indigenous people in the arts.

“How do we do this holistically where we actually open the door and let people in and build these circles?” he said. “For me, personally, I know a lot of theatre was how I found my self-worth and connected more to my Indigenous identity.”

In total there are six performance events as part of the festival, all meant to showcase “Indigenous women, marginalized femmes and Northern women.”

Those performances include a storytelling cafe, performing artist residency showcase and Indigenous-Queer cabaret. The festival is supporting 19 residents, who will be able to workshop and perform material while connecting with their artists.

There are also a variety of skill workshops open to the public, ranging from an intro to spoken word and resources for artists on how to manage financing and invoices.

“We want to keep it in the community too, in the Yukon, because there are so many talented and creative folks up here and you don’t have to go down South to get the first bits of training or whatever you need to create art here,” said artistic producer Meredith Pritchard.

“Art isn’t the same as metalworking, or as building a house, for example, where you need certifications. If the art collapses, that’s okay. It’s just a piece of art. That’s what we’re doing. We’re playing, we’re learning we’re exploring. So it’s really great for capacity building,” added Wolf.

Pritchard said she was most looking forward to a technical workshop led by Nishikawa, who is hoping to build up the number of people in Whitehorse who are able to manage sound and lighting for theatre productions.

Nishikawa said he’s most excited for a workshop on making salves from spruce pitch.

“I think that’ll be a very creative workshop and very holistic,” he said.

To offset costs the festival is also holding a digital silent auction, with donated prizes from local businesses. Sponsors for the festival include the Yukon Government, City of Whitehorse, Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association and others.

Contact Haley Ritchie at