Storyteller weaves traditional tales through Rocko and Nakota

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BLYTH – A compelling play that brings to life many Anishinaabe stories will perform on stage in the Blyth Festival’s Phillips Studio from Aug. 27 to Aug. 31.

The one-man play is written and performed by Josh Languedoc. In it, meet Nakota, a young boy who is sick in the hospital and trying to write the greatest story ever. One day, Grandpa Rocko comes for a visit. Next thing Nakota knows, he is whisked away into a world of stories that are right below his feet. Within the land. This show explores the interplay between stories of the present against the long-forgotten stories of the past. It is a powerful marriage of storytelling and transformatively moving dialogue.

The following is a question and answer interview with Josh:

Tell me a bit about yourself. How did you land in theatre? Are there life moments that define who you are and how your art is influenced?

I landed in theatre thanks to my parents. Although I don’t be remember this, my parents would watch me story-tell an episode of a show I liked, act out all of the characters in a movie I was watching, or sing loudly and perform a James Taylor song. So, they decided to throw me into some acting and performing classes and summer camps. I was six years old and after my first audience high, I saw the theatre as a comfortable place I could express myself.

Even though I acted for many, many years, I would spend even more time writing stories around my house. I would invent stories to explore concepts in school. I would pretend I was someone in my class and write a monologue that explored what they might think and feel. Or invent a world that I would draw. While I spent a lot of my younger years acting, writing was always something I did at home and in my spare time.

I consider myself a combination of gently wise and passionately fierce. With my writing, I am driven to represent under-represented voices, in particular, the indigenous cultures and stories. However, my writing does have a gentler side. Rather than poke at the fabric of society, I reflect the deep emotions to allow audiences to feel deeply. While my passion drives my vision, my gentleness guides my words.

Two plays that completely changed my life were Never Swim Alone by Daniel MacIvor and Einstein’s Gift by Vern Thiessen. After seeing both plays, I saw that theatre was not just fluffy musicals, but could be used to make audiences think and feel in a deep way. Seeing these plays was pivotal in the development of my artistic voice.

Furthermore, there have been three life moments that have led me to abandon conventional playwrighting and focus on being a voice for the indigenous people as a playwright. The first was when I came across the tragic murder of Neil Stonechild – a teenager murdered by the police in an act of systemic racism. This news story made me angry, and I felt compelled to read more. This led to the creation of my first play, still in workshop drafts, inspired by Neil’s story. This play is titled The Eyes of Spirits. Secondly, I saw the Edmonton production of Children of God.  I left this show angry but happy to see traditional theatre audiences experiencing the trauma brought on by the residential school systems. Finally, it was this very play – writing Rocko and Nakota. Touring Rocko and Nakota across Canadian fringes and festivals caused me to recognize the importance of representing my culture in a traditional theatre space. Reclaiming my people’s voices into colonial theatrical spaces became an incredibly empowering mission. One of which I feel very compelled to continue.

What was the motivation for writing this particular play? Is it based on your own memories on reserve, storytelling by your elders?

The motivation to write this play came from a couple of different places. For years I had been drawn to the concept of storytelling. After seeing a colleague’s show featuring Scottish folk tales, I became fascinated with cultural storytelling. I decided to apply for the CAFF Fringe Lottery. Upon my surprise of getting selected, I began developing a one-man show featuring me as a storyteller narrating several indigenous legends. However, as I continued to develop my show at the Banff Centre’s Indigenous and Storyteller Spoken Word Residency, I was advised to make my touring show less “show-and-tell of traditional stories,” and more personal and vulnerable. Through a series of acting exercises lead by Michele Thrush while at this residency, I discovered two characters. One was a scared young boy. The other was a sarcastic, surley, well-humoured and wise grandpa. The closer I got to these characters, the more connected to them I felt. So, after some dialogue exploration between these two characters, I began using these characters as the new emotional arch of my show. While I still kept some stories in my play, Rocko and Nakota became two characters that I hung these stories off of. Furthermore, I based this play around some very specific painful memories in my life. More specifically, a time I was hospitalized for a period of time, and my own re-connection to my own indigenous roots through my own battles with anxiety. And so, my storytelling show became a thematic play of anxiety told through the eyes of these two characters – Rocko and Nakota.

What is the importance of storytelling?

Story is ceremony. Stories contain the knowledge and teachings that help heal a community and bring people together. And in a theatrical sense, storytelling is a ritual that allows audiences from all walks of life to come together and feel another’s emotions and empathize with another’s journey. For me, stories and storytelling are the most important fabric in any culture.

Does this play carry a message?

This play carries a hopeful message of trusting one’s own journey and knowing your roots will give you strength. I would say this message is wrapped in gentle humour and through elements of magic and spirituality. While there are many specific indigenous teachings in the play from my own upbringing, the themes of anxiety, loneliness and fear are accessible to all cultures.

There is contemporary music like Metallica and Blue Rodeo in this play. Is this a contemporary story?

This is both a contemporary story and a reflective look into the past. The play takes place in current day with current institutions and customs, but through Rocko, there is a leap back into traditional times and reflecting on the past. Audiences can expect contemporary themes of fear and anxiety while seeing a mystical and magical mood transform before their very eyes as the past reflects upon the present.

How many characters do you play?

Rocko and Nakota are the main characters, but there are approximately 10 other characters that appear within the stories within the play.

 Is this play suitable for children?

While this play is not written directly for children, it is absolutely an all-ages show. I find children and teenagers really identify with Nakota and his own struggles, while adults really identify with the modern wisdom of Rocko.

Anything you want to add?

This play and I have toured across Canada and I am beyond excited to bring it back to my homelands of Ontario where my Anishinaabe ancestry came from.

Tickets, $29 adults, $15 students are available online at www.blythfestival.com or by calling 1-877-862-5984.