Indigenous Artist Spotlight: Akpik Theatre

Ontario Presents and its member presenting organizations recognize the importance of presenting Indigenous artists, stories and culture as part of their presenting practice. As we continue to encourage the respectful presentation of Indigenous art, we will be featuring an Indigenous artist each month in our e-newsletter and blog. Our sincere thanks to Denise Bolduc for conceiving of and continuing to support this Spotlight Series. 

Started in 2018, the Indigenous Artist Spotlight series is intended to foster greater awareness and understanding of the strength and diversity of Indigenous art available in Ontario and beyond. As Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists face an incredibly difficult time, we will continue to spotlight inspiring Indigenous artists. 

Find all of our past Spotlight interviews here.

This month we spoke with Reneltta Arluk and Barry Bilinsky of Northern Indigenous-focused theatre company Akpik Theatre about their community engagement work, Akpik’s Pawâkan, a Cree-takeover of Macbeth, their thoughts on theatre post-COVID, and more.

Reneltta Arluk Screenshot from Zoom ConversationBarry Bilinsky headshot from Zoom conversation

Below is a transcript of Reneltta and Barry’s conversation with our Communications and Membership Services Coordinator Natalie Dewan:

Natalie: To start off, could you each introduce yourself and your work with Akpik Theatre? 

Reneltta: So my name is Reneltta Arluk. I’m originally from the Northwest Territories. My mother is Denesuline and Cree from the Treaty Eight Wood Buffalo National Park region, Fort Smith and Fort Chip. My father is Inuvialuit and Gwich’in from the Inuvik/Aklavik region which is part of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation.

I’m a theatre maker, I love theatre, I love performing arts and so I do all the theatre-making stuff. I’m a director, actor, producer, storyteller, playwright. I’ve been doing this for about 20 years now professionally.

Akpik Theatre is a Northern-based (initially, when I was when I was up in Yellowknife, but it’s still Northern-focused), Northern Indigenous-focused theatre company.

Akpik is my Inuk name given to me by my great-grandmother, who also had this same marking on her chin. *gestures* I got that in recognition of that relationship. Akpik Theatre is a project-based theatre company - we do a new work every one to two years, in some capacity. 

Barry: I’m Barry Bilinsky. I’m Metis-Cree-Ukrainian from Edmonton, Alberta. I’ve been working with Akpik Theatre for a few years now as an Artistic Associate/Associate Director. Primarily working to liaise with community, to act as Assistant Director and, you know… dramaturg/stage manager, whenever it seems to fit. 

I’m a theatre creator as well. And so [Akpik has] been a beautiful opportunity to get to meet some people and to include people from the community into the processes that we’ve been doing and to continue looking at new projects with Akpik.

Natalie: I find it really great and interesting that Akpik is described in your mandate as project-based. So I was wondering about the ethos behind that and what your process is for developing your next project?

Reneltta: The primary reason why it was a project-based theatre company was to balance the career that I was having as an actor and to start building… I was unsure what Akpik was. I developed it in 2008, the same time that I was writing my first play TUMIT, which is “tracks” in Inuktitut. I thought, I’m going to create this one-woman show… but I don’t think I want to just be an actor with a play. What I’m going to create is an umbrella theatre company, for other artists to access if they also want to tell their stories.

At that time, I was based out of Yellowknife, and there’s no professional theatre company in Yellowknife. And there’s actually none in the Northwest Territories. I’m still the only professional theatre company there. And I’m clearly the only Indigenous professional theatre company. There’s just a real need for accessibility of stories, especially Indigenous stories in the North, to be done at that level. 

So when I developed [Akpik], from there we did I Count Myself Among Them, co-produced with Travis Mercredi. And so then I thought, “Okay, so it is working!… we’re going to just be a project-based theatre company that creates accessibility so that the money can go to the artists and… to the community. And it isn’t about trying to keep this theatre company afloat.”

And so what we’re learning now - I’m really grateful to have Barry as an Associate Director and have Tallis [Kirby], as a General Manager - we are naturally building a company that’s sustainable. We get paid for the work that we’re doing when we’re doing it, and that allows us a lot of flexibility.

Natalie: That makes so much sense. I think it’s really interesting how people are exploring new ways of working, new structures that are, just as you said, more sustainable and more are able to achieve their goals without being hindered by all the bureaucracy…

I wanted to ask you about Akpik’s youth outreach program, because it seems like a really awesome, interesting program. Can you just talk a bit about that and why it’s important to the company? 

Reneltta: It’s a little bit on hold, but in some ways, it’s pivoted with the work that Barry and I have done with Pawâkan. It was initially founded as What’s Your Story? youth outreach, arts programming, and I did it for about three to four years.

… I was raised in an isolated community, in the Northwest Territories, I was born in Fort Smith, a community of 1100. My parents were 17. So there were some statistical living things that didn’t allow me access to the arts… So when I found myself in performing arts… I realized, “Okay, if I didn’t know this existed, I still know it doesn’t exist. So I’m going to do my best to bring arts into those communities.”

So every year, I would bring a singer, and a dancer or a spoken word artist, Indigenous male, IBPOC female, and myself, would go into different communities. And we would work with the youth centers, or schools, or friendship centres, whoever was the main youth gather place. We would spend three to five days in the community and we would build stories from the youth involved themselves… Then we would bring it together, like cabaret-style, and they would perform for their community. And it would be pay-what-you-can.

… It was doing very, very well. But what I learned was, it is really hard to ask youth to share themselves in this capacity if they actually have no experience in performance whatsoever. And so I started having to ask myself, “What is the value of a three day workshop?” Where it kind of naturally started to meld is, “What is it to go into community and do deeper work?” … Pawâkan really led into that deep relational work. The work that Barry does in community is so incredible, that was a natural progression… 

Barry: Just to chime in on my experience with that. There’s sometimes a draw to come into a community and have a big splash and just unload a bunch of resources on the community… And it really does a disservice to the community. Twofold, because it doesn’t really leave any lasting impact for people to continue to develop that or to train those older youth or people within the community to maintain that. But it also gives people this feeling that they have this rich, personal connection with an artist, who’s usually very emotional and present, and then they disappear.

So it’s difficult to continue those programs unless you have the space and the time and the presence to be able to have a continued connection with the community. Because just dropping in and then bombing them with love and then tearing off is not cool.

Natalie: That’s actually a good transition, because you mentioned Pawâkan a couple of times and I wanted to ask you about that project, which, from what I understand sounds like it really did come out of one community. So can you just talk a bit about that development? 

Reneltta: Pawâkan Macbeth, or I call it more Pawâkan now.. [started with]… a non-Indigenous company [Theatre Prospero] that was going to these Indigenous communities and had the idea of, “maybe we should bring an Indigenous person in to come in and work on Shakespeare in this Indigenous community.”… 

Initially, Frog Lake First Nation wanted to do The Tempest…  And then they came back to us and said, “We actually don’t really relate to The Tempest… We want to do Macbeth and we want to do Macbeth using the Wihtiko, like the cannibal spirit.” And I was like, “Oh my God. That’s so intense… but again, I’m not going to tell you what you can and can’t do.”

… So I… asked the school to bring in some elders, to share stories of that creature. And that way the elders can know about what the youth are wanting to do. And then the youth can know what it’s like to connect with the elders about these stories. For me, it was just to have inclusion, it was to have sharing and to bring elders into the process, which is really, really important.

It is also important to recognize the elders who have helped to inspire Pawâkan: Elder Tony Arcand, Elder Gary Berland, Elder Mary Ann Dillon, Elder Henry Smith, Elder Raymond Quinney, and from Frog Lake First Nation: Owen Morris, Resident Kookum Cecile Dion and students of Chief Napeweaw School.

At Frog Lake we offered tobacco to the elders, and they just told all these great stories. And it was really inspiring. The young people were sharing their stories, which really shows the health of the community I think, if you know the creative and the cultural history of your area. So I was really inspired by the young people and it ended up being a really positive experience with them. 

It was two weeks, we never really fully incorporated the creature into the storytelling. Except for the feast scene where story was shared… but about 70 people came out to see the show, elders brought ribbon shirts for the young men to wear… it was really incredible.

And I left that experience going, “This was really powerful.” It was powerful how a community came together to support the youth and the elders and this exchange.

And so I asked myself, “I wonder if this can be done on a professional scale? I wonder if it’ll work the same way?” And it has, it has worked every single time that we have brought collaborators together. The wisdom deepens, the sharing deepens, the language deepens, and the play is just a catalyst for gathering, I believe, in a very positive way… 

Barry knows this because he came into the process very soon after that, as the play and process grew we always check in with each other and ask ourselves, “If it isn’t working, we stop it, because we’re not messing with that energy.” But it has always seemed such a positive process.

Barry: … one thing that was really beautiful about that, especially working with such a potentially dark energy, is about how familiar you are with that energy… what you’re saying about the community being well-scaffolded and integrated between the elders and the youth, and everybody is sharing those stories, is that they all have had a chance to digest their relationship to it. 

And what we’ve noticed is that whenever we’ve gone and worked with a group of artists, be they mixed Indigenous/non-Indigenous, or entirely Indigenous, they all kind of go through this process of gauging their own beliefs against this creature. And they’re always looking for, “Is it real? Is this really happening?” They look for that first. And then as they start to understand that it’s real as you engage with it, then it really makes it so that we kind of come together and have to have a collective understanding of what’s going to make us all feel safe. Everybody from the person who’s completely not buying it to the person who’s up all night buying it, and that brings the community together. That engagement does that, that sort of binding.

I find that really fascinating - that on a very topical level, it’s a dark spirit, but the way it works in action, I think is a lot closer to the way that those stories were intended to work, which is to instill in the community a sense of unity and understanding of connectivity.

… Which is why I think Pawâkan [succeeds] for that purpose and why it works in the rehearsal halls so well, is because it has that same quality on both sides. Because the people who like, will only say Mackers when they walk in and are spinning around outside spitting and stuff… You know, everybody has an access point to that same belief.

Natalie: So you’ve done a number of iterations of this production in different communities… that’s been over a couple of years? 

Reneltta: I think we’re going into a fourth year… I’m going into what I like to think is one of my final drafts. I’m heading into there now and I’m feeling really excited about it.

So that inspiration from Frog Lake led into the exploration… I then headed over to Stratford to do a Playwright Residency… I was working on two pieces. I was working on Tookoolito, which is [about] a young Inuk woman guide to Charles Francis Hall in the late 1800s. True story… amazing story. And that’s been seven years in the making, but really, I think she’s just getting really impatient with me.

And then Pawâkan, I was going to start working on this Macbeth - at that time, Cree Macbeth is pretty much what I was calling it. While we were there, Antoni Cimolino, the artistic director of Stratford…  he was asking people about their projects and he said, “Oh what are you working on Reneltta?” And I said, “I’m writing a Cree Macbeth… I’m looking at the witches as trickster-esque kind of creatures.” And he said, “You know that I’m doing the show next year?… I really want to hear what you have to say about these witches.”… So we had a meeting the next day, and I just said, “[The witches] don’t get enough play in the play. They really need to be hustlers in this play.” He agreed, and when he did his rehearsal process, he usually starts in order, but he started with the witches. And he did all the witch work, I think in the first beginning part of his process. And he said it really changed how we saw the play. [I thought] that [was] really exciting.” And then when he started asking more about it, I got commissioned.

… With the commissioned piece, that’s where we’re working with non-Indigenous and Indigenous actors. We’re under The Lab, which is kind of on hold right now. But Pawâkan is the largest play that’s been part of the Lab at Stratford. And every year, there’s been development of it. So they bring together acting company members from Stratford. And then Indigenous actors that come in, and we sit in a room for about a week, and we explore the play in different ways.

… we started building the cultural creative team, and wherever the play goes, we go as a cultural creative team. So we work at Stratford. But what we were realizing is that it needed community, always. That’s the responsibility, and that’s the main focus of it. So then we created the community-telling version, which is 90 minutes, storytelling, the actors rip the play apart, make it theirs. And then that’s the story we bring into the different communities. 

Barry:  The way that it’s grown, the different iterations of the piece, has been very interesting…  different communities had their different takes on it… when we went back into the community telling… the different relationship communities have to those creatures is very interesting. Less than 40 minutes away from Frog Lake is another reserve. And there, we all stopped and prayed as soon as the word came through that we were talking about that creature. And the kids were right into it too… Just their relationship to it was so different. And it was really a good reminder, you can’t just go “Oh, yeah, Plains Cree. Got it.” or  “Oh there’s five different types of Cree.” No, there are a lot of different ways to interpret this thing.

And that’s been really interesting taking it and working in Ontario with Stratford and then seeing people who’ve got a very Shakespeare lens on it. And then working in our community telling version of it and hearing a lot of actors that are typically the only Indigenous actor in some of their communities or in their artistic communities, or they’re, you know, slowly homogenizing, and getting them to feel the presence of a play that’s written with elders and with the language embedded in it, and, with an Indigenous creative team. And just getting to see it kind of be the constant and all these other ways of working with it. Moving around, it’s been really interesting…  

Natalie: That’s really fascinating, because I feel like a lot of projects I read about have a very clear path - they’re developed, and then they tour or they’re presented, but this has had so many iterations, it’s had so many different people involved, that it’s really fascinating to hear you talk about all the different ways it’s been interpreted..

Reneltta: Ya, Canada Performs, we did like a zoom event! That was super fun… 

Barry: Ya right at the tippy top of COVID, ripping our place apart and making a shadow studio. 

Natalie: I feel like I have to ask the obligatory COVID question of what your hopes are for Akpik and even for our sector, the performing arts, coming out of all of the change and thinking that we’ve been forced to do through COVID? What are your next hopes for the company?

Reneltta: We were a part of the virtual CanadaHub this year, and we did our pitches and I think with the intention that next year, if we can go to Edinburgh [Fringe] that might be an option. So I’m thinking about that.

I’m thinking about some of the unfinished works that I’ve been developing like My Grandfather’s Stories, which is, *laughs* my grandfather’s stories. I usually start my titles very basic just to keep me on track… He was a prospector and trapper his whole life, since he was 15 he was on his own, and he had lived quite an extensive life… he recorded a bunch of his stories, and I got them transcribed during this time. Now I’m starting to do interviews with my grandmother to get her side of the story… 

I think it’s a good time to dig in creatively. I know I haven’t been able to write during COVID, and I’m not the only playwright that has felt that and so that’s why I’m excited that I’m starting to dream again, I’m starting to feel different intentions again. So I’m kind of looking at this holiday time to kind of dig and do more writing for Pawâkan

And then Tookoolito, I just feel like, if I don’t write her, she’ll leave me. 

So I’m really starting to look at, what are the priorities… I think COVID has been in time for us to ask, “What are our value systems? What are our actual priorities?” The wheel runs so fast in society that we don’t have a lot of time for reflection. And so I’ve been doing a lot of journaling, a lot of reflecting in that. 

… as far as the virtual worlds, I don’t think we’re ever going to only be one thing again, I think we are a hybrid nation now. And I’m not sure exactly what theatre is for that. I’ve been trying it all… and I’m excited to keep playing to see - what would it take for us to bring our bodies out of the digital? How can we digitally connect our bodies and spirits? If we’re able to do that, I’d like to still find ways to try and figure that out.

Barry: I think for me, especially being close to the community engagement (and that fits into some of my personal projects on other fronts too), having spent so much time being so close to the elders, and seeing them really now be protected by the communities as very vulnerable people… that was a very strong reminder that when we’re talking hypotheticals about making sure that these stories are well represented, and that those people are honored and respected and remembered and acknowledged, when we’re doing this kind of work – it started to make a lot more sense about where that comes from. Because so often, you know, things can kind of scatter out and they can lose intensity. But what I’ve learned from this process is that the communities that still are connected to where that story originates from, and the people who know all the little details around it, just help imbue it with so much more richness and meaning, and that exists where those stories are.

And so not being able to go to community, you know, driving past Frog Lake and seeing barriers up on the highway… just really reminded me that… settler mindset, we can’t just drop in and mess around, we really need to be instilling that reciprocity. And I think that COVID has been a huge balancing act for that, just reminding us to slow down, reminding us to just centre, remember who we are, remember who we’re working with, check in on people and see people as very real people with real circumstances. I think that’s something that a lot of people have felt. 

…Working with Indigenous arts and Indigenous community for a while there are a lot of circumstances that might rise up, you know, people might not have access to the same resources that are just assumed, you know credit cards or whatever…  their relation to the theatre space, all those kind of problems that we sometimes feel with the access for reserve communities to come and work in the arts. Now everybody’s feeling them, right, everybody is having issues with making sure that their childcare is being dealt with, issues with travel, issues with making sure that there’s an adequate fee for people to spend the time or to take the risk to leave the home. 

I’m hoping that there’s a bit of an equalizing so that people can understand what the Indigenous reality has been in Canada, people can understand, you know, isolation, we can understand restrictions, can understand all these kind of things with a bit more of an open mindset and to just balance these things out, so that we don’t lose the conversations that we’ve been having, that were in full force at the beginning of this year, about the rights of Indigenous people and moving forward on these things. So I hope it’s a big reset. I hope it’s a way for people to look across and see themselves in one another, but more, after COVID.

Natalie: Absolutely. Thank you both, those are both really beautiful reflections on this time and hopefully what we can get out of it…

Thank you so much to Reneltta and Barry for sharing their stories! Find out more about Akpik Theatre at

The transcription of this interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.