Indigenous Artist Spotlight: Barry Bilinsky

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.

Barry Bilinsky headshot

This month we spoke with theatre creator Barry Bilinsky.

Barry is a professional theatre creator of Cree, Metis, and Ukrainian heritage. Based in Alberta, he has worked across Canada on projects centred primarily around the proliferation of Indigenous arts, artists, and collaborations. Barry is committed to developing safe, authentic, respectful creations that challenge the overarching cultural assumptions we often face in the performing arts community.

Check out last month’s interview here to learn about Barry’s work with Akpik Theatre.

To start off, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your artistic practice?

Tân’si, I am Barry Bilinsky - I am from Edmonton Alberta, with Cree/Metis lineage on my Mother’s side and Ukrainian ancestry on my Father’s. I studied Drama at the University of Alberta, but didn’t get my bearings until I found clown. The Pochinko clown method revealed the basis of my personal practice - it was internal and external, adaptable to so many different art forms, and I enjoyed taking very complex ideas and reducing them to something ridiculous. 

Eventually, I began doing more work within the Indigenous Arts sphere - first as a Stage Manager and Performer but more and more as a Writer/Director - and I truly started to see myself on stage. Work that centred on truth-telling about stories that were so familiar to me and my family that I wasn’t seeing anywhere else. I began to support and engage in almost solely Indigenous-centric work, including collaborations about which I may speak further. 

You’ve worked on many diverse projects (including theatre, clowning, community-engagement, and more) and in many capacities ranging from actor to production manager. With such a range of interests and skills, what is it that draws you to a project?

Firstly, the people. I find that when a project is something a member of my community is passionate about, it is hard not to genuinely consider it no matter how busy I am. Because different groups are already comprised of some phenomenal contributors, this means that different parts of my experience or skill set might be most beneficial. I may suggest a certain role or be asked to perform in a particular way based off of how I fill in the circle best.

I try to follow my intuition; to track how I feel when thinking about the end result or the process of any new proposal and honour that. As I am getting older, with a few more bumps and bruises, I am getting more inquisitive early on about the protocols and processes that a project employs as well as sniffing out what their true intention with me and my community is.

You’ve worked on several projects that represent an intersection of cultures – for example, Pawâkan Macbeth, and Ancestors and Elders (a project that brought together Ukranian and Indigenous dance traditions). Could you talk a bit about those experiences? 

It’s funny to me, the two examples are entirely different approaches to the issue with very different outcomes. With Ancestors and Elders, the request came after the intention to bring the community together had been dreamt up by Shumka [Canada’s Ukranian Shumka Dancers]. The tricky part was unearthing and fostering the intersections that were being celebrated while also acknowledging and working through the hurt. 

The Indigenous and Ukrainian narratives on the prairies are far from synonymous, so this initial work had to happen over a period of time - pipe ceremonies, gatherings, sharing of culture in a person-to-person way BEFORE it could be expressed to the world as truth. The original timeline was 7 months - we mounted the first production after 2 years. 

This extra unforeseen work (and ultimately cost) is often left out of the early deliberations on how to take on these gatherings. What schedules do each culture typically hold? Are their religious or spiritual concerns? How do the artistic team and the community maintain a healthy relationship to streamline and embolden accuracy and appropriateness? Where does the money end up? All of these concerns pop up throughout the process and it is my belief they should be dealt with at the outset. 

Pawâkan was an entirely different circumstance. Shakespeare was being brought into the community as a teaching tool - a vehicle for accessible and curriculum appropriate theatre. The youth themselves, led by Owen Morris as their English teacher/Vice Principle, saw the connections between Macbeth and the stories from their elders.

This, I believe, is a truer sense of the word “Indigenization” because it was Indigenous youth imagining and making this foreign piece of art their own. The intention was not to present or celebrate two different cultures to any third party, but to engage with a universal story from their own perspective. The “coming together” is simpler since it does not need negotiation or constant translation of meaning - it can just be. 

When speaking about Pawâkan Macbeth, you referenced the importance of bringing that piece to the Frog Lake community from which it developed, and the responsibility to ground all stories in the place and people from which they came. This can be especially challenging with touring work – how do you think artists and presenters can better ground their work in the originating communities of the work?

I am going to share some knowledge that I have learned from several artists and leaders and don’t believe I can properly attribute all of it. The importance of rooting the stories begins with a fundamental difference in worldview that Dr. Leroy Littlebear speaks about. It is that we don’t see the world as time-based, but as placed-based. In a time-based worldview, an event happens in time and the more time that passes the further from the event we get. In a place-based worldview, everything exists on the land in the same place where it happened. This means, if I tell a lie to you here and now… eventually the lie will be years in the past, but it will always remain right here. We understand this intrinsically when we visit historic sites and can sense something greater - the land remembers. 

This base concept is true with stories - they continue to have meaning and weight in the places they come from. Not only for the community members who may have been a part of the actual happening, but also the blood memory, the memorials, the pain, the triumph - all of that contributed to the growth and health of the community. To extract it without being aware of its value is irresponsible. 

Options for continued engagement are as varied as the communities that they may come from. Sometimes elders may want to be a part of the process in a major way; sometimes they feel resolved upon telling you the story and trust you to follow the protocols they impart. Beginning with personal or reciprocal relationships is important, to know one another face to face - then to agree to common goals and accept differences. And ultimately, to honour your agreements, to talk when things get complicated or difficult, and to work with integrity. If there is a base difference of opinion from the beginning (Spiritual vs. Financial, Global vs. Local, Contemporary vs Traditional) those things need to be worked out early or they will lead to disenchantment and possibly failure of the relationship.

Unfortunately COVID has impacted all of us, and the arts most of all. There’s so much talk about coming back better than we were before - what do you hope to see change in the performing arts industry post-pandemic?

There is a lot of talk about our need to come together - to acknowledge our humility in the face of global disease and our susceptibility as individuals. People have endured isolation, immobility, seclusion, loss of wages, and fear of major health problems. The helping hand of the government has been polarizing and common sense isn’t universally agreed upon. 

With all of these realizations, I hope we don’t lose track of the lived experience so many of us have faced long before this virus. These same struggles have been a part of peoples’ lives for a long time and I hope people will understand more deeply the struggles our communities have endured. I hope those long walks with the kids and the dogs result in more understanding of our need to keep our planet well. And I hope that the barbaric act of separating families will be seen for what it is - that we will reform our collective mindset on foster care, kids in care, incarceration,  the homeless, and survivors of Canada’s legacy of residential schools. 

Thank you to Barry for sharing with us! 

Photo by Ethan Kootenhayoo and Jade Ehlers