Indigenous Artist Spotlight: Todd Houseman

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. 

The next several spotlights will feature artists who were selected to perform at the inaugural Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival, which has been rescheduled to June 2021.

Find all of our past Spotlight interviews here.

This month we spoke with actor Todd Houseman.

Todd Houseman Headshot 1To start off, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your work?

My work primarily focus is on decolonization or anti-colonialism, but it was kind of a long journey to get to that place. I started out as a professional improvisor; right out of high school I joined a company called Rapid Fire Theatre, which does improv in Edmonton. It’s the longest-running theatre sports company in the world. I primarily used to do improv comedy.

At the same time I started teaching improv through that company, in an inner-city school in Edmonton, to a lot of Indigenous students. So it was great to use my cultural background to help facilitate learning through improv, because a lot of these students have a particular experience and it’s hard for other teachers to reach out to them.

So I was sort of coming up in the improv world as I was coming up in the cultural exploration world, of my own Cree ancestry. So I continued to improvise more and that led to more acting roles in the city as well as my teaching role moved on to more cultural facilitation work that I was doing throughout the city.

In that time I met my performing partner Ben Gorodetsky, and we were both interested in adding our cultures to our improv. So we created the improvised play Folk Lordz, which was based on his Russian ancestry and my Cree background, and then a third genre, whatever the audience wants.

We toured that show around for a couple of years, and that sort of opened the door to bringing Indigeneity into any of the work that I do. So I started writing a lot more, I had a comic book published at one point that was part of Moonshot, which is an Indigenous comic collection. And then I wrote a play recently with my performing partner Lady Vanessa Cardona, called Whiteface, which is the play that we were going to do at NIFF…

My work started as improv and then through Folk Lordz I started creating more Indigenous-themed comedy stuff, and then Ben and I eventually made Folk Lordz into a web series, which is on now. The final-cut edit of that series is coming out any day now.

After all of this work I decided to go to the National Theatre School and actually learn how to be an actor, because I never had any professional training or anything like that. The other reason that I went to NTS is to sort of answer this feeling that I had in me of tokenism. I was getting really worried that I was getting cast in a lot of roles because of my Indigenous background instead of my talent. And that’s a really gross feeling to have. So I went to NTS to at least answer that question for myself that I had the training.

I actually wanted to ask you about that, because in other interviews you’ve talked about the tricky balance between it being important to highlight Indigenous art, and the fact that a lot of your work does deal with anti-colonialism and your Indigenous background, but then also wanting to be seen as an actor who happens to be Indigenous as opposed to an Indigenous actor. So I’m interested in how you balance that… 

For me, and I can only speak for myself and I don’t expect any other Indigenous or person of colour performer or actor to have the same perspective on this… I think that there are many, many talented Indigenous performers and lots of people that deserve a lot of the roles, but I was really feeling in myself that I didn’t quite deserve it or didn’t quite belong. When I was in a role I didn’t quite have the script-work or know what I was talking about as much as other people, so it just made me feel a bit more othered in that situation than maybe I should have…

So I want there to be Indigenous people hired because of their talents and also because they’re Indigenous. And also being seen as an artist before an Indigenous artist. Like I applied for the Canada Council granting stream some years ago and I applied as a professional artist and as an Indigenous artist at the same time, and I got approved as an Indigenous artist. Which means that an Indigenous artist isn’t a professional artist… which is kind of a funky standard that I think a lot of people are changing now.

It really feels like this is the time for people to really re-evaluate their perspectives on performers of colour, which is exciting.

I’m curious on that note how you feel about this from the perspective of NIFF. Because again you’ve talked before about the balance of it being valuable to group Indigenous art together to highlight it, but on the other hand, that it might doing disservice to group pieces that are actually very different from each other together just because they are all created by Indigenous artists.

Right. The way that I sort of saw NIFF is that it could be a refreshing change to just going to a Fringe Festival. Because as an Indigenous performer going to any non-Indigenous space… you’re constantly re-evaluating your work and its purpose. That’s one of the things that I ended up doing a lot… “Who is this show for and why did I make it?” As opposed to just the freedom of play on stage, which is the foundation of a lot of performance I think. Just the act of playing and performing and telling stories.

And I think if you can remove that sense of feeling like you’re being an ambassador for your culture, or you’re teaching people… you’re putting a lot of extra work on yourself. If you can remove that and just be like, “I’m surrounded by Native people, that’s great, this place is a Native space and all the performers are Native. This is more just about playing and performing.”

It’s also great to see other Indigenous work just so that we can all see where each other are at. I think that there is a style to a lot of Indigenous work that I’ve seen. A lot of it gets pretty heavy, and a lot of it ends with people holding hands at the end and telling the audience that it’s gonna be ok and singing a song. Which is really beautiful for making people feel bad for a moment and then the catharsis at the end, but it really kind of makes people feel like, “Oh thank god, I can go back to my life.” As opposed to really examining the power structures that exist or understanding colonialism and its hindrance on a lot of Indigenous people. So I think it’s really cool for other Indigenous actors to be in that space all together to really see our work and hold ourselves accountable to the type of work that we’d like to make together.

But then, there is sort of that double-edged sword of, “Let’s really lean hard into Indigenous performance,” and then we’re kind of distancing ourselves from just being artists that are also Indigenous. So, the balance is always difficult, but being in that space with other Native people is probably a way better way than just lying in bed at night sweating and trying to figure out how to fix Indigenous art.

Todd Houseman Headshot 2

You’ve done quite a bit of online digital work already, like the Folk Lordz digital series, I’m wondering your thoughts on the balance of live performance and digital, especially in light of the pandemic. A lot of artist shad had to suddenly shift to digital, but you’ve maybe already done some of that.

The shift was hard to transition with live theatre. We did our final performance at NTS all online… adapted into a live format. Which was amazing, but also difficult because we were managing our stress of being in this quarantine and not knowing how long it would be. 

… We didn’t work on it as much as we would have had it been a real, live show in a theatre. But we put a lot of work into it, and I think it was a really good production. But it will always be on Zoom, and a little bit lagging, or certain technical difficulties. But I was really proud of that work, and I can sort of see how I would go forward with more Zoom work.

But since I’ve worked in film before, I think any content that I would want to create digitally would have to be pre-recorded or film. Because film is already a very well-adapted art form that uses acting and directing and all of the things that I have learned, to tell beautiful stories.

So I’m so interested in creating Zoom films or creating films in isolation, even with a crummy camera. I made a film when we first started the isolation that I got a grant from NTS to create. It was a mask show that I wrote in isolation and it was really about nothing, but it was really refreshing to be able to create this long piece of work.

Speaking of masks, can you talk a bit about the piece you were meant to perform at NIFF, Whiteface?

Whiteface was created by me and my performing partner Lady Vanessa Cardona. We made it as part of the Zero Gravity Festival in Edmonton. Part of this dance company (Mile Zero Dance) that we used to perform at their cabarets all the time. When we finished our first performance of it… Gerry, the AD of the company, was like “there was a lot of talking in that dance show.” And I told her, “Well I’m not a dancer, so I wrote a play anyway.”

So after that we started adapting it into a Fringe piece, and we took it to Winnipeg and Edmonton Fringe. This is after performing it at Hip Hop in the Park in Edmonton, which is a mostly POC-run festival of performance.

The show is about cultural appropriation. We wrote it to really tackle the disgusting feeling we were having of witnessing cultural appropriation in the media and how long we had been witnessing it and how long it has been an issue. The whole point of the show was to flip the perspective of being a person of colour seeing themselves misrepresented on stage and impersonating an idea of whiteness that doesn’t exist, a stereotype of whiteness that has been kind of been touched on by different groups in different forms and performances.

We wanted to embody these stereotypical white characters that cannot get enough of wearing Indigenous masks. There are three different types of masks that they put on, and it was us in white makeup and we would put on these masks that each represented different forms of Indigenous appropriation. So like poverty, or fetishization (the beauty of Indigenous people), or criminalization (making Indigenous people into criminals)… the whole show is a mix of movement and mask performance.

We wrote it to really be as blunt with this idea as we could. It was really an exploration for me in my work, coming from comedy which is so easy to digest because it’s humourous. To go to this heavy and dramatic place was a cool shift for me to explore where I can go with my work… It certainly wasn’t the holding hands at the end singing to the audience type of show, which I’m still not convinced is the wrong way to do it, but it was certainly a heavier show for a lot of people.

But we had a lot of great reviews. We didn’t really get the reaction that I wanted. I wanted white people to say “this is offensive and racist” and then to come to the show and see what it was like. But we didn’t really get a lot of vocal people about that. I’m sure on some blog some guy probably got all of his feelings out about the show, but I really wanted that to be the hook to draw racists to come to the show, because I think that they would have benefitted from feeling the same way that we feel.

… We had a few people walk out and I don’t know why… sometimes I think people walked out because it’s a lot more than they expected and other times I wonder if they walked out because they just really disagree. And maybe the people that did think that and just weren’t vocal about it, maybe they had their minds changed and just didn’t talk about it. So I have to have hope that it did reach some of the people that we wanted to.

Thank you so much for chatting, is there anything else that you want to share about what you’re up to or anything else before we go? I realize it’s a strange time to ask what’s next.

For sure, not up to much! But I’m working on Whiteface 2 at some point, and Folk Lordz season 2 is coming out soon.

But… I think this time is such a shift in the world of theatre and art and I’m excited to see how black lives are better supported in the performing arts, as our art must be a reflection of society’s needs.

Thank you to Todd for sharing with us.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.