Studies & Facts

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Floyd Favel Starr

Starr's Global Vision Seeks Change

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One of a series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance
By Steven Ross Smith


Achievement seems to be coming to Floyd Favel Starr in multiples these days. His two plays, Governor of the Dew and All My Relatives, have just been published in one edition by Saskatchewan publisher Coteau Books. This is the first book for Starr, but he's not unknown in theatre and broadcast media. You may have heard him on the radio on CBC's Dead Dog Cafe, a popular and edgy comedy series that a few years ago completed a successful five year radio run. It is a multi-faceted program, but could in part be categorized as a satirical look at white society through Aboriginal eyes, though it is not beyond poking fun at First Peoples. The characters - Thomas King, Gracie Heavy Hand, and Jasper Friendly Bear - have become well-known. Jasper Friendly Bear is Saskatchewan's own actor Floyd Favel Starr. And though the Cafe was removed from the regular schedule, the dog was not dead. An encore production was recorded for broadcast at Regina's Globe Theatre in May 2001 and this October The Dead Dog Cafe opened the International Indigenous Authors Festival in Vancouver to a sold out audience, and was broadcast by the CBC.

But Starr is more than a character radio actor. He's a playwright and visionary theatre director. He is well-respected for his theatre work. Helen Marzolf, former Director of Regina's Dunlop Art Gallery, recently said of Favel Starr, "I think he's a genius." Andrea Menard, who has acted in two of his plays says that Starr "has an original voice; he writes from a poetic and dream-like emotional place."

Certainly Favel Starr is a rarity in Saskatchewan's theatre community. From Poundmaker First Nation, he is fluent in Cree and English, and within a theatre setting, where he learned these languages, he is capable in Danish and Italian. In 1984, at seventeen years of age he began volunteering at Persephone Youth Theatre in Saskatoon, where he worked with Ruth Smillie, now the director of Regina's Globe Theatre. At Persephone Floyd painted sets and gained a backstage view of theatre. Ms. Smillie continues to be an influence, now as a presenter of his work at the Globe. Their early 'training' relationship has become a professional meeting of minds, and Starr still claims Smillie as an important inspiration. The other 'light' he says, that spurs him, is his late mother, Lily Favel.

In 1984 Favel Starr went overseas to study at Tuak Teatret in Denmark, a theatrical school for Aboriginal citizens of Greenland, Scandinavia, and North America. He also studied at Ricerca Theatre in Italy under the famed Polish Director Jerzy Grotowski. And in Japan he apprenticed in Butoh dance, under master Natsu Nakajima. He spent time too at the Native Theatre School in Toronto. Now he is the director of the Takwakin Performance Laboratory, based in Regina, and is one of the founders of the Centre for Indigenous Theatre. He recently spent time as the dance artist in residence with New Dance Horizons in Regina.

Floyd has presented two shows at the Globe Theatre, including Governor of the Dew, which he also directed. The Governor of the Dew played at the National Arts Centre, this fall (September 24 to October 5), where The Ottawa Citizen called it "moving and beautifully written." Starr's work in theatre is drawn from his culture, but seeks to transcend, as well as reflect it. "Art is universal," he says. "If we're all the time looking at ourselves, all we see is ourselves. We need to look elsewhere too." Starr's global vision took him to Siberia for one month this past spring to research a new play based on the Tunguska meteorite explosion there in 1908. The resulting work-in-progress is The Sleeping Land, an exploration of that event from a spiritual and cultural perspective of the Evenki, the indigenous people there. The play will be presented as a workshop production in Montreal in May 2003, in partnership with the Montreal Playwrights Workshop, Ondinnok Theatre, and Starr's company, Takwakin. In the summer of 2003 he will go back to Russia and Siberia to do final research. The show will be polished, then premiered by the Globe Theatre in the 2003-04 season.

When asked if a place for Native actors and writers will be found through a new kind of writing or a new theatrical form, Starr becomes fervent. "No", he says, "that would mean that Chekov could only be performed by Russians, or Ibsen by Norwegians." Starr's implication is that he resents racial ghettoization, an endemic form of racism that keeps Aboriginals playing Aboriginals, keeps non-stereotypical First Nation and Métis characters out of mainstream theatre, and Native scripts off the 'big' stage. He wants to bring Natives into the mainstream, to break down boundaries, because he feels that, "Natives are isolated in this society. My people have a right to live and work in this province as equals. This is only done through friendships and collaboration and not through isolation. Takwakin is about human rights."

While Starr has had success on big stages, he believes that his notion of collaboration can be found through artistic work in small centers too, in small towns and cities, in rural communities and reserves, and at local events. In these settings it is possible to touch people in a more direct way.

Starr has just finished touring his dance show, Nitaskenan, which performed at
Peterborough Dance, and L'Espace Tangente in Montreal. Despite many travels Favel Starr still sees Saskatchewan as his home working base. In the next while he'll be promoting his book and working on the script of The Sleeping Land. In April he will be acting in the Globe Theatre production of Coronation Voyage by Michel Marc Bouchard, playing the Narrator, a lead character. Then he will be working with New Dance Horizons and the Canada Dance Festival staging The Pelican Nocturne. In the summer, 2003, he will be the instructor in the Playwriting Lab at Sage Hill Writing Experience in Lumsden.

To achieve his goals, Floyd Favel Starr seems to be working in all directions. As a near total theatre artist - actor, dancer, writer, director - Starr is guided by desires common to the greatest theatrical artists in many cultures. He wants to make us see our world. He wants new awareness to lead to change. He is enlisting all his talents to create a transformation in the human psyche.

Starr provides a remarkable example of the value of providing access and mentorship to young creative imaginations. It's a long way from those early days for him. Today he is a skilled, educated, motivated, diversified, entrepreneurial, accomplished dramatic artist. And he's still young. He has already 'paid off' several-fold the early investment that Persephone Youth Theatre made when they handed an inexperienced but inquisitive seventeen-year-old volunteer a paint-brush.

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Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.

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