Northern youth are getting a second lesson in self expression with the “What’s Your Story?” theatre, dance and song workshop tour, back for another year in the NWT and this time with a jaunt into northern Alberta.
Workshop creator Reneltta Arluk of Akpik Theatre is joined once again by New York-based singer Renee Benson on the tour, along with first-timer Alex Twin, a modern and pow-wow dancer from the Kehewin Cree Nation in Alberta.
Arluk said the ongoing creative work with youth is to help them find their voice at a young age in order to improve their confidence – something she wishes had been more available to her as a teen.
“It’s just really important to find that artistic voice as an option,” she shared with The Journal. “Just from my own personal experience, I feel like I didn’t find my voice until I was 19 years old, and I feel like if I had been given opportunities I probably would have taken them…If I could have found my voice at, say, 16 or 13, maybe that would have changed some of the choices I made as I was getting older and made me more confident. For me, it was confidence. I didn’t start acting at 19 because I was hugely self-conscious. I had an artistic voice and that never got discovered until I was much older.”
Throughout the four-day workshop, youth are encouraged to bring out their personal stories through a focus on sacred objects, whether those be concrete items or special relationships. Arluk, Benson and Twin help coax those stories into the realm of performance, led by the wishes of the youth who give a performance on the last day.
“The stories can be told individually or as a collaborative ensemble,” Arluk said. “It’s pretty free-flow; we’re there to support them…We look at what they’re offering and then make it work into something that’s cohesive.”
The team started its tour in Yellowknife last week, working with the teens from the YWCA’s Girlspace before moving on to Fort Simpson over the weekend, partnering with the Open Sky Creative Society and the Thomas Simpson high school.
This week, the troupe comes to Fort Smith, where the trio will put on their own pay-what-you-can show at the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre Wednesday evening before beginning work with the youth at Uncle Gabe’s Friendship Centre.
As her hometown, Arluk said Fort Smith will always be a site for her creative youth-based projects, but especially now due to the string of tragedies that has affected the community since the beginning of the year.
“There’s been 10 deaths since Christmas and it’s devastating, so I just thought we have to go into that community,” Arluk said. “We have to bring something to focus on.”
From there, the trio will head to Fort McMurray and 10 of the region’s smaller, Aboriginal communities to do similar workshops – albeit on a tighter schedule – in partnership with Keyano College.
“It’ll be more demonstrative,” Arluk said of the Alberta tour. “They really want to focus more on the dance element.”
After the Northern tour is done, Arluk will be joining Benson in New York City to take part in a similar program Benson started with youth in the South Bronx.
Arluk said her intention is to keep the workshop coming back to the North year after year to build a legacy of performing arts programming.
“My absolute goal is to create a consistency of arts coming into communities,” she said. “A lot of things are one-offs, but with What’s Your Story? specifically, because it’s so youth-based, Akpik Theatre would like to create something that has consistency, to get consistent funding and support, to be able to bring artists into the communities on a basis where they recognize us, they put that time aside, the schools get involved and then we just get to build on what we did the previous year with the youth.”
Several of the girls in Yellowknife had attended the first year of the workshop, and Arluk said being able to build off that initial experience increased their creativity and confidence.
“Because they know that we’re listening to them and that we’re following their lead, they invest,” Arluk said. “It’s pretty powerful stuff, I’m not gonna lie. It takes a lot of work, but it’s completely rewarding.”