The Nation: Basically how many plays do you write and how many of them make it to stage?
Drew Taylor: I’d say seven out of 10.
There’s been I think 10 plays produced and there have been two that I’ve written that have not been produced and probably never will be.
How did you get into playwriting?
I got a call one day from Tompson Highway. He was asking me what I was doing for the next 20 weeks. I said, “Not much. “I was a freelance writer at that time as well as a journalist. I had written the odd television show or two. So he said, “We’ve gotten a grant for a playwright and residency at Native Earth and we were wondering if you’d like to be it. It’s 20 weeks’ work, salary, all you have to do is sit and watch rehearsals.”
Prior to that I had only ever seen a handful of plays; I wasn’t a theatre person. So I said, “Yeah, O.K.” I went and took it just purely for monetary reasons and then I phoned up the theater. That was five years ago. Today I’m running the company.
That sounds like a great start. Well, the play you just put on last night Someday, what possessed you to write this play, this particular topic?
That’s an interesting question It all started out again with another phone call. This time from the Globe and Mail. Every year they run one short story a year and it’s run on December 24th. It’s their Christmas short story. They phoned me up in October asking if I’d be interested in writing a short story for them; a Christmas short story for their December 24th issue. And I said, “Yeah sure.”
I hung up and I remember thinking, should I tell them that I never wrote a short story before? Nahh! So what ended up happening is that I wrote it; it ran. It was the first piece of intentional fiction that had ever run on the front page of the Globe and Mail and Larry, who directed this play, was at that time artistic director of the De-ba-jeh-muj-jig Theater.
Larry read Someday in the Globe and phoned me up and said, “Drew, who has the rights to this story?” And I said, “I do, why?” “Drew, this would make a great play.”
And I laughed and said nah, it’s just a short story. And he goes, “No, re-write it again; think of it dramatically as a play.” I re-wrote it and I thought, “My golly, this could be a play.” So the two of us went to a band playwright and showed the first draft and it was produced in the fall of ’91.
You know the origins of the story. I actually had come up with the idea in the summer of 1990 or something like that. I don’t know where my ideas come from but in my travels l bump into a lot of these people who… well, this is a generation where Native people are coming back to find out who they are and where they came from.
I bump into a lot of these people in their travels and I sort of figured there’s a story here, all these people and nobody’s telling it. Look what happened at the residential schools, nobody knew about that until somebody told that story. So I was toying with the idea of writing this story but it had no Christmas in it whatsoever and then I had the story in my head. Then I had this offer for a short story. I melded the two, changed it to Christmas, sort of upped the emotional value of it a bit, wrote it and so far so good.
How did you feel last night?
I was just terrified. I was a basket case, but as the show wore on, and more and more people were responding to the humour, I began to feel better and better. At the end of the play a friend of mine was crying and she later told me that when she went to the washroom to adjust her make-up there were six other women in the audience who were crying down in the washroom too.
I thought, “Wow, this is great, this is very, very great, I’m flattered.” My forte is comedy; I’ve actually written a full-scale Native comedy called The Bootlegger Blues. So I’m pretty good with comedy but this is the first time I’ve made people cry. It’s a different feeling. It’s a deeper, deeper emotion. Crying is something horrible to bring out but evidently something in the play touched people that deeply.
These are serious issues that you’ve used humour with. I noticed the jokes, some are sort of Native insider jokes. Were you worried about a possible cultural gap?
Sometimes. I get asked that question a lot. Well, I’m half-Indian and half-white you know, I have red and white blood so I’m pink. Because I’m half-Objiway and half-Caucasian so I can think of myself as an Occasion. In fact, I think of myself as a Special Occasion… (laughter)
I get asked, do I write for Native audiences or do I write for white audiences? I don’t even think about that, I write for my computer. Sometimes there’s white humour in it, sometimes there’s Native humour in it. I like to think there’s a little of everything in it, a little bit for everybody.
But yeah, I know what you mean. Sometimes there’s a certain special pleasure in writing a Native joke that only Native people will get. One of my favourite is: what do white people eat? Whole wheat and yogurt. That got a good laugh from all the Native people in there. And the one about the tee-tox center. It’s not exactly a politically-correct joke, it’s a play on a word and it’s something that Native people will respond to more than a white audience.
Native art forms seem to be chic, vogue, in, as it were. Do you feel this is helping you out and possibly other Native playwrights?
Certainly. Since 1989 and 1990, there has been an amazing renascence and interest in Native arts. When Tompson wrote and produced The Rez Sisters in 86, he was probably the only Native playwright working in Canada.
Today I could name off two dozen Native playwrights working in Canada and it’s growing. When all this was happening people were saying, “Oh, Natives are the flavour of the month.” It’s been five years later and it’s not slowing down.
I myself have six plays up this season. New Native films are coming out. A new TV series on PBS called The Native Americans and another called Blue Hawk. There’s one being shot in Vancouver called Hawkeye, based on The Last of the Mohicans. It has a large Native cast as well as another on the east coast called The Scarlet Letter. So I think it’s just going to get bigger and bigger.
What would you recommend to other Natives wanting to get into the business?
Get a job at McDonald’s… (laughter) As
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