Reneltta Arluk has taken centre stage as the Banff Centre’s new director of Indigenous Arts and is ready to work for the community.
With her arrival in Banff, Arluk carries many distinguished and relevant titles: artist, actor, director, playwright and poet, but nowadays she rather sees herself as “mother.”
Upon being hired as director of Indigenous Arts on Nov. 1 and relocating to Banff with her partner and their infant child, Arluk believes the mountain town in Canada’s first national park is going to be an integral place for the Indigenous voice.
“The beautiful thing about the Banff Centre is it’s autonomous,” said Arluk. “All of the directors (at the Centre) don’t have to fit in a box … you can do whatever you want with your vision.”
This past summer, Arluk became the first Indigenous person to direct at the Stratford Festival with the premiere of The Breathing Hole, an adaption by Governor General Award winning writer Colleen Murphy.
She is also the first Indigenous woman to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Alberta.
Theatre is the actor’s forte and Arluk has performed in and created Indigenous theatre for over a decade.
Since the Banff Centre has involved in its full programming the Truth and Reconciliation mandate, which includes a monthly summit and speaker, Arluk’s primary focus is to revive Indigenous theatre at the arts and creativity centre and meet the needs of Indigenous artists to direct them to succeed.
“The big thing is to start thinking about the people coming behind us so that they have the skills and training and confidence to be able to do the work,” said the director. “I don’t think any artist I know has had a natural trajectory of success – we’ve all kind of managed somehow to get these places of influence and success, but how did we get here? Can we do something easier for those who want to follow us to get here without accidents and circumstances?”
From the Northwest Territories and of Inuvialuit, Dene and Cree descent, there were no drama classes, or dance, or the arts where Arluk grew up. Simply said, “it just wasn’t supported in the community.”
The creative fire is burning in us all and for Arluk to find her voice in her culture, she saw it in her storytelling. As a young artist, to develop and grow in the field that called to her meant a formidable relocation to a centre that supported what she sought.
So Arluk packed her bags, tossed them into her vehicle and travelled alone to the southeast from Yellowknife to Toronto, where she attended acting school for a year. Arluk will tell you driving 13-hour days is nothing when you’re from the north.
Living off $5 a day while attending the Centre for Indigenous Theatre, echoes of her mother, a residential school survivor, wondering why she didn’t choose to be a lawyer instead rushed to the actor’s mind.
“‘Don’t starve yourself purposely,'” recited Arluk.
It’s something worrying mothers have to say, although it wasn’t necessarily Arluk’s nutrition intake where concern was needed.
At acting school, digging into the young artist’s own body as an art form bled Arluk emotionally.
“It releases a lot of trauma and a lot of hurt you never knew you had in you,” the actor said. “But I thought, This is going to save my life, I know it. That’s why I kept with it.”
After a year in Toronto, the actor moved back to Whitehorse, Yukon, where she became part of Raven’s Tale Theatre. The ensemble showcased stories and cultures of the Yukon’s First Nations.
Arluk then applied for and got into the competitive U of A acting program in Edmonton.
“I thought that I fooled everyone,” the poet admitted. “I thought I had a fluke day where I had my A-day for one day and that was the day to have it.”
In 2005, Arluk graduated and was the first Indigenous woman to receive her Bachelor of Fine Arts – Acting degree at the university.
In 2008, the writer formed Akpik Theatre, which premiered a Plains Cree adaptation of Macbeth called Pawâkan Macbeth, A Cree Tragedy, in Edmonton this past fall.
Written by Arluk, part of the adaption involves the Macbeth character becoming consumed by the cannibal spirit Wihtiko.
Arluk worked with youth actors on Frog Lake First Nation for the adaption, a situation she is quite passionate about.
“I believe in working with youth, it’s a huge thing for me because I wasn’t given the opportunity to work in the arts in my community (growing up),” the playwright said.
She has considered staging Pawâkan Macbeth at the Banff Centre, although the her intentions are to balance her work with that of others.
In the meantime at the Banff Centre, Arluk’s programming will really go into effect in 2019-20.
“I don’t want it feel like I’m here to do my own work, I want my community to feel like I’m here to do work for them,” she said.