Over the next several months, the Canadian Opera Company will be highlighting members from our Circle of Artists initiative — an advisory body that is sparking conversation around institutional change at the COC and speaking directly to decision-makers to shape commitments that will support Indigenous communities with relationships based on reciprocity, caring, and mutual respect.
Circle of Artists: Spotlight on Michif (Métis) Theatre Creator Cole Alvis
Cole Alvis is a Michif (Métis) theatre artist — an actor, producer, programmer, director — whose practice is motivated by principles of social justice, anti-oppression, and the pursuit of equity for Indigenous and culturally diverse communities.
In June, Cole directed Lilies; or the Revival of the Romantic Drama
at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. The 1987 queer Canadian classic by Michel Marc Bouchard (librettist for the COC’s upcoming commission, La Reine-Garçon
) has a complex play-within-a-play structure set in a Quebec prison, layering personal history, temporal reality, and ongoing colonial impact in an interplay of metaphor, ritual, and gesture. The new co-production by lemonTree creations, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, and Why Not Theatre was called “electrifying” (NOW Magazine
) and featured a cast of predominantly Indigenous and Black actors to make visible the disproportionately high rates of incarceration among those communities in Canada’s justice system — pointing Bouchard’s text towards what Associate Director Nikki Shaffeeullah calls “the revolutionary potential of marginalized people searching for truth through collective storytelling.”
A production photo from Lilies
Together with Indrit Kasapi, you are one of the leaders of the theatre company lemonTree creations, which spearheaded this new production of Lilies. What initially inspired you to join lemonTree?
My first production with lemonTree was the play Deathwatch
by Jean Genet, which we produced in an art gallery on Ossington Avenue during Toronto’s Pride Festival. We wanted to offer a cultural event that we would like to attend during a festival better known for parties and corporate sponsorship. The play explores queerness and masculinity in a French prison and we staged it site-specifically using the XPACE Art Gallery’s unfinished basement as our prison.
When lemonTree creations Associate Artist Ryan G. Hinds brought us the play Lilies
by Michel Marc Bouchard, we had the opportunity to return to the prison system and chose to shine a light on colonialism and 2 Spirit culture. By casting Walter Borden (Mi’qmak, Choctaw and African diaspora), a Member of the Order of Canada, we threaded his Black and Indigenous ancestry through the rest of casting as a representation of the communities overly incarcerated in Canadian prisons today.
Cole Alvis in rehearsals for Lilies
Grappling with colonialism is explicitly defined as part of your arts practice at lemonTree, but it’s also a core commitment of your work more generally. What does that mean to you as a theatre artist on a daily basis?
As a white and male passing 2 Spirit person, I have many privileges that make it less likely for me to experience the surveillance and police brutality that impacts others within my communities. In her essay about our production of Lilies
, Associate Director Nikki Shaffeeullah cites, “...while Indigenous women represent four percent of women in Canada, they comprise half the women’s population in maximum-security facilities and are the fastest-growing prison demographic overall.”
My Métis-Chippewa ancestors chose assimilation to survive, marrying my Irish and English ancestors hoping for a life where their children were not under threat of being incarcerated in Residential Schools. I am here today because of those choices and through collaborations with social justice artists I have come to understand my role is to dismantle the white supremacist structures that I benefit from every day.You were just in Saskatoon at a conference speaking on equity-based theatre practice — what do you see as the key challenge and opportunity of this moment in Canadian theatre?
Saskatoon is in Treaty 6 territory, which is where 22-year-old Colten Boushie (Cree) was shot and killed while trespassing on a white farmer’s land. When the farmer received a not-guilty verdict it became clear that Canada values the protection of property over Indigenous lives. Click here for information on the documentary film about Colten Boushie that opened this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival
. Experiences like these make it vital to highlight the work of local Indigenous artists such as Jennifer Dawn Bishop (Métis) the Artistic Director of Gordon Tootoosis Nīkānīwin Theatre, who spoke on panels featuring local artists at the conference.
I attended the conference with my colleague at Ad Hoc Assembly, Donna-Michelle St. Bernard (Governor General Award-nominated playwright), and we co-facilitated a plenary on pursuing equity within theatre. Our focus was to inspire the arts sector, when celebrating small actions, to hold each other accountable by asking, “How can you take that action a step further towards seeking equity within your arts practice, organization or community?”How did you get involved with the Circle of Artists initiative at the Canadian Opera Company?
I began conversations with General Director Alexander Neef through my advocacy at the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance. One of the reasons I chose to participate in the production of Louis Riel
was his commitment to engaging with Indigenous artists and communities beyond Canada 150. The Circle of Artists is one of the ways the COC is maintaining existing relationships with Indigenous artists and cultivating new ones and I am proud to be working alongside Indigenous artists within this advocacy.
Cole Alvis in the COC's
What kind of potential do you see the Circle of Artists as having, not only to change the COC but impact the arts sector more broadly in this country?
The COC is following through with their commitment to commission new music for the opera Louis Riel
, composed by Ian Cusson (Métis/French-Canadian), as redress for the misuse of the Nisga’a song in the original composition by Harry Somers. There are over 100 Indigenous songs currently held under copyright instead of being protected by the First Nations communities that created them, often for private and culturally specific ceremonies. The National Arts Centre and the COC are leading by example, demonstrating how to return the songs through consultation and by being in relationship with the community who hold hereditary rights to the song. When large, predominantly white institutions engage in meaningful relationships, it has the potential to reduce the historical inequities that Indigenous artists face in the arts sector across Canada. As you look ahead in your various projects and commitments, where do you draw inspiration from?
Following this year’s Toronto PRIDE celebrations, I’m inspired by Black Lives Matter’s ability to remind the queer community that PRIDE began as a riot against police brutality towards the queer and Trans communities. This being 50 years since the riot at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, it is important to say the names of the Black and Latinx Trans activists that started a global movement that night: Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Stormy DeLarverie. Black, Latinx and Indigenous peoples have given us much in the queer community and yet it is largely gay white men that hold the most privilege, which means advocacy and activism is still required to ensure equity for the entire queer community.
2 Spirit artists and Knowledge Keepers are at the forefront of my mind, as they were the first to experience homophobia and transphobia when Canada’s colonial project began. I look forward to more solidarity work between Black, Latinx and 2 Spirit communities in my arts practice, in the streets and, hopefully, in our collective consciousness.
More about Cole Alvis
As an actor, Cole has performed with the Canadian Opera Company (in the role of the Activist in the COC's 2017 production of Louis Riel
), as well as the National Arts Centre, The Thistle Project, and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
As an arts leader, Cole was Executive Director of the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance (2013 – 2017), a participant in the Indigenous Directors Lab at the Stratford Festival, a collaborator in Falen Johnson programming the Guswenta Gathering at Soulpepper, and a co-programmer for the outdoor stage at the Cinesphere during TIFF ’17 alongside Jesse Wente.
They are one of the leaders of lemonTree creations, manidoons collective, Ad Hoc Assembly (AHA) and are the former Executive Director of the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance.
Photo Credits: Cole Alvis, photo: Alejandro Santiago; (l-r) Indrit Kasapi, Mark Cassius, Joseph Zita, Tsholo Khalema, Ryan G. Hinds, Troy Emery Twigg, Walter Borden, and Alexander Chapman in Lilies
, photo: Jeremy Mimnagh; Cole Alvis in rehearsals for Lilies
, photo: Greg Wong; A scene from Louis Riel
(COC, 2017), photo: Michael Cooper.