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Wake up Whitehorse

By Amy Kenny

The Awaken Festival was so well-suited to being adapted to an online audience, artistic director Colin Wolf says he almost wondered if it shouldn’t have been planned that way from the start. 

“Originally it was going to be all Yukon people, but because it has gone online, we opened that up a bit … now we can have someone from Toronto, Old Crow and Australia, all Indigenous people who identify as queer. So that’s awesome.” 

The festival, in its first year, is a project of Gwaandak Theatre. It’s aimed at amplifying Indigenous and northern voices, as well as the stories of marginalized artists. 

In its revised digital format, its mandate also includes providing relief, activity and entertainment to those in isolation. That wasn’t always part of the plan for the 10-day festival, which was initially supposed to offer live and in-person workshops and performances. 

“The first big thing was when the Arctic Winter Games were cancelled,” says Wolf. “That was a trigger for a lot of people in the North here for what was to come.”

As soon as organizers heard the news about AWG, Wolf says they started coming up with ideas for what a digital experience would look like. Fortunately, he says Gwaandak had recently worked on a website for Forward Together, a collection of radio stories created in partnership with the Vuntut Gwitchin Government. That helped organizers realize how transferable most events were to the web, for example, Falen Johnson’s masterclass in story-telling.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in the room with Falen, she can still explain to you how to develop your story-telling voice,” Wolf says. 

Johnson, Mohawk and Tuscarora from Six Nations Grand River Territory, but based in Toronto, is an award-winning poet and playwright. Her two-session masterclass is designed to lead woman-identifying and non-binary participants through the process of finding their own voices and sharing their own stories. 

Other events include a 90-minute powwow class. Vancouver poet and powwow dancer Nyla Carpentier, who is Tahltan, Kaska, French and Scottish, will introduce participants to the different types of powwow dance and their basic steps. 

Wolf says he’s also excited about the Indigiqueer cabaret, which offers mentorship to Indigenous, Indigiqueer, 2spirit and queer folx in burlesque, drag and other types of cabaret performance. The instruction will be followed by a May 9 performance for those who wish to participate. 

These and additional events will take place online from May 1 to May 10. A full schedule is available online. Though workshops require registration, there are no fees to participate. Wolf says organizers wanted Awaken to be as low-barrier as possible, though he acknowledges lack of internet or a computer could be a barrier to some.

As Wolf says, this new format does, unfortunately, close the door for some, but it also opens the door for others, including those with mobility issues who might not otherwise be able to attend. 

“It’s been a challenge, but a good challenge and a good way to figure out how we make theatre and show it to people,” Wolf says. “We’re doing the same thing, we’re just forced to use different mediums.”