Cole Alvis is a Michif, Two-Spirit artist based in Tkarón:to. Her heritage includes Métis, Chippewa, Irish, and English from the Turtle Mountains in Manitoba, as well as North Dakota. Alvis is a theatre artist who dabbles in opera and storytelling.
Interpretations of their own teachings and opinions shared here are the responsibility of each artist.
Written transcript is below.
“We sought out Indigenous artists interested and skilled in classical music and cast as many of them as we could and also culturally diverse artists. So that offer to bring in our ancestors, I think helped us understand that circular way of working as opposed to someone's ancestors being of more value than someone else's. And so when time was challenging or limited, still we were moving forward in a way where we're all working together for this.”
Written Transcript, Interview with Cole Alvis for Kindling
Christa Couture: OK, so who are you?
Cole Alvis: My name is Cole Alvis, I'm a Michif artist here in Tkarón:to. My heritage includes Métis, Chippewa, Irish, and English from the Turtle Mountains in Manitoba, as well as North Dakota. I'm thirty six, I identify as Two Spirit, and also I'm a queer person who I guess already mentioned lives in Tkarón:to.
Christa Couture: How long have you been here? That's not on the page, but I'm just curious.
Cole Alvis: Yeah, I moved here in 2003, so it's been a little while.
Christa Couture: That's a long time.
Cole Alvis: Yeah. My parents moved to Alberta to have a family, so I grew up and was born in Alberta, rural, southern and closer to Saskatchewan. A little town called Duchess.
Christa Couture: Duchess Alberta, who knew?
Cole Alvis: Exactly. I'm the Duchess of Alberta.
Christa Couture: Awesome!
Cole Alvis: So, I went to Red Deer College, uh, for theatre, performance and then transferred to York, and I've been in Toronto since.
Christa Couture: Amazing. You mentioned studying theatre. So what is your method of artistic expression?
Cole Alvis: I'm a theatre artist primarily that dabbles in opera these days.
Christa Couture: Cool. Also storytelling.
Christa Couture: And why is theatre-dabbling-in-opera-storytelling important to you?
Cole Alvis: I love story. My mom had a sixtieth birthday recently and it was also my parents' fortieth anniversary, and so there was a slideshow. And in all the photos, well, many of the photos I was there with a book and I recall my mom reading to us before bed and also story just being a part of my childhood and now my adult life. And so to work in story through theatre or opera or just storytelling itself, feels like a natural fit. It's how I learn things and how I enjoy sharing or perhaps teaching others through through art and specifically storytelling.
Christa Couture: From your career so far, in the works you've made so far, which piece are you most proud of? Throw your mind back to the years you've been making work. Is there something that stands out?
Cole Alvis: Oh, yeah, I am. I'm proud of many things. I'm thinking about bug by Yolanda Bonnell because we got to rehearse that in this room and most specifically because we got to bring it back to Yolanda's community. She's from Fort William First Nation. And so we offered storytelling as well as Indigenous Women's storytelling workshops. So for both youth and women, in her community, and then many of her friends and family came to see the show when we did it in Thunder Bay.
It's a story about addiction and cycles of trauma that are experienced by the women in an Indigenous family. And it comes from that territory. And we've had the opportunity to perform it in many places across Turtle Island. And so it was particularly meaningful to get it, to bring it back home and and to have the women who live some and many of those stories there to witness and to share in it. Yolanda's an incredible writer and she also performs and it's a solo show.
Christa Couture: You directed it. Yeah.
Cole Alvis: And I directed the piece. I've seen every show we've ever done, like, I've watched all of them and it is ceremony. We have the audience set up in a circle and we got to do the show in Coast Salish territory before it even had its world premiere. Through working with an Indigenous liaison there, they connected us with the Tsow-tun Le Lum, which is an addiction's centre in Victoria, and they provided us with healers for all three of our shows, and that has become a staple, a requirement that we provide to our presenters that while Yolanda is there and telling these hard truths, we want to protect the specifically the Indigenous Women that are seeing that work. And so, hiring local healers who know how to care for the local audience in their own way has become really important.
Christa Couture: Wow. That's beautiful. And I feel like then that protection and support, I feel like, helps both sides. I think sometimes as performers when we're sharing hard stories and then we receive, people want to give us a lot of their stories and it sometimes can be too much to take, you know, but it has to go somewhere. Like, of course, the audience wants to put it somewhere and you want them to get to put it somewhere. And and it makes so much sense to bring in bring in the people who can who can receive that and say, I know how to do this with you in this place. That's beautiful.
Cole Alvis: We built that in. There's a Q&A after every performance. So there is an opportunity for people to engage with Yolanda and to see her speaking as herself to know that she's all right.
Christa Couture: Right. Yeah.
Cole Alvis: She speaks about often there being an auntie in the circle or like someone in particular, that during the performance she can feel their energy caring for her and then often they may say something in the Q&A or sort of present themselves. Um, so so there is that opportunity to engage with her, the performer in that way, and then then also she can go to her dressing room and we have healers there to help with that additional labour that as an artist or as an actor, she's not necessarily trained.
Christa Couture: Right, yeah. And as the director does that some of that come to you as well. I mean, eyes are kind of on her.
Cole Alvis: I think so. Yeah.
Christa Couture: Yeah.
Cole Alvis: Yeah. Off the top we do. Um, so with the youth storytelling workshops that we do, we then invite the youth to present a creation story that we were gifted. Pauline Shirt, a Plains Cree elder who we work with, and she gifted us a creation story about how the bugs made way for, specifically the Anishinaabe people, and so Yolanda teaches that story over the course of the storytelling workshop. And then there's an invitation for youth to be part of the preshow performance of our work. I'll stand in there's sort of four, um, we call them "voms". There's four spaces in between the seats in the circle, and so Yolanda, the youth, myself and the healer will be present off the top. And, um, and so in that way, I suppose I'm visible, but it's it's definitely more about centring Yolanda and Indigenous Women’s stories for sure.
Christa Couture: Now, you mentioned growing up with storytelling in your childhood, but which artists or art movements have you been influenced by?
Cole Alvis: Yeah, I would say that story is what brought me to theatre and, um, and I trained in theatre largely from a Eurocentric lens and whenever my mom growing up would talk about being Métis, my dad would - he's Irish and English - and he would say, “I'm not sure how I feel about being married to a Half-Breed.” That was his little joke that was pretty effective in, um, silencing those conversations or that, um, work that's required or has been required in my family to seek out connection and even to really know. And so basically my mom's generation, a lot of her siblings have their Métis cards in the different provinces that they live and it's kind of only her generation where it's been safe enough to identify and and to be out about this. Um, I feel like I've had sort of multiple coming out moments in my life as far as, um, largely being raised in a White way... So coming out as as a queer White boy... Um, and then through theatre and specifically working with Native Earth Performing Arts. Finding the tools or, um, creating the path for myself in collaboration with Indigenous artists to seek these questions and to find our people, and it's been a long process.
Recently I did reconnect with cousins of ours in North Dakota. Um, my great grandma left North Dakota. She was in a convent. Her and, uh, her two siblings and the parents took them out in the night and crossed to Manitoba and stopped identifying and, um, raised their children to assimilate and to marry White people and that happened for several generations. And it's still happening. My siblings... And yet, through social media, and... A bit of research, I was able to find our cousins in North Dakota and reconnect with these people that have always been there, um, but just not known to us. As I mentioned, we were growing up in Alberta and so we would head to Manitoba every summer, but never down to North Dakota. We didn't even know who to look for down there.
Christa Couture: Right, yeah.
Cole Alvis: So, particularly from a Two Spirit perspective and within my arts practice, what I've come to know about Two Spirit is that it includes aspects of gender and sexuality that are familiar from a Eurocentric place, but also, connection to spirit and to community and not knowing who our community or where our community was, made me cautious about identifying us as Two Spirit. That was, it was, it's been something... That's been something I've wanted to do, but needed to learn more about first. Since meeting, Awanigiizhik this Two-Spirit artist in North Dakota and also Linus, my cousin, there's people... So that while I self identify as being Métis from the Turtle Mountains, there are Métis people in the Turtle Mountains who can who can claim me.
Christa Couture: Yeah. Yeah.
Cole Alvis: And that has made a real difference in me feeling strong enough to, um, to move into a Two Spirit identity.
Christa Couture: Hmm. I really relate to that. Someone asked me just a couple of days ago to identify his spirit and I was like, I think so? And even as I said it, I was like, oh, I think I'm somewhere maybe in the like in that process of like, what does it mean to me? What does it mean in our community? Am I ready to claim that? I've always said queer and I've always been queer and Indigenous and those words come very easily to me. I feel confident and strong and grounded in those words. And then the word Two Spirit. There's this little part of me is like, do I get to? Can I? What does it mean? I don't know. You know, like it's interesting. And it but there's also. Yeah. Because there's a there is a responsibility that comes with it and understanding of like what is that part in our community? What does it mean to be Two Spirit in our community and to ourselves? And yeah. So thank you for sharing that part that you also kind of that that was a process and a journey for you is, um, a few questions the next sections are about your I mean, you kind of touched on some of these things, your childhood reflections and experiences. I'm trying to kind of picture that part of Alberta where Duchess is. I grew up in Edmonton, i know Alberta a little.
Christa Couture: How does or did the land and water where you are from influence your work as a theatre artist, is there a connection there?
Cole Alvis: Sure. I'm from southern Alberta on the Saskatchewan side, so it's flat and dry and big sky, the Badlands weave past where I'm from. So Tyrell Museum and Dinosaur Provincial Parks actually closer to where I grew up. And so dinosaur bones and rattlesnakes and wild roses.
The water where I'm from makes me think more of the Souris River in Manitoba, so this is where my Métis grandma has had a cabin that is now her children are stewarding that. The Souris River's, a place where she would hunt and where a lot of the Indigenous knowledge that, uh, was available to be passed on, was centred and the Souris River meets the Assiniboine and eventually the Red River and goes all the way into Hudson's Bay. So. When I think about where I'm from, I was born in rural Alberta, but that has for a long time felt like only part of the story when it comes to my Irish and English ancestors that settled in the Turtle Mountains and then my Métis and Chippewa ancestors that have always been there. Métis territory extends to Hudson's Bay and the fur trade's a significant part of that, that story. My auntie has done a lot of this research, genealogical research and we are descendants of Cuthbert Grant, who's one of the founders of the Métis nation. Most directly, we're descendants of his cooler older sister.
Christa Couture: Yeeaah (laughs).
Cole Alvis: And so I was looking at that waterways or those waterways and then also the places that I've traversed in in my lifetime and where I live and work, it's definitely following these trade routes. With my Métis grandma, I am coming to terms with some of the the feedback that she would give me growing up. Specifically, at whatever age one asks for My Little Pony, she let me know that little boys shouldn't shouldn't be doing that. I told my mom this and she was surprised, she didn't realise that, but that that was a private conversation we had had. It's obviously something that had a great impact on me as far as there are parts of me or things that I want or ways that I am that I can't share with the world or that need to change in some way. I attribute that to assimilation as a significant aspect that she was taught and that she was managing and so if I just make the slight adjustment, my life will be easier.
Christa Couture: Right.
Cole Alvis: And so I believe it was out of love.
Christa Couture: Or like, yeah. What was taught and a self-preservation and, in a way which is hard.
Cole Alvis: My Mom kind of laughed because she said, well we didn't buy you a My Little Pony, didn't we? And I said, yes, you did (laughs). How that relates to water is that I, I didn't feel like I could be myself around her at the cabin. I didn't feel like I could learn to hunt or that I could or that I even wanted to do with the other boys were doing. While she was around on this plane, she wasn't a safe person for me because of the secret that I learned that I had.
Christa Couture: What a powerful way to put it, because it didn't start off as a secret, but then she told you that it was one in a way. Is that fair? Does that kind of reflect? I feel like that's what I hear what you're saying. It's like not knowing that that should be a secret. And then someone responds to you and you go, oh, I have. I should hide the part. I didn't know I should hide that part.
Cole Alvis: I think it was went inside to her. I said no, when I said I want a My Little Pony, I should have My Little Pony.
Christa Couture: Yeah!
Cole Alvis: I want what the girls have. And so I built this wall and protected myself... But also missed out. And so here I am as an adult, having found what it means to be, certainly queer in a Eurocentric context and now newly Two Spirit. And now her knowledge and she's a direct access point that I couldn't access for safety. And I forgive her for doing her best with what she was given and my cousins and my aunties and uncles who did learn to hunt and I did have less walls are around and now my priority has become, um, sharing the stories that I'm learning with, through performance, and through engaging with Indigenous artists, bringing those bringing that knowledge home to them, and then also just asking questions about grandma.
Christa Couture: Hmm. That touches on I mean, the next question is, how did your gender identity and/or sexual orientation influence your early years and how that has influenced your work? I think from what you were just sharing, it's like it's like how gender was imposed on you that was influencing you. You know, like that the expectations that were placed on you that weren't your own.
Cole Alvis: Yeah. I, um. The imposition of a binary was something I learned very early on, and I suppose informed my work as an actor when it comes to playing the part or compartmentalising or finding a way to be truthful in this fabricated circumstance.
Christa Couture: Wow, that's so interesting. Drawing on those experiences as an actor that there's an equivalent there of performance and like you say, compartmentalising. That's fascinating.
Cole Alvis: I think it created a skill.
Christa Couture: Yeah.
Cole Alvis: Like in a lot of ways, I don't know that acting can really be taught like it's something that people just kind of have and there's tools and honing maybe. But I believe a lot of art just is in us. In theatre school and specifically acting school, it's emotional warfare most of the time. I mean, these conservatory programs are terrible, particularly for Indigenous and culturally diverse artists. I was operating largely as a White person, as my White skin and my ability to compartmentalise and be the version of me that I think they want.
Fortunately, pretty shortly after theatre school, I started a company, with two women that graduated around the same time as me from the film program at York. I was doing production assistant work on their short films and seeing the way that they were, these auteurs of their stories and the creative control and the decision making that they had as compared to the Cheetos commercials I was auditioning for.
Christa Couture: Right (laughs).
Cole Alvis: The power dynamic that actors often have, which is very low in a creative process. I kind of joke with them that they sort of ruined me as an actor because I got to see what it's like to be in control of the stories that we’re telling, the projects. Largely that's how I've had and been able to sustain a career as long as I have in the arts, because I started learning, producing and production management and directing and and now I'm shaping not only the story and how it's being told, but the process and the ways that we circle up and the values with which we engage in the process. The agency that I have as someone with skills as an actor, but then also this tool belt of other ways to contribute has really led me to... To be in this privileged position of generally loving a project that I'm working on pretty consistently.
Christa Couture: Mm hmm.
Cole Alvis: That was something I was particularly uncomfortable about, graduating acting school, opening night parties just constantly asking for a job and meeting someone else to say, you... In order to work. Yeah. Whereas now I've created a career where I'm able to do what I want, when I want to do it.
Christa Couture: Yes.
Cole Alvis: Funding and partnerships and all all of that stuff aside, I can steward the story, and that's a value of mine.
Christa Couture: Mm. That's powerful. I feel like we've kind of touched on these, some of these, in the childhood stuff, is a question about: did art play a role in your childhood and how did the generation you grew up and influence your ideas about art?
Cole Alvis: Yeah. Visual arts been stronger, I would say in my family. My mom remembers my grandma making moccasins in their home and certainly my mom was, lots of painting and, like cross stitch came up for me recently, something I did in my youth.
Christa Couture: Nice.
Cole Alvis: I think based on the rural school that I was going to, there was a stronger visual arts program. There wasn't a drama class. In a most recent production, I was co directing an Indigenous opera double bill with Michael Greyeyes. Pimooteewin is a Tomson Highway opera. Pimooteewin means the journey and it was paired with Gállábártnit this Sámi opera from, Rawdna’s from northern Norway, Sápmi territory. Michael Greyeyes commissioned Mike Dangeli to create these Northwest Coastal First Nations masks for the story. Unfortunately, Mike wasn't able to be with us because he and Mique’l, brought a new life into this world. While they weren't with us in person, that event or series of events in their lives was part of the carving of the masks and is part of the story of how those masks came to be part of our creative team. Mike did provide us with protocols around how to how to work with these masks and a significant one is that they're not to be hung on a wall.
Christa Couture: Hmm.
Cole Alvis: They are powered in so much as when we use them we're breathing life into them and that when we're not using them they should be wrapped.
Christa Couture: Hmm.
Cole Alvis: Because they need to rest. I wanted to commission an Indigenous woman to create blankets for these masks and I was able to commission my mom to make these quilts, which she had made for my drum and for pieces in my life. She got to explore using ribbon for the first time and is learning about our culture through the creation of art that's been used in a performance that I'm making.
Christa Couture: That's incredible. That is so beautiful.
Cole Alvis: It's how I've come to my ancestry is through Indigenous performing arts is has really moved me into knowledge and has supported me. The community has been so welcoming to me and to get to share that with my mom feels pretty powerful.
Christa Couture: Yeah, yeah, that is beautiful. I wish I'd seen it. Is it going to be mounted again?
Cole Alvis: I hope so. I mean, I hope that it gets to go to Norway...
Christa Couture: The masks are resting in their blanket somewhere...
Cole Alvis: mhmm, Yup.
Christa Couture: Nice to get a ticket to Norway.
Cole Alvis: I mean, it's not confirmed, but,
Christa Couture: That would make sense.
Cole Alvis: Everyone wants that. The National Sámi Theatre was a partner on this production and lots of things are in the works, so fingers crossed.
Christa Couture: Cool. But that's so nice that you could give that to your mom and like you're saying it through theatre, you've been kind of discovering some of your cultural practices, gaining that knowledge and then to also like add to your mom's knowledge and, you know, given her knowledge and her craft that's beautiful.
Does she do that like, um, I mean, this is not on a page and like like you said, she's always made blankets, is that that's like that's her kind of art practice. Does she identify as an artist?
Cole Alvis: She definitely doesn't identify as an artist!
Christa Couture: No?!
Cole Alvis: She had a big challenge putting an invoice together for this work.
Christa Couture: That's cool, too.
Cole Alvis: Yeah.
Christa Couture: Like let's pay you for your work. Yes. This is valuable. We need this. We need the thing you do, you know how to do. Yeah. Yeah. Cool.
Cole Alvis: My siblings don't identify as Métis, that's not something that's important to them. They both work in oil and so I think it's a conflict for them to acknowledge...
Christa Couture: That they're from the land...
Cole Alvis: Yeah. Yeah. And that... that future generations... I don't know that they're thinking about future generations. I think they're thinking about their own convenience and themselves, and my mom has such a longer game view when I talk to her about this, because I've moved to Toronto like I've seen parts of the world, or she believes that they'll evolve one day. She holds out that belief or hope, I guess. So that's helpful. But my brother's daughter, she's 13. She's the oldest grandkid. She graduated from whatever school one could have already graduated from at 13, there was a ceremony.
Christa Couture: OK. Yeah. Junior high or something...
Cole Alvis: Something.
Christa Couture: (laughs) yeah.
Cole Alvis: There was a Métis kid that got gifted a blanket at the ceremony. She's heard that, you know, that we have ancestry and she figured she, she'd like a blanket, and so I said to my mom, well you're going to have to make that blanket and that we need to do some more research around colours and meaning and what was that ceremony and what would our ceremony be. I think my mom was motivated when I started to do this work, but I think when her grandkids also were curious. I think that really kind of got her invested in, in moving into this identity and confronting some of that internalised racism around what she was taught about, you know. Indigenous people live over there and confronting what that means for her who's, you know, married to an oil baron and has lived a White privileged life and still does, obviously but it's complicated.
Christa Couture: It's complicated. Yeah, yeah. But that's beautiful that your niece was like, hey, I think I would get that. Wait a minute. That’s awesome. Good for her. Yeah.
Cole Alvis: Yeah.
Christa Couture: The next question I think you've kind of addressed but we can maybe paraphrase it or if there's something to add to it. The question is: what aspects of your Indigenous identity influence your art practice? I feel like you've talked about how you formed, even just the way that you make work and work with other people is maybe informed a bit by your Indigenous identity. What part of your Indigenous identity influences your art practice?
Cole Alvis: Yeah, I would say predominantly it's in the process with Two Odysseys: Pimooteewin / Gállábártnit, this large scale opera project with 14 choir members, three soloists, four dancers..
Christa Couture: That's massive.
Cole Alvis: So many bodies on stage to be co-directing with Michael, and moving on on the stage. Time was such a component, a challenge, or I guess an opportunity. Signal Theatre is Michael Greyeyes' company and they routinely do multiple workshops over multiple years, so a longer form process, and that just wasn't possible with this particular production. We had four weeks in July, a deep dive workshop and then two weeks before we opened and still Pauline Shirt was able to join us at the beginning of the workshop and then again at the opening and close of the process of the production, and then also smudging. So access to medicine.
I think the most palpable shift was my interest and I hope ability to remove the hierarchy as much as possible within that art form. And certainly soloists and choir, there's Eurocentric art forms, just love a hierarchy and how can we invite all of our ancestors into the room for this process? That felt key because Signal Theatre works in a deliberately intercultural way. Michael Greyeyes talks about, you know, where he living and in a completely Cree community that perhaps he would work in an exclusively Cree collaborative arrangement. But that's that's not where he lives and works. His interest is more representing the community that we're in, here. We sought out Indigenous artists interested and skilled in classical music and cast as many of them as we could and also culturally diverse artists. So that offer to bring in our ancestors, I think helped us understand that circular way of working as opposed to someone's ancestors being of more value than someone else's. And so when time was challenging or limited, still we were moving forward in a way where we're all working together for this. In speaking with some of the, particularly Indigenous chorus members, they were grateful and really pleased with the process so I'm happy about that.
Christa Couture: Yeah. Yeah. And it's nice that you mention like Cheetos auditions, like you're familiar with that feeling of being the active actor who's kind of being tossed aside or whatever that you could like, from experience, create something new for people who are participating and collaborating with you.
Cole Alvis: Well, and to share that with Soundstreams, Canada, this large, predominately White institution who puts on multiple shows a year that we can still come in on time and on budget without the hierarchy.
Christa Couture: Yeah, yes! Yes! This can be done differently and still deliver.
Cole Alvis: Yes.
Christa Couture: What cultural teachings around gender and sexuality like if any, or do you feel comfortable sharing, and how they relate to your practice?
Cole Alvis: Yeah, the teachings are new, the teachings are coming now. The early teachings were of assimilation, as I mentioned, and shame and hiding and secrets. So coming to the big city, escaping, what felt like a very suffocating rural town and even my extended family, I just didn't trust that they would understand me or I couldn't be who I was with them. Coming to the big city and meeting other artists and meeting other Two Spirit artists and learning of this lineage of people, of leaders, of changemakers after having grown up feeling so isolated like I was the only one, has made a big difference, has brought me back home because a lot of those early teachings, my cousins and my family have and now I have strength from the community that I found to sit at that kitchen table and be who I am and ask and offer, and so I guess what I'm working on right now in my practice is being of service, some of the early teachings were about when claiming blood and and self identifying, to not just take, but to give back. That led me to being of service.
One of my first gigs at Native Earth was production management. So again, wearing black clothes backstage and supporting the work of Indigenous artists on the stage. And then when they asked me to apply to work in the office, I had sort of reached my limit as at that time a closeted Métis person. When I was putting my cover letter together to apply for that job, I called my mom and basically began this process of who are we and where are we from really? And so that led me to being an artistic associate at Native Earth, which is connected to curation and programming. That was definitely where I felt like I needed to be doing that work on who I am, if I'm going to be holding that position. And then, I think, largely because of privilege and university education, I moved very quickly into a leadership role. The Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance, Yvette Nolan said, you're the only one that can do this. Can you take this role? I don't believe it was true then, and it's definitely not true now, and yet I said yes. That felt right as far as the work that I was doing to reconnect in the time and the pace that that takes. Then also, again, being of service and supporting Indigenous artists while doing that work and learning from them how to go about doing that work so that by the time I was able to connect with Awanigiizhik in the Turtle Mountains who, who agreed to support me and in helping to find my cousins, I'd had experience of coming into community. I understood the protocols of being a good guest on Indigenous territories. That all of that came from the advocacy work that I was doing in the arts. I think really sort of supported.. I came into that community very differently than had I not learned those things.
Christa Couture: Um, I guess...OK. I was like, do I have a segué? I don't have a segué.
Cole Alvis: I don't know If that was sexuality or like Two Spirit specific... if there's some general teaching, teaching, anything.
Christa Couture: But, Indigenous.
Cole Alvis: And I mean, there's no wrong answers. There's also like so much overlap.
Christa Couture: Sure. Right. There's like there's just so I think sometimes, the questions almost don't quite match. You know, it's like we're like these are the questions and then these are your experiences. It's like we're putting them together. This next section is around gender and sexual identity, not necessarily cultural and Indigenous, again, you know, how can we separate these things? But how does your gender identity and or sexual orientation influence your art? Does it play a role?
Cole Alvis: Yeah, I run two theatre companies currently. lemonTree creation's been around for 11 years and largely served sort of cis, White, gay, male stories. And in those in that time that I've been working with them and I've been doing this work ancestrally, who I am is changing and what I'm interested in making is changing, and now the breadth of what lemonTree's capable of is evolving and grappling with colonialism has become part of our mandate. And in the queer community, there's a lot of privilege for cis, gay, White, men, and that's not the focus of that company anymore. And so from a sexuality standpoint Two Spirit folx are now closer to the centre of that mandate, and similarly with manidoons collective Yolanda and I's company, we are dedicated to centering Indigenous Women, and I consider myself part of that mandate, newly, and engaging in the complexities of that. I've spoken about how I've become comfortable and moved into self identifying as Two Spirit. Trans, from a Eurocentric standpoint, is something that I've spent less time on or I'm less familiar with. I guess largely because I view it as a Eurocentric word and worldview. And yet, I think there's... I think it describes part of my experience, especially as I come to understand that it's not solely, folx that are moving from one side of the binary to the other, but that it does include gender variant folk.
And so because I have so much privilege, I'm often overly cautious about how I'm moving into communities where and my Whiteness or my maleness can still serve me and in ways. And so I guess I'm still working through it but what does it mean for me to be Two Spirit? And to see myself served by a theatre company dedicated to centering Indigenous Women? Largely what it means is directing Yolanda's play, but then also being part of that collective and contributing and being myself and being in the circle and being present. And so I'm learning how to do that here in Tkarón:to with my artistic family. This holiday season I'm returning to Alberta to sit with my sister and my family and I have a goal to be myself, and by that, I mean to not shrink or swallow or lessen who I am. Which has just been something I've been doing as a survival mechanism but isn't tenable anymore and so possible conflict and and newness for everyone.
Christa Couture: Yeah.
Cole Alvis: But also a recognition of time, an investment of time that I really haven't done. Like I ran away, here.
Christa Couture: Yeah, fair.
Cole Alvis: I've been here cultivating this in a place where I feel strong and...
Christa Couture: Where it's safe to do that, sounds like.
Cole Alvis: But I think I can't... I think I've reached something. I've reached a limit in isolation out here, that requires my family's participation in whatever way that will be.
Christa Couture: Wow. Amazing. Good luck (laughs)...
Cole Alvis: Oh, meegwetch.
Christa Couture: Oh, and I just like personally relate to that if the like, shrinking yourself, the experiences of shrinking yourself, because it's self-preservation and it's the way to be safe, and that's what you've been told to do for all the reasons. And then stepping away and discovering and feeling empowered and stronger in who you are wholly and then going back and being ready to say, Hi, like.
Cole Alvis: Well and I've always been here.
Christa Couture: Yeah.
Cole Alvis: This has always been me. I've had the opportunity recently to be, um, engaging with trans and Two Spirit people, and a lot of what my experience right now is, is a rewriting. Just those stories that I assumed cis, gay boys, all cis, gay boys do and lots of them do, for sure.
Christa Couture: Yeah.
Cole Alvis: But to have the opportunity to be in a circle with Two Spirit and trans people and the nodding and the affirmation that comes. And then how much of it am I placing on others in my life and them redirecting me towards masculinity? How much of it is them and how much of it was me hiding and or choosing that? I guess that's where I have hope that if I can just be stronger in articulating who I've always been, how unfamiliar is that going to be to my sister? I'm not sure.
Christa Couture: Yeah, yeah, it's interesting. Some of that, like I relate to that to old like, oh, I told that story that you don't want this and you didn't in ways and this is how I ended up with that story and it's complicated and all of that. But I found it really empowering to realize what my part, when you can kind of examine it and realize like who has what. But I found that really powerful to be like, oh, I'm perpetuating some of this, too, for all these reasons, all the reasons that we got there.
But like, it's actually really freeing when you realise the parts that you can let go of. You know, like what's beautiful, it's hard to get there. I found it hard to get, you know, to reach a point of letting go of some of those stories and and trying and trying another story, trying and trying no story, you know, like just being open to what's going to happen
Cole Alvis When I don't decide for them what their reaction will be.
Christa Couture: Yes. Yes, totally. Totally.
Cole Alvis: Yeah.
Christa Couture: This question says, do you identify as Two Spirit. We know that. Um, let’s see. As an Indigenous artist, what is your experience with mainstream art scenes?
Cole Alvis: I am experienced in mainstream art scenes. The level of privilege that I have, um, allows me to confront predominantly White institutions and demand more from them, and that is a role that I'm happy to continue to play. Because if I ruffle feathers or make someone uncomfortable and they're not going to want to program me, it will not be the end of my career.
Christa Couture: Right.
Cole Alvis: In the same way that others, I think, fear and actually live with those consequences. And so systemic changes become part of my arts practice that when I'm collaborating with prominent institutions, it's because they've got a history of being open to systemic change and recognising that they have work to do. It is frustrating and it's hard work. It's above and beyond the art that I've been hired to do out there. Yet the goal is for their learning, to make it even slightly somewhat easier for the next person who's coming through that that space.
Christa Couture: When it comes to making those changes, what's been useful to you as a Two Spirit artist in terms of solidarity or support from non-Indigenous artists? What's been useful from the non-Indigenous folx when you've been in those spaces?
Cole Alvis: Practical things they've done? Is that what you mean?
Christa Couture: Yeah, maybe. (laughs) Maybe. What does it mean? When you when you experience making those changes, I mean, like you sort of position yourself that there's some ways that just by who you are that you have some privilege in and can speak up in ways that other people may not be able to. But are there things from the other side that have been useful when allies or non-Indigenous people are wanting to have, you know, show solidarity and more wanting to make change? What's been useful, if anything comes to mind, it's okay, if not.
Cole Alvis: I think when when they're listening and when they're listening and prepared to take what they're hearing and apply it to action. So that can show up in all kinds of ways. But it is connected to a track record that there have been some contracts that I've accepted where there isn't a track record going forward, and so for me, I require confirmation from their artistic leadership that this really is a beginning and that this engagement with community will continue beyond the close of this production. So I'm thinking about the Canadian Opera Company in this example. Their production of Louis Riel was highly problematic. I performed in that show because of my positional power at the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance, at that time. I was in meetings with the managing director or the general manager of that company and had confirmation that we would continue to meet and now there's an Indigenous artists circle that meets every, few times every year and but the work continues. I guess what's meaningful for me is when it's more than just for the duration of the engagement of that artist.
Christa Couture: Yeah. Which is you've kind of answers the next question, like if there's things that you can share that how could art scenes, non-Indigenous art scenes, better support Two Spirit, trans, non binary and women, Indigenous artists like you just mentioned, listening is supportive, um, a commitment to not having just a one off interaction, that there's an investment in it and an investment in a future relationship.
Christa Couture: Are there other things that you think the art scenes could do to support Two Spirit, Indigenous, Non Binary? Us?
Cole Alvis: I, um, it's meaningful to me in an artistic process, especially if it's in the territory that I'm not living in or familiar with, to have an elder or knowledge keeper present. And something that came up recently when working with another Two Spirit artist is, um, that Two Spirit artist was concerned or sensitive to who this elder might be and specifically what is their analysis on Two Spirit culture. So in that way, the predominantly White institutions bringing in an elder and that's important work and hopefully a relationship that's continuing beyond that engagement.
Um, but thinking specifically about Two Spirit needs. Are we going to be erased by this person's traditional knowledge and how has residential school impacted the way this person is going to engage with us? And that feels controversial somehow. It's not always a safe space to - and when it’s particularly when it's someone within a community that, that can be, uh, particularly challenging at the top of an artistic process. So I suppose the call to that institution is to be both in relationship with an elder and to know what their experiences with, uh, and supporting Two Spirit communities.
Christa Couture: Yeah, that's a really good point, because elder doesn't automatically like that role, doesn't automatically assume that it's going to be a match for Two Spirit community. Yeah, totally.
You mention this a bit with, uh, lemonTree, does your practise involve or include non-Indigenous artists or even the recent opera production? It was a mix of cross-cultural.
Cole Alvis: Yeah, I would say that I'm, um, predominantly working cross culturally. manidoons collective has done really well we've got a very high percentage of collaborators who are Indigenous. That was a goal of ours. And even still with the myriad of designers that we require, it's not always possible to find someone who does all of the things that we need. And so in that way, really centring culturally diverse folx and people that are more connected to their ancestry. I feel like Whiteness as a movement, as a colonial project, erases ancestral knowledge and encourages folx to be from nowhere and to need to buy things to fill that void.
Christa Couture: And how does working cross culturally impact your work?
Cole Alvis: I would say... (pause) There are things I know to be true because I've been taught this is how you quantify knowledge or this is how we understand this to exist often from a Eurocentric lens of science. What I'm interested in right now is moments or knowledge that I and others have or come to, that can be quantified.
And and so how am I so certain about this this thing that I've come to know, perhaps through blood memory, perhaps through other ways of knowing. Because of White supremacy and colonialism, Indigenous and culturally diverse artists, I find, have a greater access to other ways of knowing and that serves my arts practice.
Christa Couture: As an Indigenous artist, what's your experience with Indigenous art scenes? We've kind of touched on them, you know, mainstream and like making change there, but within you know, you worked for a while at Native Earth. You're creating and part of the Indigenous art scene.
Cole Alvis: Yeah, the welcome that I've received is incredible by the Indigenous arts community and if I think of my siblings and their reluctance, they don't know what this is, that they haven't felt this. This acceptance. Working in the Indigenous art scene is something that I feel I continually need to be careful about. I’ve referenced privilege a lot, it’s on my mind. Um, and so being certain to contribute as much as I'm taking up space. But also I feel like that's seen and felt and that trust becomes possible. The gifts that I've received have changed my life in profound ways and that's what I want to share with my family.
Christa Couture: What's been useful to you as a Two Spirit artist in terms of solidarity and support from other Indigenous artists who maybe aren't Two Spirit but within the Indigenous community?
Cole Alvis: How did it start?
Christa Couture [01:00:40] What's been useful to you know, we kind of talked about what was useful within the mainstream art scene is like from non-Indigenous people, was like they're listening in their commitment. And have you found within the Indigenous scene, though, as a Two Spirit person, are there things within the Indigenous community that have been useful to you as far as support and solidarity as a Two Spirit person?
Cole Alvis: The examples I keep thinking of our other Two Spirit people. I realize how often I work with Two Spirit Indigenous people.
Christa Couture: That's awesome.
Cole Alvis: I think what I find most meaningful is the opportunity to recognize Two Spirit as, uh, a unique worldview from what we otherwise come to understand as a queer perspective. And so when Indigenous artists who maybe aren't Two Spirit can back that up and hold space for that and really ensure that Two Spirit ideas and leadership is centred in perhaps a more pan, queer experience, I find that really meaningful.
Christa Couture: Does your art practice involve or include global Indigenous artists? I mean, you've just done this partnership, the double bill with the Sami or the artists.. Has there been...
Cole Alvis: Global! I thought you said gullible! I thought, what question is this?
Christa Couture: You know, the gullibly Indigenous artists, let's talk about them. Can you imagine? (laughs)
Cole Alvis: (laughs) I did. I didn't read that.
Christa Couture: And I'm just switching things up, inserting my own. No. You have worked with global Indigenous artists? Was that a first?
Christa Couture: Creatively speaking? I believe creatively speaking, it was a first to work with Rawdna and Heli, these Sámi artists. Um, Rawdna wrote the libretto, the story and lyrics, uh, Heli was the narrator of Gállábártnit. And so to learn from them and the distinct worldview that they have and to be able to thread that into the backstory that we were creating, uh, within the narrative of what linked both pieces, it was a double bill. So there was the creating the Sámi stories. And then this third narrative that we linked to the, uh, the narrators from both pieces, they were in relationship with each other and they were supporting each other, these these two Indigenous Women from from different parts of the world who meet in the land of the dead and, uh, support each other. Having the opportunity to weave their knowledge and their stories, uh, in with this Cree story within a Turtle Island context was was incredible. Prior to that, in my artistic leadership role, I was invited to speak at the Brisbane Arts Festival in Australia and Indigenous artists from all over Australia circled up there. So I got to meet so many people that week and they were curious about and ended up creating the Blackfella Performing Arts Alliance, um, with the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance as a model, to service their own communities in the way that they need and want to do that. That was mostly conferences and panels, but that energy and to participate in that Welcome To Country and to be seeing their work certainly influenced my advocacy and in the way that I can draw parallels and see connections. Um, I mean, obviously, there's so many languages in Australia and those nations are distinct from each other. Yet the colonial force is quite similar in both, both places. And so then to be able to learn where they've been successful in navigating that and to share that knowledge. I would love to do more of that in my arts practice.
Christa Couture: How do you use your art to address social and cultural issues?
Cole Alvis: All the time (laughs)
Christa Couture: I feel like it's so embedded, you know, like as an Indigenous person, as a Two Spirit person, to me, of course it's political and social and it just is. But does that speak to you that you use it to address issues?
Cole Alvis: I've been talking about my siblings and my family a lot today, um, anxious to go home, I think, um, in January. bug, Yolanda's play, toured to the High-Performance Rodeo in Calgary and then also the Kainai nation. We did a Rez tour of it. My sister came to see the show in Calgary and the last piece of theatre that she would have seen me working on would have been in 2003.
Christa Couture: Oh, wow.
Cole Alvis: So that's a long time to have moved away and be developing this arts practice, evolving my identity, huge shifts in who I am and how I make, that she's hearing about, but not really seeing because it's often me flying to Alberta and both my siblings have kids and so their lives need to be more localized and that's fine. It just creates this distance between who I am and and so to get to share that with her in January felt relevant to this question, which I've forgotten the question...
Christa Couture: How do you use your art to address social and cultural issues?
Cole Alvis: I tell stories because they are how I learn, as I've said, and and so to be able to find folx with lived experience to then tell their story in the way that they want to tell it. I believe this to be a significant way for people to see other perspectives and to have a chance to understand other worldviews.
Christa Couture: Yeah, totally. How does your creative practice involve community? What does that process look like?
Cole Alvis: manidoons is engaging community largely through bringing storytelling workshops wherever we go. Workshops focused specifically on Indigenous youth and most recently, a separate workshop for Indigenous Women. At lemonTree, we did a production of Lilies by Michel Marc Bouchard, a quintessential queer, White, Francophone play that is about men in prison, putting on a play to expose an injustice, to a bishop who they invite to the prison to witness the play. Because it turns out that that bishop was involved in, in that injustice and so, wanting to work on this iconic play, but also to point directly at the over incarceration of Indigenous and Black bodies in prison in Canada and...
Christa Couture: This was how you involve community.
Cole Alvis: Thank you.
Christa Couture: Yeah, you're you're on it, you're answering it, you're there. So with Lilies, you took this up, this play, um, written by you said this cis, White, Francophone and then was there community involvement in your way of retelling the story?
Cole Alvis: Yeah. So so not only on the stage where we de-centring Whiteness and, um, providing opportunities for Indigenous and black artists to play iconic roles, that as soon as there was whispers of us doing it, queer, White actors were calling saying, I love that play and please keep us in mind. So there's just like such excitement around this, uh, work and then, you know, sort of lifting that opportunity and saying here, let's let's see what we make of this. So in the room that was happening with through casting, uh, and through the process, but then also within a shared leadership platform, I was working with Donna Michelle St. Bernard, who, um, is a prison abolitionist, um, as well as Nikki Shaffeeullah, who is as well and brought, uh, community engagement process. So this tandem, um, uh, collaboration with PASAN, who is an organisation that works with formerly incarcerated folx who are dealing with HIV. And so Nikki was spearheading this completely separate but related project with formerly incarcerated people using the text of Lilies to create a new piece that was then shown us a pre show performance during our production. Artists from our show were invited to participate in that process. Participants from that process came and saw a run of what we were working on so that we could have folx who have engaged, who have lived experience with incarceration, um, provide feedback to what we were making. I'm proud of the community engagement that we had. And it was made possible by Donna Michelle and Nikki's, um, connections and, um, lifeforce to be able to, um, leverage this production and this opportunity, um, to move into community and create opportunities.
Christa Couture: Cool. Yeah. Yeah. Nice work. That's awesome.
Cole Alvis: Many hands. Yeah. On that for sure.
Christa Couture: Yeah. That's incredible. Wonderful. In closing, is there anything else you want to share about any of the sort of areas we've touched on or anything else like it's been kind of passing through your thoughts as we've as we've been sharing?
Cole Alvis: Yeah, I've I think I've been, uh, withholding myself from, like the work that I see Louis doing and the Two Spirit community here, um. And for reasons that I've described, it was important to me that I feel... Like like I've earned this, um, or like that I'm willing to put in the effort required to not just assume something cavalierly, um, and as ever I'm curious how I can contribute, like now that I feel comfortable saying I am Two Spirit, what does - what can I do? How can I help?
Christa Couture: I feel like just in, you know, being here and listening to you sharing. I, um, I mean when when you started that response by saying, you know, you were thinking like, do you have I earned this spot and I in my thoughts, I was like, you're so generous like me that you're such as this generous person. And even that reflection is so generous and and that you then that thought ends with how can I help with like. Oh, like you're such a generous your you know, from this conversation we've had and we said maybe before we were rolling like you and I don't know each other in community and in different rooms, but I've just been really moved by, um, how much generosity is in what you say and do and in the work that you do and and even in the stories that you shared, you've been really generous and really open. And this was for me, really moving and really touching and thought provoking for me to hear about a bit about your story and your family and how it all weaves in and is inseparable from your art. And and so I just really want to thank you for agreeing to talk with me and sit down with these questions. And,
Cole Alvis: Hey Thank you.
Christa Couture: Yeah. Yeah. It was really beautiful.
Cole Alvis: It's like super humbling to be asked. So, meegwetch.