Deneh’Cho Thompson confesses to a mild rebellious streak in his youth.
As a high school student in Calgary, he fell short of completing his diploma for “myriad reasons,” he says. Though he enjoyed many subjects and excelled in some, drama was the subject that most held his interest.
Thompson eventually enrolled in a theatre program at Capilano and Simon Fraser universities, and while he valued much of what he learned, he couldn’t help feeling academic training in drama was somewhat flawed. He was discouraged by a range of systemic barriers hindering progress for Indigenous students.
“I got frustrated with institutional systems,” he says.
Today he is the second Indigenous student ever to graduate from the University of Alberta with a master of fine arts degree in drama, with a thesis interrogating those very barriers. The first Indigenous graduate was Kenneth Williams, now a professor in the U of A’s Department of Drama.
And while Thompson has been an assistant professor and co-ordinator of the wîcêhtowin Theatre Program at the University of Saskatchewan for two years — hired while still completing his master’s degree — he has retained a healthy ambivalence towards academia.
“I think academia is broken in a lot of ways, but I’ve found a place to work within it,” he says. “Institutions are big, cultural spaces that have a lot of inertia, and policies and systems that don’t necessarily work for everyone.”
His previous drama experience includes years of acting, directing and writing in B.C.’s lower mainland theatre scene. Early in his career he worked for Full Circle’s Talking Stick Festival in Vancouver, billed as the premier, multidisciplinary Indigenous arts festival in North America, led by Margo Kane, “one of the grandmothers of Indigenous theatre in the country,” says Thompson.
“I started to claim my own artistic identity,” he says, later appearing in such groundbreaking productions as the premiere of Thanks for Giving, by Kevin Loring, now artistic director of Indigenous theatre at the National Arts Centre of Canada.
Thompson also worked with U of A grad Reneltta Arluk, the first Indigenous woman to graduate from the university’s BFA acting program, now director of Indigenous arts at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
A storyteller at heart, Thompson began crafting his own work for the stage, writing and directing The Girl Who Was Raised by Wolverine, winner of the 2016 Fringe New Play Prize from Vancouver’s Playwright’s Theatre Centre.
“I love being an actor, I love getting on stage and getting that rush of adrenaline and presence,” he says. “But I’ve come to learn that I like thinking about how story is made — that critical lens is now much more interesting to me.”
It was after meeting his current partner, a former academic adviser in the U of A’s Faculty of Native Studies, that Thompson decided to give academia one more chance.
“She said, ‘You’re smart, you should finish your master’s degree,’” said Thompson, “and I said, ‘Damn the institution — the institution is horrible!’”
But he persevered, convinced he had something valuable to say about generating healthy and inclusive practices in theatre training. His first thesis proposal involved going back to the Talking Stick Festival to interview a number of drama educators and practitioners about their experience with university training.
“What things do we hold on to from our training? What things were harmful to us and what techniques either support or suppress our Indigenous identities?” asks Thompson.
He hosted one event at the festival, but when further large gatherings were cancelled due to COVID, he shifted gears and decided instead to produce a series of podcasts on the same subject based on interviews with artists and educators.
He wrote up his analysis of those discussions in a thesis blending theory and practice called “A Long Walk Down the River: Performance as a Site of Indigenous Resilience and Resurgence.”
His thesis supervisor, Selena Couture of the Department of Drama, calls it “an excellent contribution that tracks current practices of Indigenous acting and pedagogy, extending and connecting them with Indigenous worldviews.
“His work as an actor and instructor of acting fills a gap in Indigenous theatre scholarship, an area of theatre practice that has a rich discourse amongst practitioners but is not yet recorded within the academy.”
He plans to publish some of that work immediately. His goal is to create the safer spaces he didn’t have during his undergrad.
“How do we reduce the harm we know happens in our training systems, so more students can have access to quality training that doesn’t make them feel inadequate, left out or erased in some way?”
Thompson is also applying for a grant to develop a network of Indigenous drama instructors to exchange techniques, philosophies and ideas. One of his immediate recommendations to improve theatre training is to reform the prevalent “show must go on” mentality, he says, which often sacrifices personal health and well-being.
“All of that needs to go away,” he says. “The working model starts at 48 hours a week and goes up from there. Students go to class all day and rehearse all night — that’s how we expect students to succeed. But we’re not giving them the context to succeed.”
Despite his troubled relationship with “the institution,” Thompson calls his MFA graduation a very big deal — the first time he’s crossed any convocation stage.
Still a touch the rebel, he says the occasion marks a new phase in his journey, his thesis providing his first gestures at reforming the institution from within.
“The impulse I had about not finishing school is very much the same impulse that drives my work now,” he says.
“Before it was a personal refusal; now it’s a responsibility to future Indigenous students to better their theatre education.”