Young playwright Joelle Peters developing 'Niish' for Blyth Festival
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Joelle Peters, a promising young playwright from Toronto, will be bringing her creation, Niish, to the Blyth Festival in the coming years as one of the many playwrights who has been commissioned by the Festival in recent years.
Peters, the winner of the 2020 Protégé Playwright Siminovitch Prize, is an Anishnaabe and Miami playwright and actor. Now based in Toronto, she was born on Walpole Island First Nation, Bkejwanong Territory in Southwestern Ontario.
As part of the Animikiig Creator’s Unit at Toronto’s Native Earth Performing Arts, Peters began work on Niish, being mentored by Falen Johnson, who Festival audiences will remember as one of the writers behind the 2017 production of Ipperwash.
In an e-mail interview with The Citizen, Peters said she grew up with a definite love for acting and writing, but that she never considered being able to craft a career out of it.
“I started off like many do in rural areas, by doing community theatre, loving every minute I spent in rehearsals and later on-stage,” Peters said. “Into my teen years, I started to think more about film and T.V. acting, finding myself inspired by the Indigenous actors I saw on screen. After graduating from Seneca College’s Acting for Camera and Voice program, I hoped to get more into the film/T.V. world, but then theatre pulled me in again. No complaints here.”
Peters says Niish is an Indigenous love story. It wasn’t long after Johnson encouraged Peters to send what she’d written to Blyth Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt that he offered to commission her for the show.
“At the heart of it, Niish is an Indigenous love story. I took inspiration from the young adult romance novels I used to read as a teenager and thought I’d see if I could write something like that for the stage,” Peters said. “It’s a bit of a coming-of-age story that touches on intergenerational trauma, dreams, community and leaving home and coming home. There’s also a decent amount of comedy tied in.”
She says there is a lot of her background and experiences tied into the show, which is only natural for a playwright.
“We often write what we know, right? And while the play isn’t set on Walpole Island specifically, it’s absolutely inspired by the land I grew up on,” she said. “I hope audiences feel and appreciate the love I have for my community, and the people within it. I hope Indigenous audiences see parts of themselves in the characters and their stories.”
While Niish will be Peters’ first direct experience with the Blyth Festival, she certainly is aware of it and the shows produced there, as she auditioned for a show several seasons ago. Though Peters wasn’t able to secure the Festival role, she said the Festival and its work has been on her mind ever since.
As Peters was working on Niish under the tutelage of Johnson, the pair began working together at the Paprika Festival. Once Peters was set to move on from Paprika (though Peters and Johnson still work together, now as part of the Native Earth Performing Arts’ Animikiig Creator’s Unit), she was thinking about the next steps for the project and reconnected with Garratt and the Festival. Working in Blyth, Peters said, came highly recommended by Johnson.
As for having Niish produced by the Festival, Peters says she hopes it will expand the worlds of some and empower others by seeing themselves on stage.
“It’s a powerful moment, seeing yourself and stories you can relate to on stage. I’d like to help bring that moment to as many audiences as I can. It’s a big reason why I got into acting, and something I think about now as a playwright. Representation matters,” Peters said. “I think it’s great that Blyth has been programming more Indigenous stories in their seasons and supporting Indigenous artists - it feels like a genuine desire to engage with and share our stories.
“My home community isn’t that far from Blyth, but I don’t know anyone that has gone to see a play at the Festival. I hope that having my play produced there sparks their curiosity, and I hope community members are interested in coming to see it.”