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Native Earth Performing Arts announces the departure of Artistic Director

After three seasons, Ryan Cunningham is leaving Native Earth Performing Arts to pursue personal artistic projects, starting with his debut at Shaw Festival this summer.

In his time as Artistic Director, Cunningham strengthened Native Earth’s position as Canada’s leading Indigenous performing arts company with impactful programming and strategic partnerships. Most notably, these efforts resulted in a nine-city nation-wide tour of Native Earth’s award-winning production of Huff by Cliff Cardinal. Cunningham’s time in New Zealand and Australia also reinforced Native Earth’s longstanding international partnerships, leading to presentations of Huff around the globe.

Since he joined the company in 2014, Cunningham has been instrumental in reimagining Native Earth’s annual development festival, Weesageechak Begins to Dance, placing a focus on the inclusion of Indigenous dance and select presentations of work by legendary Indigenous artists, such as SpiderWoman Theater’s Gloria Miguel. Cunningham’s determination to bring Indigenous dance into a prominent position within Native Earth’s season birthed the now annual Indigenous Dance Double Bill, Niimi’iwe.

“During Ryan’s term as Artistic Director, Native Earth has developed new partnerships across Canada and internationally, as well as broadening the range of work we produce and present,” says Ashley Stacey, President of the Board of Directors. “We value the contribution he has made to the company and wish him well in his future artistic work.”

Stacey points out that this shift in leadership comes at the brink of Native Earth’s 35th season, creating an opportunity for a new visionary to lead the company into this milestone season.   “It is an exciting time for Indigenous performing arts in Canada, and this change will offer another Indigenous leader a chance to make their mark – not only at Native Earth, but in an ever shifting artistic landscape.”

As Native Earth closes out their current season, Cunningham prepares for his upcoming performances with Tafelmusik and Shaw Festival.

A Search Committee to find a successor will be chaired by Ashley Stacey of the Native Earth Performing Arts Board of Directors.

Native Earth Seeks Applications for New Artistic Director

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Staff Making a Splash!

Bonnell_Yolanda Humber HeadshotYolanda Bonnell Featured in Thunder Bay Magazine

Yolanda Bonnell was recently interviewed by Kyle Poluyko for The Walleye Magazine, an arts and culture magazine in Bonnell’s hometown of Thunder Bay.

Though she didn’t intend on going to school in Toronto, Bonnell found herself studying theatre at Humber College. She credits education there not only with making her a better actor but a better person.  “There’s a strong focus on finding your artistic voice and what you want to say in the world.” Read Full Interview

Gloria Mok - NEPA HeadshotGloria Mok Featured in Theatre Ontario’s Blog

Gloria Mok recently attended Places Please! Stage Management and the Creative Process from Pre-Production to End of Run with Maria Popoff at Alumnae Theatre, and shared some reflections on learning with her.

“Communication is key. You are responsible for navigating multiple lines of communication, an intricate web of artistic relationships. You must learn to walk the line between the needs of the director, the needs of the cast, and needs of the design team.” Read Full Article 

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Jessica Lea Fleming, New Artistic Associate

This past month we’ve been excited to welcome Jessica Lea Fleming to the Native Earth team as the new Artistic Associate. We thought the Native Earth community would like to know a little bit more about Jessica, so we asked her to tell us a bit about where she’s come from, what she’s working on, and what excites her about working with Native Earth. Here is what she told us:

… it was my introduction to traditional, Indigenous practices and knowledge, and it ignited in me a profound desire to learn about my own culture and family history…

I am Métis from Penetanguishene (French and Wendat) and am happy to have had a small-town upbringing on beautiful Georgian Bay. As a teenager, I gave pioneer tours in full costume and worked as a swimming instructor at the local pool. When I was 18, I was hired to work at a Healing Lodge just outside my town, which turned out to be a pivotal moment in my development as a young person: it was my introduction to traditional, Indigenous practices and knowledge, and it ignited in me a profound desire to learn about my own culture and family history – something I’m still pursuing whole-heartedly to this day!

Jessica Lea Fleming - Artistic Associate
Click Photo to read W27 Interview with Jess

I studied Psychology and Drama at the University of Guelph and for a term at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. After graduating University, I lived and worked as a dance and drama teacher in Spain for several months, which made for many Sangria-induced jazz routines. When I returned to Canada, I began interning for film companies in Toronto where I was mostly called Jennifer or “the skinny girl”. Things eventually fell into place, and I was lucky enough to be hired on at GAT PR and then imagineNATIVE where I gained important skills as an arts and project manager, not to mention good friends. While working for these great companies, I began investing in my own artistic practice. I studied acting, writing and directing with some of Toronto’s greats. A few years ago, I was accepted into the Second City Conservatory Program, and reconnected with my lifelong love of writing. I began developing plays, short stories and film scripts.

While working for these great companies, I began investing in my own artistic practice. I studied acting, writing and directing with some of Toronto’s greats.

Currently I am writing my fifth play Without Icing with support from Native Earth’s Animikiig Program and dramaturg Andrea Romaldi (who I am pretty sure is an angel in disguise). I will be producing and directing my second short film this summer, Scales, and am writing a feature screenplay, Maison Métisse, with much excitement, frustration and coffee. I have to say that I am really lucky to be surrounded by supportive friends and mentors who encourage me to keep at it when all I want to do is eat chips and watch Wayne’s World.

I have always greatly admired Native Earth and its commitment to Indigenous artists. There is such a rich and important history attached to the organization. This is the company that gave life to so many important works and careers!

Weesageechak 27 – Ed Roy, Cliff Cardinal, Nicole Joy-Fraser, Michaela Washburn, Keith Barker, Jessica Lea Fleming, Ryan Wilkie.

I recall attending the Weesageechak festivals in my first years in Toronto and experiencing a deep understanding that the work taking shape was bigger than any one storyteller. Native Earth was helping my community speak up, be heard, be brave, be strong! I felt like a lost deer who had finally found the heard!

Things came full circle for me as an artist when last year I was fortunate enough to be programmed as an emerging writer, and cast as an actor in the 27th Weesageechak Festival. The timing couldn’t have been more serendipitous as I was going through a bad patch of “I suck”, which I know is part and parcel for many creatives. Working alongside great actors, playwrights and seasoned professionals inspired me all over again and reminded me to shut down my sensitive ego and focus on the work. I got a lot of love and support and I hope that during my time at Native Earth, I can give that back and help to build something beautiful.

I got a lot of love and support and I hope that during my time at Native Earth, I can give that back and help to build something beautiful.

What excites me right now about Native Earth is our renewed interest in working with artists from all over the country, from all disciplines and backgrounds. When we talk about upcoming seasons there is energy in the room and a recognition of our distinct position to bring exceptional works to Toronto! Being part of the next phase in Indigenous theatre is equally exciting and humbling. I have joined a strong team, and I can’t wait to get cookin’! By the way, please come say Hello or Aanii or Tansi or Shé:kon so I can get to know more of the lovely people who are part of the community we call Native Earth. And I wouldn’t be terribly upset if you brought me chocolate while you’re at it.

Marsi and Hugs,

About Us


Native Earth Performing Arts is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to creating and producing Native performance works. Founded in 1982, Native Earth Performing Arts is Canada’s oldest professional Native theatre company. Native Earth has participated in the development of a community of artists, and in the creation of several Aboriginal classics including Almighty Voice and His Wife by Daniel David Moses, The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing by Tomson Highway, Someday by Drew Hayden Taylor and Moonlodge by Margo Kane. In 1989, Native Earth instituted an annual development festival of new work called Weesageechak Begins to Dance. Since then, the Weesageechak Festival has helped develop over 100 new dance and theatre works by emerging and established artists, including Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots by Monique Mojica,  Annie Mae’s Movement by Yvette Nolan, Tales of an Urban Indian by Darrell Dennis and Gordon Winter by Kenneth T. Williams.

The millennium has brought about a great deal of change at NEPA, and has also brought us around, full circle, reconnecting us to our beginnings. In 2004-2005 Yvette Nolan helmed the largest Native Earth production in years, The Unnatural and Accidental Women by Marie Clements featuring a cast of thirteen. As ever, NEPA set a new standard, and the show was selected by NOW Magazine as one of the Top Ten theatre productions of 2004.  Our relationship with Indigenous peoples abroad has expanded and deepened, with the epic Honouring Theatre Tour of Turtle Island, Aotearoa and Australia. We braved Death of a Chief, a landmark adaptation of Julius Caesar (co-production with the NAC) and a full-scale opera (Giiwedin, a co-pro with An Indie(N) Rights Reserve) which played with both legally recognized official languages as well as Anishinabemowin. The second decade in the new millenium connects NEPA to its roots with the ongoing demand for the now canonical work, Almighty Voice and His Wife.

Native Earth’s training initiatives feature the creation programs Animikiig and Thundering Voices, diverse practical apprenticeships and on-the-job skills acquisition on professional level projects, including full-scale productions.

Our thirty-first anniversary season will focus thematically on “Community” as we continue to plant roots in our new NEPA home, with a playing space and administrative headquarters at the Regent Park Arts and Cultural Centre.


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2012/13 Treason Season announcement

Métis, Cree and Assiniboine men, under arrest as rebels, Regina 1885.
photo by O.E. Buell, Government of Canada Archives

TREASON SEASON at Native Earth Performing Arts

2012/13 brings the anniversary of a colonial war that we hereby decline to euphemistically celebrate. With respect and gratitude to those colleagues who endeavour to include the First Nations presence in their commemorative projects, Native Earth will forego the glorification of selected, sustained, government sanctioned acts of violence in honour of the undeclared wars our people continue to fight.

As we enter our thirtieth year of professional contemporary Indigenous performing arts, at long last, we arrive at home. The power of space is known all too well to our people, and it is with thoughtful care that we cast roots into the earth of Regent Park. The neighbourhood’s moniker, and its recently displaced peoples set into sharp relief how great a responsibility it is, as original caretakers of this land, to be entrusted with a venue. It is with this understanding that we set forth into a season that proclaims the everyday victories of our people.

This season is a dedication.