Written over 25 years ago, and based on a centuries old traditional First Nations story, Th’owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish receives its world premiere this month from Vancouver’s Axis Theatre Company.
“Joseph [playwright Joseph Dandurand] sent out a mass email to theatre companies back in 2014 asking if anyone might be interested in his play Please Do Not Touch the Indians. I read it, but was not interested as it was a show for adults,” says Axis Theatre artistic director Chris McGregor.
“I asked him if he had any shows for kids, and an hour later he sent me Th’owxiya”.
Th’owxiya (pronounced Tho-wox-eeya), tells the story of the First Nations goddess who holds the most wonderful foods from around the world in her mouth (the feast dish). When a young mouse is caught stealing a piece of cheese, he embarks on a journey of knowledge and forgiveness with the help of two young bears, a raven, and a Sasquatch.
“It reminded me very much of a Grimm fairy tale, and a little of the Hansel and Gretel story,” says McGregor, who also directs the show.
A member of the Kwantlen First Nation, the idea for Th’owxiya originally came to playwright Joseph Dandurand during an internship at the Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History) in Hull, Quebec.
“I would spend days in the Grand Hall, where I first met the feast dish Th’owxiya,” says Dandurand in a Q&A as part of the Axis Theatre study guide. “For me this story shows the beginnings of a playwright. This story took a life of its own as I began to explore the many spirits and characters that come from our people.”
Masks and music
With his company’s history of using masks, including the long-running Number 14, McGregor saw an opportunity to continue the tradition with Th’owxiya.
“We do a lot of work at Axis with masks, music and physical theatre,” says McGregor. “It was a perfect match to this First Nations play.”
Unlike the face masks used in previous Axis shows though, in the First Nations tradition the masks used in Th’owxiya are worn on the head rather than covering the face.
“We worked with First Nations artist Lawrence Paul in adding modern colours into the dress and masks to add a modern feel to the traditional,” says McGregor.
Th’owxiya will also feature live music, including the use of drums created specifically for the show.
“Our designer Jay Haven is also a drum maker and he worked with each of the actors to create drums made of elk to be used in the show,” McGregor continues.
The music also includes the use of The Hang. Created in Switzerland by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer in in 2000, the UFO shaped instrument adds to the play’s mix of traditional and modern.
“There is nothing attached to the drum culturally, so we thought it would be appropriate to bring into a First Nations play,” says McGregor.
Lessons and the environment
With its primary lessons of honour, friendship and problem solving, the play also touches on the environment. McGregor saw those secondary themes as an opportunity to perform the play in the little-used amphitheatre at the University of British Columbia’s Botanical Gardens.
“I teach at UBC in the theatre department and a couple of years ago the Botanical Garden staff came asking if there was a way to animate the amphitheatre,” he explains. “This First Nations story about nature and the environment, with the added element of the six storytellers as a Greek chorus made it perfect for this location.”
As with any non-traditional venue, McGregor and his team had to overcome a few challenges. In fact, McGregor found himself late for our interview as they prepared to deal with today’s storm. Beyond the weather risks, there was also the question of ensuring the cast was heard.
“We knew sound was going to be an issue so we invested in a sound system to ensure all of the cast would have microphones,” he says. “Not just in the amphitheatre though, as we are using the entire space including having the actors coming into the space from the surrounding woods.”
Free family-friendly fun
While intended as an immersive experience for the entire family, McGregor says it may be scary for those under five years-old.
“But it is only 45-50 minutes long and action-packed with lots of drumming and colour,” he says.
Th’owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish plays at the Roseline Sturdy Amphitheatre at the UBC Botanical Gardens (6301 Stadium Rd. Vancouver) on June 24 – 25 and July 1 – 2 at 11am and 1pm. Admittance is free, but registration through Eventbrite is required.
Visit https://axistheatre.com for more information.