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Posted April 3, 2024

The Interview – Kenneth T. Williams

Kenneth T. Williams

Kenneth T. Williams is a Cree playwright, filmmaker and journalist from the George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan. His plays Cafe DaughterThunderstickBannock RepublicSuicide NotesGordon Winter, In CareThree Little Birds and The Herd have been professionally produced across Canada. Ken teaches at the University of Alberta, where he was the first Indigenous writer to earn an MFA in playwriting. He resides in Edmonton.

Ken, you once jokingly described your career path as “a guidance counsellor’s nightmare.” Can you tell us a bit about your path to the theatre? When did you know that you wanted to be a playwright?

Yeah, well, that’s the funny part. I was not a theatre kid. I did not like theatre in high school. I didn’t take any theatre classes in high school. I thought it was silly, to be honest; I thought it was meaningless and stupid. I had wanted to be a writer since I was in high school, so my initial intention going to university was to get into the University of Alberta, into the Creative Writing program that they have here in the Department of English. But I’d never really finished anything worthwhile. I had a lot of short stories that were crap, and they all just ended because I didn’t know how to end them. But then a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you take a playwriting class?” I said, “Why?” He goes, “Well, because you don’t need to know anything about it. It’s an introduction. You’re looking for a minor, maybe this will fulfill a drama minor requirement.” So I did, and…you know, those moments in your life when something is revealed to you that you have to do, it becomes a quest item sort of thing? It was just that: “Oh, hey, I want to be a playwright! This type of writing speaks to me in ways I’ve never been spoken to before.”

And I was finishing things, and I was having fun writing these things, but I had no clue. I had no theatre background. I’d never acted professionally, or even “amateurly.” The last thing I’d done on stage was probably in Grade Five, where everyone has to be on stage, you know, one of those where you don’t have a choice. Let’s just say it evolved into me finding out I had to find out more about what I wanted to do. But in between that moment and where my playwriting started taking off or to where I became a professor… there were a lot of places I meandered to. I was a rock musician; I was a bartender; I was a part-time soldier in the Canadian Reserves. I was a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman! For real, I did that; I did it for maybe only two months, but I did do it. (I lasted longer than 90% of the people who took that job, I can guarantee you that.) And then I was a journalist, a communications person in the corporate world, stuff like that, before my career as a playwright started to move up. And then becoming a professor in the last seven years. You know, someone asked me, “How do you become a professor of drama?” This was not a plan. This is what a paramecium does: it finds different stimuli that it likes or doesn’t like. That’s how I got here. 

Café Daughter, which was first performed in 2011, is one of your most produced plays. It tells the story of Lillian Dyck, a young Cree-Chinese woman growing up in Saskatchewan in the 40s and 50s, who went on to become a neuroscientist and later, a senator. The play was recently adapted into a film that won the Audience Choice award at the 2023 imagineNATIVE Film Festival. Why do you think this particular story resonates so strongly with audiences?

I first started talking to Lillian Dyck way back in the 90s. We had a bit of a reunion in Regina when Globe Theatre did the play recently, and I said, “You know, we’ve been talking about this story for 25 years.” We first had our connection when I was with the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, (which is now Indspire,) and I moved to get her nominated for an achievement award for the 1999 National Aboriginal Achievement Awards. When I heard her story I thought, “Wow, this is something I haven’t heard.” And then I bumped into Keith Lock, who is a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker from Toronto, and I asked him if he’d ever heard of the conditions that Lillian was describing about how her parents met. (For those who don’t know, at the time, Chinese businessmen weren’t allowed to hire white women for their businesses in Saskatchewan.) He looked at me, and he said no. And I figured if he doesn’t know this about Chinese-Canadian history and a lot of people don’t know it about First Nations history, then no one else knows—there’s a story here that needs to be told. So I think that’s part of it.

But the other thing is, as I was workshopping the script and trying to find the angle into the story, I realized that it was, at heart, the story of a young girl facing obstacles. A lot of my earlier stuff was me angry and telling people what to think and why they’re wrong, you know, young guy, punk rocker, he thinks he’s right all the time and you have to scream it at people. But I think that once Lillian’s story sort of took off, I was just finding the story instead of creating the story. It’s one of those odd times where the story becomes so powerful that it becomes a thing unto itself, and I’m just there to help it get on its feet, massage it a little bit here and there, and that’s it.

Every time the play goes up, people respond to it. I think it’s my most popular play in terms of audience response. It doesn’t polarize the audience, like something like Gordon Winter does—people respond well to Gordon Winter, but they respond vehemently. You know, there’s no middle ground. Whereas with this one, it hits the entire audience the same way, because I think they see themselves in that little kid on stage. Audiences see the story through the eyes of a child and then a young woman, facing these obstacles that weren’t her decision, aren’t of her making. They’re things she has to face. And I think people respond to that no matter what.

You often explore complex issues from a number of different viewpoints. In The Herd, for example, the birth of white twin buffalo calves means something different to each of the characters, and as you say, Gordon Winter was about a controversial character. How easy is it for you to get into the minds of characters who have points of view that may clash with your own?

That comes from the evolution of my writing, and how I was able to recognize one of the weaknesses in my earlier writing. In the early, early stuff that has never been seen there was often an obvious negative or bad character that I wanted everyone to boo and hiss. Like, “Oh my God, look at them!” And as I was writing more, I started realizing that audiences don’t respond well to a character like that unless it’s purposely supposed to be melodramatic or funny. I started to look at: How do I get inside a character? And one of the things I teach students is to always, always look at your character making decisions that are the best decisions they can make based on what they know. No one makes a bad decision purposely, right? So when you look at it that way, when you understand your character’s worldview, you can see why they think this is a good decision, why they think they’re doing right.

And it got all reinforced at one point later on in my career in discussions with Colleen Murphy, who absolutely loves the tragic story form. And that doesn’t necessarily mean, you know, the good guy loses. What it means is that everyone has a has a cogent, equally powerful point of view, and then they’re all trying to make that point of view part of their life but they are in conflict with each other. That way you don’t have victims on stage, you don’t you don’t have the bad guy who audiences are supposed to hate. For me, it came from that, the evolving idea that your character’s point of view makes sense to them, so you have to make it make sense to your audience. So that the audience doesn’t go, “Wow, that was stupid.” Once an audience member does that—particularly in bad horror movies or bad mysteries—once they think, “That was stupid,” then you’ve lost them. They’re lost. 

Your play In Care explores the heartbreaking story of an Indigenous mother trying to reclaim her children, who have been placed in foster care by a child and family services agency. Following performances of the play at Gordon Tootoosis Nikaniwin Theatre in Saskatoon, there was a facilitated discussion where audience members were invited to share their own stories about the foster care system. Can you tell us about this experience? Did it spark a wider conversation in the community?

I have to give a lot of credit to Yvette Nolan for this. I love Yvette. Yvette was instrumental in shaping Café Daughter into what it became, and she was also very instrumental in shaping In Care into what it became. I realized I was dealing with an unconventional play. It couldn’t be: You sit down, you watch it, you walk away. That could not be what this play was about; it wasn’t working that way. The weird circular multiple timeframe structure of that play was not something I imposed on it; the play sort of said, “This is the best way to tell this story.” I was messing up as I was writing it, and the part that’s now the ending or the climax of the play was somewhere in the middle. I thought I had more play. But when I took that whole section out and put it at the end, it literally collapsed into this shape, and I said, “This is how this play has to be done.” Yvette completely agreed. She said, “Yeah, that makes perfect sense.”

But the play was done, and it was only 45 to 50 minutes long. And we’re staring at this thing and we realize that even though it’s less than an hour long, it’s an intense experience. Yvette said, “We can’t do the thing we do in theatre and let people walk out and just go away.” We needed to address what’s in this play because it’s fundamental to almost every single Indigenous family in this country. Many people in the audience would have either directly experienced this or had a family member experience this. Yvette said, “You know, we need to do something afterwards.” So she set up what became the second act, which was, we brought in a facilitator so the audience could then deal with what they’ve just watched. A lot of people in the audience in Saskatoon had stories they needed to share after seeing that play.

It was one of those moments where you realize the play isn’t going to be done at the Citadel. It can’t be. It can’t be done on a big stage, it has to be presented in a very specific way. Now, technically, it’s called theatre in the round, but it’s not, because it’s these broken circles, you know, of up to 60 people at most. And the way the actors are able to move amongst the audience changes sight lines, changes how the play is presented, changes the setting, and also changes the location where it can be done. When you have a small group of people watching a very intense experience for about 50 minutes, it creates a situation where they need to express themselves. And that’s what the second act was about. Yvette in her wisdom said, “Yeah, let’s do what our people do. Let’s feed them in the intermission, have them come back, and have a trained facilitator come in and help people talk through the experience they’ve just seen. See if it allows them to speak about something that they know.” So that’s how that happened. 

It’s the reason why the play can’t be done everywhere. And it’s the reason why a lot of theatres don’t do it. But I don’t care. It has to be done a specific way. Can’t be done any other way. I’ve seen workshops where the actors line up and face the audience and it just doesn’t work. 

We had some very prominent people invited in Saskatoon; there were police officers, social workers, heads of school divisions. People came and saw it and they, you know, they recognized the situation in the play. One of the things I believe is that there’s no such thing as a broken system. Because you look at what the system delivers, and that tells you how the system is built. It’s doing what it’s designed to do. So when we look at child and family services, particularly Indigenous child and family services, and we see what the system is delivering, it’s not broken. It’s doing what it’s meant to do. We’ve got to take a fundamental look at what it is we’re trying to accomplish and understand that we need to build the mechanisms for that to happen, and not just rely on the models that exist now. You know, this is one of the times I’m preaching, right? But you’ve got to be able to convey the message in a way that it makes sense. We just can’t keep saying things are broken. They’re not—they’re working fine. It’s the people who are broken, and they’re wrecked, and they’re ruined. That’s what the system does. It’s going to do that because that’s how it’s programmed. 

In that play, I also wanted to look at the issue of social workers and cops as they are manifested in the system. To say that they don’t go into it to be bad people, you know, and I don’t think they are bad people, but I think they are stressed and overworked and they have power. And that when they exercise power based on stress and overwork and frustration, it leads to tragic circumstances. 

One of your most popular plays, Thunderstick, centres on two cousins with clashing life philosophies. You brought back the two characters for Bannock Republic, which catches up to the cousins a decade later. What made you write the sequel? Did Jacob and Isaac have unfinished business?

It was something I’d planned originally. I really like those characters, so I didn’t want to let them go. I knew there was more to milk out of them, to put it that way. They had more places to grow. So Bannock Republic brings them back together to their home. The first play is about why they fled; Thunderstick centres on “Why did they run away? Why did they get away from home as quickly as they could and as far away as they could?” So obviously the second part of that is they have to come back. And then I had to add another character in who had to stir the pot between them a lot. Of course, you know, I’m in drama. You’re allowed to do these things where you create a character who looks identical to someone else. It’s a fabrication, but the audience lets me get away with this. 

Well, they let Shakespeare get away with it, too. 

How many times is mistaken identity in his plays? No one bats an eye at that. Yeah, I’m comparing myself to Shakespeare. [Laughs.] Well, we all are. Actually, everyone who dares to put a pen to paper and put the result on stage is being compared to Shakespeare. So that’s right; we have a canon to back it up.

But yeah, I just felt they had something else to do. We had to go back to where they come from and face why they left and what is still intrinsically problematic in their lives. And, again, I wanted to bring up a problem that is recognizable to a lot of First Nations people. It’s kind of esoteric if you’re not familiar with how specifically First Nations get into debt, and how Indian Affairs forces them into this model. This was, for me, finding the drama in an intractable position because when reserve communities get into debt and they have trouble getting out of it, the Feds step in and they are harsh. Housing gets reduced, services get reduced; their budgets get controlled by someone else. And for the longest time, there was no bidding process. It was at the discretion of the highest-ranking bureaucrat of the Department of Indian Affairs and whatever region they were in. So there was no bidding process and there was no reporting; there was no transparency for these accountants who moved in. They didn’t have to explain how much they were making, and they were paid from the funds that were meant to be distributed to the First Nation. So it was a scam—people were getting wealthy off First Nations’ pain. There was no plan for them to get a band out of debt, because why would there be? There were various levels of it, and the worst was called “third party management.” Again, it’s me dramatizing a circumstance that exists on First Nations exclusively. I was dramatizing it to try and explain why it is such a dilemma. It’s a hard place to be for a person in a community, especially someone in leadership. That, to me, was what was necessary for that play without bearing down into it. So I made Destiny, the character of the third party management, this stunning young woman who’s no-nonsense and just crushes these dudes every chance she gets. But in the end, she does find a pathway out for them.

And there’s a third part that I haven’t written yet. (This is me messing with Canadian history here.) It’s called The Red Majesty. And they find out that the descendant of the actual real king of Canada is a Métis guy in Saskatchewan. It’s been sitting in various formats in my hard drives, you know, and I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Your plays usually pack a political punch, but many contain very funny moments, too. Do you set out to include comedy in your work, or does it bubble up during the writing process?

I don’t write jokes. I’m not a joke writer. (Which I found out very painfully when I tried to write jokes for some extra money.) I’m not a good joke writer, but I am someone who sees what would look like a normal event to most people and I find the absurdity that’s within it. It’s just a matter of scraping it and pushing it a little bit. A little bit. So to me, where the humor comes from is actually from my dramatic exercise of pushing the stakes and the limitations of the characters to the point where they have to break—and the break can be absolutely absurd. So that’s where people find a lot of humor in my work. And, you know, that’s the kind of person I am. I can see something and then go, “How do I make this more crazy?” But still within the realm of what the audience is going to follow along with, until they’re in an absurd situation themselves.

I’m not sure any of us want to talk about this anymore, but I think Covid caused some problems for The Herd, which was about to premiere when the pandemic hit. Do you want to tell us about that?

Yeah. Well, I’m not unique. A lot of work got cancelled outright. It just couldn’t be sustained, which is sad. I was fortunate that I had theatre companies willing to keep pushing for The Herd to be done. You know, it’s funny, there’s an element of the of the epidemic in there; the pandemic is in the play. How do we treat something unique, and how as a community, everyone has their own point of view and they all keep pulling apart. I think the pandemic definitely affected the production. And if there’s one negative criticism about the play, it’s about how abrupt the ending is, and I think, “Hmm. Maybe I played with the world a little bit, but that makes perfect sense in a lot of ways.” And I like the fact that the major criticism is that the play is too short!

I was going to come and see you and the play in Saskatoon in February of last year, and I think Covid took it down at that point, too, didn’t it?

The last week, the last entire week, got wiped out because of Covid. At Tarragon, an entire week got wiped out because of Covid, too. And then the restrictions, the Covid restrictions we were dealing with at the Citadel, caused an enormous amount of strain on the on the cast and crew of that production. Yeah, that was an upheaval. And we’re still recovering. Everyone is still recovering from it. 

Ken, you’re also a post-secondary educator, at the University of Saskatchewan for several years, and currently at the University of Alberta. What do you like about working with student writers and performers?

I feel a kind of a responsibility to help them build a path, so they have—hopefully—an easier time than I did. But again, I didn’t come at this the straightforward way. I don’t know if there is a straightforward way into theatre, because again, I see a bunch of people who are like me. Like students in other faculties who suddenly take an acting class, or they see one of the student productions and want to be part of it. They finally shake the chains of whatever self-doubt they had and get on stage, and their lives are transformed. I see it all the time. I’ve seen people who did the “right” thing with their careers, and then they’re at a point in their life where the crisis is kicking in, saying, “I really want to write a play. I really want to do something artistic.”

Teaching has actually helped me as an artist in a lot of ways. Mansel Robinson once said to me, “You don’t know how you do something until you have to teach it.” And when I look at what it is to teach playwriting, I really have to break down the elements of what it is I do. I just couldn’t say, “Write this. No, that’s bad, that’s good.” I needed something mechanical that students can compare their work to and I needed to give them exercises that were practical. And how do you write a play? Why do you write a play? Why is it so radically different from writing a novel or writing poems, writing a short story, writing a nonfiction article? Because it is radically different. So it helped me to go into what it is I do. To go to all the great teachers I had and other people who gave me the right kind of advice at the right moment. I have to think, “What was behind that? What was in that that I can use to convey to students?”

And then I love the work that they come up with. I love their passion for it. I love their energy. They’re great. They’re a lot of fun. And of course, this feeds me. This sounds so very selfish, but it does help me to keep going. I saw someone talking about how, as you get older, you should start cultivating mentor-mentee relationships and you should be a mentor to someone young because you have things that you know that can be of help. One of the biggest things is: it’s never the end of the world. That’s one of the things you’ve got to let kids know. But the other thing is that you need to know what the heck they’re thinking and what’s driving them, what’s bothering them, what’s in their way that isn’t wasn’t in your way when you were younger. 

So you know, I get as much from them as I hope I give back. I think I give them very valuable playwriting advice and acting advice and life-in-the-theatre advice. But I do have to admit, I come from a privileged position of being a tenured professor in the university. (The other advantage of that is it’s good to have something to look forward to in terms of a pension that your artistic lifestyle may not have provided you all the way up to that point.) 

That led in perfectly to my last question, which is: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? If you had one piece of advice that you could give people, what would it be? 

Get a life outside of writing. You know, everyone has writing advice. Write every day, whatever. All those usual things. Follow them however long you want to do it. But you’ve got to have a life outside of writing. You’ve got to be able to see something that feeds the creativity, you know?

One of the best things that happened to me was being a journalist for 15 years. Back in the news biz when I was in it, I was meeting people on one of two days: either the best day of their life or the worst day of their life. And you got to see how people coped. You got to see what made them a character, if you break it down dramatically. They revealed their character by how they reacted to where they got or where they were. You look at an athlete or someone who’s accomplished something really amazing and question “What did they have to do to do that?” You know, very few people are just given that amazing thing. They worked at things and faced obstacles. They were focused on an objective. Sometimes they had to change how they did things, but they were going to do something big. As a journalist, you meet them when they’re being awarded something significant. I got an alumni award here at the University of Alberta, and I was sitting next to someone who’s literally saved millions of people’s lives because he developed a new framework and a philosophy around treating tuberculosis patients. And I’m sitting there, “Well, I wrote a bunch of plays.” You know, perspective. And he’s this humble little dude, but he’s fierce in his dedication to patients, so much so that he changed the world for millions of people. And I think that reveals his character.

And then sadly, you do meet people in tragic moments and you see how they’re coping. How are they moving on? How do they continue to exist? A lot of people would say if they imagined that for themselves, it would be the end of the world for them. I go, “Yeah, it is.” And it has been for some people, but they still keep going. What does that reveal about them? So that showed me what is real. And I think that fed into a lot of my thinking about—going back to your earlier comment—how do I look into other people’s eyes and through them? And that is part of it. You know, a lot of these people did what they felt was the best thing to do at the time. And they were mostly right. But doesn’t mean the end result was good. Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. 

Thanks so much for this, Ken.

Can I just add that the University of Alberta is currently inviting submissions for the Lee Playwriting Prize and the Lee Playwright-in-Residence, two amazing opportunities for playwrights.

I’ll add the links!