June 18, 2020
The Klondike Institute of Art & Culture is checking in with a few of the inspiring, creative, and unique individuals who make up the colourful mosaic of Dawson City’s arts community. The pandemic has affected everyone in different ways and we are continually amazed by the resilience, strength, innovation, and creativity in our midst. Do you want to speak up? Let us know!
Kelly Vittrekwa is an actor and theatre performer living in Dawson City, Yukon. While she’s experienced on the stage, we’ve touched base with her today to discuss her next endeavour, a virtual play. “Dominion”, written by Andréa Ledding and produced by Gwandaak Theatre, is an exploration of relationships and Canada’s history, sparse with humour and will be performed tomorrow June 19th, at 7 PM It is part of Gwandak’s 2020 Indigenous Summer Play Readings.
DB: Hi Kelly, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your first steps into the world of theatre?
KV: I was born in Inuvik, NT where all my family is from. My parents raised me in Dawson City from the age of 4 and now this is my permanent home where I raise my daughter, Trinity. I work for Tr’ondek Hwech’in (TH) Government at the Support Centre, but in the evenings and weekends I perform.
My very first job was as an usherette at the Palace Grand Theatre here in Dawson. I was 16 years old and I always wondered what acting would be like when I watched those shows.
My very first job was as an usherette at the Palace Grand Theatre PG here in Dawson – I was 16 years old and I always wondered what acting would be like when I watched those shows. I began modeling in local fashion runways including some at the Theatre. I enjoyed taking direction, dressing up, the makeup, all of it. When I saw a casting call for a play titled “Cabin of Curiosities” in 2019, I auditioned and landed the role of an Tr’ondek Hwech’in elder and fisherwoman. I was very happy with the positive reviews of my performance. It was a fun summer; people came up to me and said, “are you that actress who played Elder Kitty? Can I take a photo with you?”. Never in my life did I think I’d be acting on the stage of one my favourite buildings in Dawson City, the Palace Grand Theatre.
DB: Wow, full circle! It seems that your first job as an usherette really “set the stage” for your future in the arts… That was a terrible pun, sorry… Cabin of Curiosities was locally produced, right?
KV: Yes, it was a theatrical re-telling of stories written entirely by Dawson City residents, produced by Friends of the Palace Grand (FOPG). The show was just over an hour long and featured a cast of five local actors, including myself, and a crew of about 6 people. The play ran all summer long, three nights per week.
I performed a story about our region’s relationship to the Yukon River, written by Debbie Nagano. It was a challenging performance, playing a 99-year-old TH citizen but I just kept thinking of my grandparents and the stories they’d tell to inspire me. When I’m onstage in front of an audience (who I can’t really see because of the lights), I feel it’s where I belong. Telling and performing stories is a great way to teach and learn cultural histories.
DB: I understand that Friends of the Palace Grand will be reverting back to radio plays this summer, given the COVID-19 pandemic. Would performing in radio plays interest you as well?
KV: Performing onstage for a live audience is quite different than voice acting but similar in a lot of ways, so of course I’d love to radio theatre. The theatre world is adapting as it needs to because of COVID-19. In fact, I in the middle of Zoom rehearsals for a virtual play with Gwaandak Theatre, based out of Whitehorse! The performance will be online tomorrow, June 19, 7pm. The piece is titled Dominion, written by Andréa Ledding. It’s about Indigenous people having their homes and children taken away. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s beautifully written and emotional.
To have those taken away, especially your children, is heartbreaking. I cried the first time I read the script of Dominion.
It’s very relevant right now because of the racism that that has come to the surface in the world in the last little while. It’is ridiculous, I don’t even want to talk about it – it’s [the racism] been going on far too long, just like bullying. It’s a also hard-hitting piece because I’m a mom myself, I have a beautiful home and daughter, Trinity. To have those taken away, especially your children, is heartbreaking. I cried the first time I read the script. I’ve told my daughter before, she can be anything she wants but I won’t support her if she is racist or a bully. You can act on stage or film like one to tell a story, but you can’t do that in real life.
DB: It sounds like a brilliant piece. I recently read a statement by the University of Saskatchewan where the writer says “seeing the characters come alive on stage and experiencing the audience reactions” is an important part of the process for her. For you, how does it feel to be performing remotely?
KV: Right from the beginning, the process was virtual. The auditions, rehearsals, line readings, everything. It was a bit weird and awkward at first, but I like it. We have so much fun and laughter even though we are far apart from each other. Sometimes there are funny technical issues, like when my screen freezes and I’m not sure if the other actor has finished their line so I can start mine. I do miss being with the cast and crew in person but the show must go on! What I am most looking forward to about this performance is telling a powerful story to the world, and working with such talented and fun cast and crew.
DB: I don’t recall ever hearing of a virtual play taking place in the Yukon. This is actually quite groundbreaking – if it weren’t for the possibility of participating remotely, do you think you would have still performed?
KV: Oh for sure, I love acting – I would have driven down, auditioned, and performed onstage in Whitehorse. It’s true though, the virtual format really opens up the playing field for people living in the communities – both in terms of performing and being a spectator. I am really grateful that Gwaandak Theatre has shifted in this direction in response to COVID-19, allowing me to perform remotely. It’s actually not my first virtual performance though! The first was also with Gwandaak, it was a Indigenous/Queer Cabaret show which was part of the Awaken Festival in May. I heard about it from my beautiful friend Rachel Wiegers, burlesque performer Chevonne of the Yukon, after a workshop offered by Dawson City’s “Boardwalk Burlesque” was cancelled because of the pandemic. I had so much fun even though I had one week to prepare for that.
The virtual format really opens up the playing field for people living in the communities – both in terms of performing and being a spectator.
With a virtual performance, anyone can watch from anywhere in the world. Even though the Palace Grand stage will remain silent this summer, locals will have the opportunity to take in theatre through projects like Dominion and the upcoming radio plays produced by Friends of the Palace Grand.
DB: Of course. It’s so wonderful that theatre will accessible despite this strange new world we find ourselves in. After Dominion, what do you see on the horizon for yourself?
KV: I go for every opportunity that crosses my path, though I am really looking forward to performing Burlesque. Chevonne of the Yukon, co-producer of the Boardwalk Burlesque, asked if I’d be interested in joining the troupe but took me a couple years to think it over. In 2019, I played a “stage kitten” (stagehand) in the Halloween performance Camp Dread Pond at the Klondike Institute of Art & Culture. I was playing a bisexual nerd. After watching all the burlesque performers, my mind was made up.
I say follow your passion, follow your dreams, be your unique self, be kind, be nice and tell a great story.
Since then, my room has become full of costumes, accessories, makeup, and more. My burlesque stage name is Deels Villainess. I’m taking online acting classes with daughter Trinity (pictured left) and I’m looking into courses at the Vancouver Film School! I also spend a lot of time with Trinity working on her video projects (similar to iCarly). For an eight year old, her room is essentially a film studio. The possibilities are endless! I say follow your passion, follow your dreams, be your unique self, be kind, be nice and tell a great story.
Dominion was written in 2017 by Saskatoon-based playwright Andrea Ledding with the hope of “sparking a dialogue about Canada’s history of colonization and the inequity”. It will be performed in the Yukon online for the first time at 7 PM on June 19th as part of Gwandaak Theatre’s Indigenous Summer Play Readings. More info can be found here. This interview was conducted by Devon Berquist, Programs Manager at the Klondike Institute of Art & Culture.