Tales of an Urban Indian plays out on the streets

Presentation House Theatre production unfolds on a traveling bus

Tales of an Urban Indian, featuring Royal Canadian Air Farce’s Craig Lauzon, Presentation House Theatre site-specific production, Sept. 19 - 30 (phtheatre.org).

The upcoming production of Darrell Dennis’ play Tales of an Urban Indian at Presentation House Theatre plans to take its audience for a ride.

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There’s an old adage in theatre that the performance of a play is different every night, such is the mutability of the stage – subtle changes that actors can make, a particularly discerning audience, an uncontrollable variable like a cue being missed or a cellphone going off.

In Tales of an Urban Indian, produced by Talk is Free Theatre, the production crew, cast and audience will literally have to contend with a constantly changing world around them as the 90-minute show unfolds on a traveling bus. Yes, a bus.

“It always varies a little bit because of the bus situation,” notes actor Craig Lauzon, who plays central character Simon Douglas and myriad other characters in the one-man show. “The city becomes the set for the show.”

When audience members arrive at Presentation House for Tales of an Urban Indian they won’t get much further than the parking lot. Instead, they’ll board an awaiting transit bus that’ll take them on an emotional roller coaster that zigzags through town, stopping at points of interest in the life of the character Simon, an Indigenous man raised in 1970s Vancouver striving to become an actor.

“When I’m talking about my rez, or a church, or school somewhere along the line … we try and make the settings that I’m talking about happen outside the bus as well so the audience has the visual,” says Lauzon. “By the end of the story Simon is living on Hastings (Street) and dealing with his life, so I think the plan is to bring the bus right down into Hastings.”

As Simon’s tale unfolds on the moving bus a rotating cast of characters, all portrayed with deft skill by Royal Canadian Air Farce veteran Lauzon, get on and off.

The script, notes Lauzon, is: “Forty-five pages long and it’s 54 characters. I play Simon as a seven-year-old, a 15-year-old, a 20-year-old, and all those friends and family and people he meets – the people he meets on Hastings, other actors that he gets involved with.”

And while the play deals with often tragic, gritty material – Lauzon doesn’t shy away from noting the play delves into issues of drug use, prostitution, death and other material – it’s also darkly comic and “surrounded by levity.”

“The comedy really helps you navigate the intensity and the harshness of some of the things that are being said,” notes Lauzon, describing one key moment that is full of comedy followed by the sudden death of someone that Simon had recently connected with. “I think the comedy helps the drama. It always makes things more dramatic when they’ve come after a joke. It also makes the comedy better when you’re coming after something heavy. The audience wants that release, something to laugh at.”

Lauzon, who is an actor, writer and comedian of Ojibwa descent, says he has been fortunate in his life not to experience what the character Simon has been through, but like many people of First Nations descent, it’s a story that’s all too relatable. “I know these people,” he says.

“Anybody can enjoy it, but if you’ve lived this life or if you’ve had somebody in your family live this life, it can be really moving and emotional for them,” he says. “When it has Native audience members who really connect with it, it’s really made it that more poignant sometimes. It’s a tough one to get through sometimes.”

Vancouver-born Indigenous playwright Darrell Dennis wrote the play back in the early 2000s and while early stagings were more traditional, it wasn’t until 2009 when Talk is Free Theatre lost access to its venue that the “bus production” idea was borne on a whim. Since then, the sense of immersion and reality that the production’s unique staging brings has become a constant.

“It’s an intimate show,” admits Lauzon. “Obviously if you’ve ever been on a bus you know when someone’s standing there, they’re right there. … The energy of people on the bus really affects how the show goes sometimes.”

The lack of barrier between spectator and actor in Tales of an Urban Indian also highlights another old adage of the stage: that audience matters.

Asked what Lauzon wants audiences to take away from the play after stepping off the bus at the show’s end, he says he hopes it’s a sense of optimism concerning Simon’s story. The character experiences a great many things during the course of the play, many tales of injustice in an urban setting, but Simon remains upbeat, not defeated.

“I hope that they see the hope in it and the upside,” he says. “The real story is, he goes through all this stuff and then, at the end, he comes out hopeful.” 

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