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Interview with Ernest Briggs, Artistic Director at the Turtle Theater Collective 

Minneasota Playlist's Nikki Abramson interviews Ernest Briggs, Artistic Director of the Turtle Theater Collective.

The following has been edited for length and clarity. 

NA: Hi. Ernest, it feels like we have been working together for a while because of SteppingStone. So my understanding is your not working there anymore? Your solely at Turtle Theater? Congrats on your new role. Describe what your new role is and what your doing. 

EB: My new role with Turtle Theater Collective is as Artistic Director. Currently we just closed production on 'What Would Crazy Horse Do?' by Larissa Fasthorse at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. I am also currently in talks with a few other organizations about collaborations with Turtle Theater Collective about a few projects we can collaborate on for next season. 

NA For those of us that don’t know much about Turtle Theater Collective tell me more about its mission and goals. What are you trying to achieve?

EB: Turtle Theater Collective was founded by myself, Marissa Carr and Sequoia Hauck as an arts collective interested in centering native bodies in storytelling and to change people’s minds about when and where Native artists could participate and perform theater. In the end, my goal is to see more Native Artists working,showing their work in the broader Twin Cities community, and growing as we cultivate the next generation of artists. 

NA:  Cool. What are you trying to do within your new role and make Turtle Theater Collective successful and bring in more people to the community? 

EB: In my new role, I am trying to create more opportunities for artists to create, curate, and perform. I would like to see more native artists working locally in a capacity for producing original and contemporary work; I would also like to increase the amount of people working behind the scenes in production as directors, writers, stage managers as well as in various design positions for theatrical productions. 

NA: What show did you just complete and is coming up? 

EB: Turtle Theater Collective just closed its production on 'What Would Crazy Horse Do?' by Larissa Fasthorse at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. We got very great press and support from the local community for the show. This show asked a lot of difficult questions of the audience and started quite a few discussions and conversations that occurred in talk backs after each performance. It was my second time participating in the production, as I was a part of the first staged reading of the show in Minneapolis three years ago. I felt it was a very timely play that is asking a lot of questions about society now and what is happening to our communities. 

NA: Do you plan to do other training or classes besides shows? 

EB: Turtle Theater Collective does have some ideas in the future for trainings and classes in writing, acting and design. These plans are currently in the development stage at the moment and will be unveiling them soon with a new partnership we are beginning to forge. 

NA: How do you plan to grow your theater? 

EB: I think the best way to grow a theater is by putting out great quality work of the highest caliber possible. Turtle Theater Collective strives to create and put out high quality work to attract an audience. I believe in growing a theater one patron at a time as well--luckily we currently have more patrons than that right now, but being able to advertise and have people see our work. They say, I did not plan on coming to your show tonight, but my friend asked me to come see this show and now I wanted to be added to your mailing list--that is what happened at our final performance of our last production! People wanted to be a part of what we were doing or support our work in the future as they are enjoying what we do. 

NA: What is something that distinguishes your theater company from others? 

EB: As a theater company, we have a commitment to producing newer works by Native American writers, contemporary works by Native American authors and reimaginings of works from previous cannon, such as our production of 'Our Town' which was cast with an Ojibwe Gibbs family and a Lakota Webb family and had a diverse ensemble that reflected the community of which I grew up and currently live. TTC likes new work and finding ways we can do the classics with Native people centered in the action of what is going on in the story. 

NA: Can you tell me your goals for upcoming shows? 

EB: My goals for our upcoming shows are to create new work and present new work by Native artists in a contemporary setting and create opportunities for Native people to perform, write, direct and produce work in the Twin Cities and continue to grow as professional artists. 

NA: Also what is the next shows and next steps for the company? Where are your located so that people can find and follow you and the company? 

EB: I am not intentionally trying to be cagey about our upcoming season--the word I am trying to use to describe this season is collaboration. I have had some great collaboration discussions in the last few weeks about our next season. An actor friend of mine told me a long time ago a valuable lesson, ‘don’t start talking about the projects until it’s a done deal.’ So I will say I’m excited about our upcoming collaborations and projects, but I am also trying to be careful in making sure they happen as I want the season of collaboration to be successful. Our website is currently under construction, but currently you can go to our Turtle Theater Collective Facebook page for updates and when our new website goes live. 

NA: Thanks Ernest Briggs for your time and we look forward to seeing where TTC goes and how you collaborate with the community to bring out Native American artists works out. 

Minnesota Playlist, Nikki Abramson

Crazy but true: Turtle Theater tells the tale of a powwow at a KKK meetup

According to its mission statement, the Minnesota company “is committed to producing high-quality, contemporary work that explores Native experiences and subverts expectations about how and when Native artists can create theater.”

Indeed, there’s hardly a thing about their new production that won’t challenge expectations. From July 10-14 at Mixed Blood Theatre, Turtle Theater Collective is presenting the regional premiere of a play by Larissa FastHorse: What Would Crazy Horse Do?

“The play was inspired by an actual flier I saw in the State Museum of South Dakota for a big Ku Klux Klan gathering in 1926,” said FastHorse in an interview for the Lilly Awards’ website. “The entertainment for the night was a Klan-sponsored powwow. My mind was blown.”

“This show talks about so many things, from a Native American perspective,” says Briggs. “From issues that we’re having in the United States with race, issues with rural communities, issues of suicide—so many different things.”

The first Turtle Theater show, in spring 2018, was the U.S. premiere of Daniel David Moses’ acclaimed Canadian play Almighty Voice and His Wife. The company followed it with a summer 2018 production of Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town, staged at the Division of Indian Work in Minneapolis.

“We tried to cast the roles with Ojibwe actors playing the roles of the Gibbs family, and Lakota actors playing the roles of the Webb family,” says Briggs, who is White Earth Ojibwe. “Young people—and even elder people from my community—came up and said, ‘It was just nice to see ourselves represented onstage.’”

What Would Crazy Horse Do? is set on a South Dakota reservation in the very recent past. A pair of young adults discover a surprising connection, via their late grandfather, to people who want to revive the KKK: Instead of “white supremacy,” they emphasize language about racial “purity” and “unity.”

Calling the play controversial “doesn’t begin to cover it,” wrote the Kansas City Star in a review of the 2017 world premiere. FastHorse, who resides in California but has Minnesota connections including an affiliation with the Playwrights’ Center, is one of the country’s most buzzworthy young writers; her Thanksgiving Play, a satire about liberal white people trying to retell the holiday’s origin story, landed on the 2017 Kilroys list of exceptional underproduced plays by women.

Briggs is acting in Crazy Horse, and previously participated in a staged reading of the script. “If we’re not careful, we can be led down a dark path,” says Briggs about the work’s message. “The play says a lot about what Native American people are going through and what’s happening, but it’s definitely a cautionary tale.”

What Would Crazy Horse Do?
Mixed Blood Theatre
1501 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis
Through Sunday;

City Pages, Jay Gabler

“What Would Crazy Horse Do?” – Turtle Theater Collective at Mixed Blood

You can catch the regional premiere of award-winning playwright Larissa FastHorse’s What Would Crazy Horse Do? at the Mixed Blood Theatre. The producing company is Turtle Theater Collective, a group with some very talented artists who explore Native American experience.

Director Brian Joyce calls it “a play about loss, endings, compromise, bigotry and relationships: a dramedy about what happens when the last members of a tribe are approached by the Ku Klux Klan to hold a Klan rally and Pow Wow. This play will make you uncomfortable and challenge your moral compass. What are love, loyalty, and our affiliations all about?”

Lavender, John Townsend

Turtle Theater Collective Announces the Regional Premiere of What Would Crazy Horse Do?

Turtle Theater Collective is proud to present the regional premiere of What Would Crazy Horse Do? written by Larissa FastHorse. FastHorse is an award winning playwright, director and choreographer based in Santa Monica. Larissa co-founded Indigenous Direction, a consulting firm that helps organizations who want to create accurate work by and for Indigenous peoples. Her produced plays include Urban Rez (Cornerstone Theatre Company) Landless (AlterTheater), Average Family (Children’s Theater Company of Minneapolis), Teaching Disco Squaredancing to Our Elders: a Class Presentation (Native Voices at the Autry), Vanishing Point (Eagle Project), Cherokee Family Reunion (Mountainside Theater) and The Thanksgiving Play (Artists Pre and Cap Stage). Larissa was awarded the PEN USA Literary Award for Drama, NEA Distinguished New Play Development Grant, Joe Dowling Annamaghkerrig Fellowship, AATE Distinguished Play Award, Inge Residency, Sundance/Ford Foundation Fellowship, Aurand Harris Fellowship, the UCLA Native American Program Woman of the Year and numerous Ford and NEA Grants. She is a current member of the Playwright’s Union, Director’s Lab West 2015, Theater Communications Group board of directors, Playwright’s Center Core Writers and is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Sicangu Lakota Nation.

What Would Crazy Horse Do? is a dark comedy inspired by an actual event. The play is set on a Lakota reservation in South Dakota, although the tribe is fictional. "The play is the tale of a single photo and the strange bedfellows it reveals. The Klan and a tribe of Indians joining together for a Pow Wow. What could these two groups find in common ground? This powerful play examines manipulations, genocide, racial purity, hate, love, fear and trauma. It is a play that will challenge your beliefs, stir your emotions and leave you wondering. We thank you for joining us and would like to warn some may find triggering moments and language in this production,” said Brian Joyce, Director.

“I had the honor of being a part of the Minneapolis staged reading of What Would Crazy Horse Do? in the spring of 2016 right here at Mixed Blood Theatre. This show, more than any other, started so many conversations amongst the audiences who came to see it. I was awestruck by the play’s ability to be funny, severe, dark, hurtful, difficult and ignited a conversation about what we are seeing reflected in our society and how hate is often times allowed to survive. I knew the moment I took part in this reading, I wanted to see this show performed, if only to start a conversation and to remind people to be vigilante, because sometimes the people who speak softly can do more damage to our society than those who shout loudly,” said Ernest Briggs, Artistic Director of Turtle Theater Collective.

Turtle Theater Collective is committed to producing high-quality, contemporary work that explores Native experiences and subverts expectations about how and when Native artists can create theater. In addition to producing Indigenous plays, we center Native bodies and voices by situating them within the broader theatrical canon, providing opportunities for Native artists to grow and play.

The Turtle Theater Collective is: Ernest Briggs (White Earth Ojibwe), Marisa Carr (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe), Sequoia Hauck (White Earth Ojibwe/Hupa)

The Turtle Theater Collective Advisory Committee is: Heid E. Erdrich, Carra Martinez, Sarah Rasmussen, James A. Williams

Directed by Brian Joyce

Cast: Ernest Briggs, Jei Herald-Zamora, David Rand-McKay, Maretta Zilic Production crew: Katie Johns (Stage Manager), Mitchell Frazier (Lighting Designer), David Lewis-Frazier (Sound Designer), Barb Portinga (Costume Consultant), Sarah Salisbury (Prop Master), Marisa Carr (Producer), Ernest Briggs (Artistic Director)

Mill City Times, Kim Eslinger

The Turtle Theater Collective: Bringing Native Lives and Experiences to the Stage 

Marisa Carr is a fascinating woman. Born in Milwaukee to the Ojibwe Turtle Tribe, Marisa learned her native Ojibwe language as a young woman. She earned a major in Native American Studies at the University of Minnesota and graduated with a BA. After graduation, Marisa started her professional life as an actor, but soon discovered that Native stories were not being told, or when referenced were shown in stereotypical ways.

Marisa began her writing career with the hopes of depicting contemporary representations of Native lives and experiences, and was soon named as a fellow at the Playwright's Center. She honed her craft there and made many valuable contacts, some of whom were interested in Marisa’s goal of adding Native stories to contemporary theater.

With a group of friends which included Ernest Briggs and Sequoia Hauck, both professional theater artists, a decision was made to try something bold and new. They formed the Turtle Theater Collective in March of 2017 with the goal of telling Native stories through Native artists. While is seems to be a common belief that there are only a few professional Native artists in Minneapolis, that is just not true. The Turtle Theater Collective hopes to show the theater world that there are many talented Native artists in Minneapolis just waiting for a chance to tell Native stories.

The first production of the Collective is Almighty Voice and His Wife, and it will be performed at the Southern Theater on March 9, 10, and 11. It is based on a true story from Canada where a man was arrested for killing his own cow. He was sent to prison, and while there, staged a jail break, running 13 miles through Canadian prairie. A huge manhunt ensued, using over 100 Mounties to find and kill the farmer. The first act tells this story, and Act 2 begins with the farmer and his wife as ghosts, inhabiting an abandoned Indian Boarding School, where they retell the story through the structure of a minstrel show.

There are already plans to stage a second production this summer, which will be a retelling of Our Town, with Native actors playing the part of the Webb and Gibbs family, as well as the Stage Manager. Previews will begin in early March.

Mill City Times, Claudia Kittock

Turtle Theater Collective elevates Native voices

The theater collective dedicated to providing opportunities for Native American artists will be producing "Almighty Voice and His Wife."

The members of the Turtle Theater Collective frequently encounter misconceptions about their work as Native American theater artists in the Twin Cities.

“There’s a narrative in the Twin Cities theater community that there’s no Native theater,” said Marisa Carr, a founding member of Turtle Theater Collective and a graduate of the University of Minnesota. “That’s not true … Native theater has not been produced in the Twin Cities enough for Native theater artists to continue to develop our craft.”

Carr, Katherine Pardue and Ernest Briggs founded the Turtle Theater Collective. Its goals? Rewriting stereotypes about Native theater and providing opportunities for Native theater artists.

After workshopping a play Carr wrote, the company is opening their first full production on Friday — the U.S. premiere of “Almighty Voice and his Wife,” a play based on a true story of a Cree man in Canada who was arrested for killing his own cow.

“The Almighty Voice was a person, and he was murdered by the Canadian government, but only after … a two-year manhunt and then a standoff of a couple of days … That’s pretty badass,” said Katherine Pardue, the director of the production. “I think the play has had less than ten productions … at major theaters in Canada.”

“Almighty Voice and his Wife” is a dense play, rich with cultural references and questions about the theatrical form itself.

“The first act is this hyper-romanticized sort of view on stories … Then when you get to the second act … they go through and deconstruct how white people perform Indianness," Pardue said. "That means really confronting the very damaging legacy of minstrel shows."

Because of its focus on the history of the performance of Native characters, “Almighty Voice and his Wife” is a fitting choice for the Turtle Theater Collective’s first fully produced show.

“What makes it really appropriate for our first production is that it’s a play that, for me, is about gaze and narrative … and about who gets to tell what story and how it gets told,” said Carr, who is playing White Girl, Almighty Voice’s wife.

For the actors involved, “Almighty Voice and his Wife” is an opportunity to perform a classical work from the Native theater canon.

“I’m really looking forward to more opportunities for Native artists to try new things, elevate their work and try really dense content,” said Ajuawak Kapashesit, who plays Almighty Voice. “Having more opportunities like this would be excellent.”

The Turtle Theater Collective’s next endeavor is a production of “Our Town,” with leading characters played by Native actors.

“I think it is one of the only plays that asks the question ‘what is the meaning of life’ and has an answer to it … In terms of classic plays that I would want to present with a Native lens … this is the one that most came to mind because it’s about community and how we value community,” Pardue said.

Going forward, however, Turtle Theater Collective’s focus remains the same: providing opportunities for indigenous theater artists and leading a movement towards creating more.

“As a Native artist, if you walk into a rehearsal room outside of the Native community … I think that people feel as if they’re taking a big chance by letting you be there,” Carr said. “That’s a really hard space to be able to take risks, which is what you need to be able to do to make good art. So, I hope that we can create that space for Native artists where we can take risks and fail and try again."

What: “Almighty Voice and his Wife” 

When: March 9-11

Where: The Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave S., Minneapolis

Cost: $12-24

A previous version misstated the founders of Turtle Theater Collective. Marisa Carr, Katherine Pardue and Ernest Briggs are the founders.

Minnesota Daily, Maddy Folstein

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