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Theatre appoints new artistic head.


Only 25 years old, Joe Osawabine brings a wealth of threatre experience to his new post of artistic director of Manitoulin Island's De-ba-jehmu-jig Theatre Group.


De-ba-jeh-mujig, well known for mounting productions by renowned Canadian Aboriginal playwrights, is now in its twentieth year. Osawabine, a member of Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on the Island, came on board as a performing artist in 1991.

He first appeared in the Ojibway production of Lupi-The Great White Wolf.

Subsequently he acted in The Manitoulin Incident and The Best Medicine Show. Also Biidaasigekwe-Sunlight Woman;; and New World Brave.

This year Osawabine has the lead role of Iktomi in A Trickster Tale, created by Tomson Highway and directed by John Turner. He also will appear this summer in the mainstage production of another play called The Gift, opening July 15 in Wikwemikong.

He was also a founding member, in 1995, of The Best Medicine Troupe, which is now part of De-ba-jeh-mu-jig's outreach and training initiatives for young performers.

He has contributed to the troupe in co-creating several productions, in addition to which he's done his share of directing, set design and animation.

"My new responsibilities will be programming the seasons for the company.

A lot of networking, building relationships with other likeminded companies in Canada, and things like that."

He has recently returned from Winnipeg, where he met with members of the theatre company Red Roots.

The new job involves "a lot more office work," Osawabine said, with a touch of irony. "Proposal writing and grants."

He's done less of that, smaller project grants, but he said he's up for it. "I have a lot of support. This is like a transition year, basically."

He recently submitted proposals for three years' operating capital from the Canada Council for the Arts and a one-year operating grant from the Ontario Arts Council.

Osawabine accepts that his chances to act will decline in proportion to the increase in his administrative load.

But for this year, at least, he said, "I will still be performing from time to time. That's what I've been doing mostly up to this point--performer and trainer for the outreach department."

The change in roles, Osawabine explained, is "the natural course that's been developing" over time.

"I started with the company at 12 years of age, performing ... It was mainly a summer thing up until I was about 16.

Then we developed The Best Medicine Troupe. That grew and grew to the point where we were delivering training, so that filled out the years more."

Osawabine said his schooling tapered off as the theatre engrossed him more. Although he continued with some adult education until age 18, Osawabine left school without his high school diploma.

He explained that happened because while he was in high school a theatre project came up that required him to tour in the United States.

"I asked for the time off from the school to go do this project, because I had been cast in the production. But the high school had a policy that if you missed more than 15 days you don't get your credits for that year. So it wasn't like I was just off on vacation or whatever, so I didn't understand why he (the principal) couldn't give me a little bit of leeway," said Osawabine.

He was told he had to make a choice.

"At the time, I chose the theatre, as I've already been doing it for so long. It's something I was really intensely interested in." He felt school authorities didn't put much value on his choice. But although he left with Grade 10, he hasn't abandoned the idea of completing his formal education.

"Especially now, more so that I'm going to be using a lot of language and things to do these applications and things like that, and writing all these proposals, and speaking publicly a lot more on behalf of the company.

"So that's part of what I want to do now is find a way to pursue my education." He admits that will present a challenge, as his current job is "even more than lull time. It's more of a lifestyle than a career."

Osawabine is passionate about the work he does, and he said it has been known to keep him up at night. He gets an idea that he needs to write down, or he works through the night to get grant applications finished on time.

"I have a lot of support from the people who are here. They are all friends."

He credits Ron Berti, artistic producer with the company, for handling the financial elements of grant applications up to this time. Berti also has been with Debajeh-mu-jig for at least a decade, according to Osawabine.

"I take care of all the artistic ... he takes care of the financial things. We work separately until closer to the due date, then come together and put it all into one application."

The De-ba-jeh-mu-jig Theatre Group is a community-based, non-profit organization that promotes Anishinaabeg culture, language and heritage through education and performance art.

Osawabine, whose three-year appointment took effect on April I, replaces Audrey Wemigwans who served as associate director for seven years and who is now the group's cultural community liaison and tour co-ordinator.


Birchbark Writer
COPYRIGHT 2004 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
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Author:Taillon, Joan
Publication:Ontario Birchbark
Date:May 1, 2004
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