November 29, 2023

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Cree Playwright and Actor Cliff Cardinal | Image Source:

Indigenous playwright and actor Cliff Cardinal’s Huff took Toronto by storm as it opened the season for Native Earth Performing Arts Theatre from October 10-25, 2015. Huff follows the dark journey of protagonist, Wind and his two brothers as they cope with the suicide of their mother by means of solvent abuse. The solo production saw Cardinal portray about a dozen characters; his performance was poignant, uncompromising and strong. As both a writer and performer, Cliff Cardinal is in the spotlight as an up and coming artist to watch.

Huff will begin a Canada wide tour from January to March 2016 with tentative dates to be released soon. Erica Commanda from MUSKRAT Magazine caught up with Cliff Cardinal between performances to talk about his writing and playing it solo.

MM: You cover a lot of dark issues in your writing, how do you approach writing about these issues without bias to the audience?

CC: The bias is love. I try to be as honest as I can with the material and with a certain amount of cruelty because that’s pretty honest for the world. My way of doing that is to go into those really hard places with love so that you can breath empathy and compassion. It’s not my intention to do anything really shocking, it’s about being grateful for the moment that you have no matter what.

Cliff Cardinal - Huff
Cliff Cardinal in Huff | Image source:

MM: Why are you compelled to write about such deep subject matter?

CC: For one thing, I’m First Nations and I live in the city. The way we live in western society is very air conditioned, clean and comfortable. Stories like that really don’t compel me that much, they don’t really grip onto me. For me to get really caught up in something, it has to be life and death. It has to be dramatic and about pain. You know that phrase, “first world problems”? I don’t want to make a show about first world problems.

MM: What’s the hardest part about writing solo plays?

CC: All writing is difficult, no matter what, but it’s not more difficult to do a solo or multi-character piece. What’s challenging is, is learning how to write the story. It’s going into those really dark places and have the audience watch as opposed to turn away and shut down. Sometimes you just have to look at that ugly thing. That’s the kind of thing that I’m going for. So it’s not going to work if I just trap you in the theatre for an hour and torture you. You’re not going to want to come back.

MM: What do you look for in a performer who wants to perform in one of your solo plays?

CC: It’s really tough. There seems to be a certain rhythm that a performer can find, some sort of empathy for the character. A rhythm and a style that’s really hard to put my finger on because I’ve seen brilliant actors not do my stuff really good and I can’t figure it out. So that’s a really good question and it’s one that I’m for sure working on as I meet new actors and starting to direct my own work. So to be continued on that question.

MM: You studied playwriting at the National Theatre School of Canada after writing Huff & Stitch to critical success; in what ways has this contributed to your writing skills?

CC: What was cool about that, was they just exposed me to the theatre in such an overwhelming way. For the most part I’m writing about things I would’ve written about either way. But just the way that I’ve grown as a young artist as opposed to a writer- I can take on a huge amount of work and I know what my threshold is and how much I can take on. Part of that exposure has made me realize I really do have a taste for theatricality.

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About The Author

Erica Commanda

Born in Toronto, Erica Commanda (Algonquin/Ojibwe) grew up in the small community of Pikwakanagan. From there she moved across Canada living in Ottawa, Vancouver and now Toronto, working in the bar/hospitality industry, mastering the art of listening to stories from her regulars while slinging and spilling drinks (at them or to them). And now through a series of random decisions and events in life she is on a journey discovering and mastering her own knack for storytelling as Associate Editor for MUSKRAT Magazine.

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