Sheldon Elter in Métis Mutt | Photo credit Ryan Parker
Métis Mutt, presented by Native Earth Performing Arts, is an emotional coming of age story written and performed by Sterling award winning artist, Sheldon Elter. The show runs until February 5th.
Sheldon Elter opens up with a monologue that the crowd initially finds funny until it takes a darker turn by playing on negative stereotypes about Indigenous people in mainstream society. This sets the mood for the rest of the story, as Elter recounts and comes to terms with his tumultuous family history while learning to take control over his life. He does this in a one man stand up performance incorporating powerful music – at times chaotic- reflecting the story in a nonlinear fashion. The subject matter he tackles is dark; his family survived an abusive father; he overcame several addictions and lost people close to him. Elter’s performance is raw and honest making the story feel both intimate and engrossing- like he’s telling it to you in a personal setting.
Métis Mutt was written in 2001 by Elter with the production evolving over time. When Elter initially incorporated the opening stand up segment, he quickly faced criticism for coming off as ‘racist’ towards his own people. After coming to the realization of the power of his own words, Métis Mutt evolved into a performance that expresses the evolution of Sheldon himself, an artist who has become self-reflective and has taken responsibility on how he represents his loved ones and his People. After having performed Métis Mutt across the globe since then, Sheldon Elter spoke with Erica Commanda from MUSKRAT Magazine about his exciting Toronto debut.
MM: What were some of the challenges you faced in the creative process of creating something so personal to you and how did you overcome those challenges?
SE: First and foremost, it’s personal. The scariest part was talking about personal life issues. I’m not scared to talk about my own life, but I was always scared I was going to compromise my brother or immediate family directly related to some of the things that we went through growing up. I had to ask them permission to tell certain stories. They said yes and I was able to delve into it and write it. As we got older my brother was like, “I don’t know if I’m comfortable with this anymore. You’re inviting people into our house and just opening the door to let them in to look at every flaw of our family.” I said, “I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for us. I’m asking for people to look at it and to understand. The more truthful I tell it, the more human the story becomes.”
I try to tell the truth as best as I can. It doesn’t matter if you are First Nations, Métis, Inuit, male or female, you can relate to it because it’s a coming of age story. Everybody knows what that is. It’s that point in your life when you realize you can’t blame society, or cultural upbringing, or the world and learn to take responsibility for yourself and start to take control of your own life.
MM: Métis Mutt is a very personal coming of age story. What compelled you to share it in a theatrical setting?
SE: When I first wrote it, it was with my mentor, Ken Brown. It was a class project, which was based on vocal mask, a technique that he learned from the National Theatre School in Montreal. The idea was to let the characters speak rather than narrating. He kept saying: don’t tell me what your mother did- show me. It was kind of an exciting concept for me as a young man writing a multi character vignette where I’m displaying character after character. As an adult it’s exciting to go back and look at my writing. It’s like looking at an old photo album and giving people more context as to what they are looking at.
MM: Métis Mutt has been in production since 2001. How has the story changed and the way you tell it evolved?
SE: Most recently, I have been adding some new things. As I’ve gotten older and look back at the play, I don’t think I spoke much from my mother’s experience. I used to really focus on my father, who was an abusive alcoholic, on his death and how it affected me.
People often say, “wow, you broke the cycle.” But I didn’t break the cycle of family violence; it was my mother. At the heart of it all it was really all about my mother breaking the cycle. She was the one who had to courage to uproot us, move us away, and get a restraining order. It’s kind of nice to go back and imagine what that must have been like for her because I was so young when it happened. So that’s kind of the newest edition.
Storytellers don’t tell the story from beginning to end. Good storytellers often remember things as they go along and often go back in time because they feel they have to tell you something in the now. It’s just about giving better context to those little snippets of storytelling that people need to hear.
MM: As an Indigenous writer in Canada, what are your thoughts on what’s happening with Joseph Boyden?
SE: I think it’s really unfortunate that the discussion is about measuring Indigeneity. I think that’s a colonial way of thinking. We are all struggling to try and find out what it is to be Indigenous. Is it blood?
I do think it’s important to be honest. It doesn’t mean that Joseph isn’t being honest. For all we know he may have this history, genealogy, and background and its not recorded. His story has changed several times, but I just hope that we can accept the fact that there is something Indigenous about that man. It’s important that we as artists need to be honest and transparent because we are representatives of our own people, our communities and of our Nations.
I get really troubled when we focus all of our energy into one person like this. I think the discussion needs to happen, but when we focus on one person like this we get into a loop-hole of a colonial trap, find ourselves spinning our own wheels and end up letting someone else define what Indigeneity is.
MM: You’re a writer, comedian, actor, musician and director. Who inspires you creatively?
SE: As a writer, I’ve always been a huge fan of Tomson Highway. He is my literary hero. I’ve never heard an Indigenous voice so loud. It gave me the bravery to tell my own stories. As an actor I thought that this was great. I’ve never seen or heard this before – Indigenous people on the stage and their voices. The story from their perspectives. That just kind of blew my mind.
As a theatre artist I’ve had a lot of influences. Ken Brown, who was very influential to me as a young man in his plays. He gave me the courage and strength to tell my own stories. He was kind enough to step back and recognize that he was white. He just stepped back and let me speak for myself which to me makes him one of the most courageous white men I know.