Award-Winner Drew Hayden Taylor Shares Native Experience

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Native playwright Drew Hayden Taylor discusses humor in writing with students, from left, Samantha Craig and Stephanie Tgibides.

By Julia Gavin

Theater helps audiences see things through someone else’s eyes, and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor uses that opportunity to share the Native experience with others. Taylor, who is part Ojibway and part Caucasian and is from the Curve Lake First Nations in Canada, brought his unique blend of humor, history and culture to campus while working with theatre arts, history and English students.

“Drew is an incredibly engaging speaker in the areas of story, humor and the Ojibway culture who has traveled the world celebrating these ingredients and sharing these experiences and ideas with anyone curious enough to ask and willing enough to listen,” says Asst. Prof. Dale Young, who organized the writer’s stay as part of a series called “Theatre Lives,” which introduces students to professional opportunities in the performing arts. “We have wonderful students and love to offer them multiple opportunities to interact with people who are working successfully in their profession.”

Taylor, who spent several days on campus, has taken on many roles in his career, from performing stand-up comedy at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to serving as artistic director of Canada’s Native Earth Performing Arts, the premier theatre company representing that nation’s indigenous peoples. An award-winning playwright with more than 70 productions of his work, he has also served as a columnist for several Canadian newspapers and magazines and written short stories, novels and TV scripts. And he has worked on more than a dozen documentaries exploring the Native experience.

Taylor met with students in writing, literature, history and theatre arts classes, culminating in a two-part master class in short scriptwriting. Jack Croughwell, an English major, says the class taught him more than how to structure a script.

“One of the biggest things I gained from the class and meeting Drew was how modest the process of finding a story can be,” says Croughwell. “Stories are always happening all around us but only some people write them down.”

Throughout Taylor’s visit, he encouraged students to pursue their creative inspirations, and credited them with always giving him a “shot of enthusiasm.”

“What I find really special is that some of these students have come to see me talk three or four times, so they’ve heard all my jokes, but they still want more,” says Taylor, who shared stories about traveling the world during his 25-year career. “They can call upon me as a resource to answer questions or give them guidance and direction.”

Taylor’s visit was funded largely from the Comley-Lane Theatre Arts Endowment and with support from the English and History departments. Marcelle Durrenberger, a mechanical engineering major and theatre minor, is a theatre arts program intern and facilitated Taylor’s visit. She sought out the internship to learn more about the behind-the-scenes world of theatre and to work with faculty members.

“Getting the opportunity to work with Drew was an exciting chance to learn at every meeting,” says Durrenberger, who helped with publicity, itinerary planning and scheduling. She also organized a meeting between Taylor and the Greater Lowell Indian Cultural Association. “My favorite part was getting to listen to what Drew had to share. I was curious to learn from him, but he was also very willing to listen to me and hear my experiences. That opportunity to learn and share has been the most valuable piece to me.”

Exposing students to Taylor’s work and that of other Native writers is important in spreading a diverse range of literature to wider audiences, Young says. 

“Drew is seminal in the renaissance of contemporary Native theatre, and I think his humor, his approachability, the uniqueness of his voice, as well as the vast amount of experience he has amassed are really wonderful for our students to experience firsthand,” says Young, who wrote his dissertation on Taylor’s work. “He's published and produced all over the world, yet the U.S. is still taking its time producing him and other amazing artists. I would love to see that change.”