School of Theatre and Dance welcomes guest award-winning director Reneltta Arluk

College of Visual and Performing Arts

The College of Visual and Performing Arts School of Theatre and Dance is delighted to introduce The Birds: A Modern Adaptation of Aristophanes’ Comedy by Yvette Nolan starting April 9–13 in The Studio Theatre at the Forbes Center with guest award-winning director, Reneltta Arluk. In The Birds, acclaimed Indigenous playwright Yvette Nolan has potently adapted Aristophanes’ classic comedy that follows two humans seeking freedom and a better way of life as they travel to the fabled land of birds. Soon, they begin to recreate this newfound paradise in their image on Turtle Island without regard for its original occupants. Nolan’s adaptation examines the Indigenous-settler relationship and respect for the land, with insightful wit and lasting resonance. 

CVPA sat down with Arluk, to learn more about her experience as a producer, director, actor and storyteller, and why this work is important. 

Q: Can you tell me a little about yourself?

A: My name is Reneltta Arluk, and I’m originally from the Northwest Territories in northern Canada. I was born and raised there; my mother is Denesuline Cree which is Dene and Cree from Treaty 8 territory and my father’s Inuvialuk and Gwich’in from the Inuvik-Aklavik region, so I am Indigenous on both sides of my family and ancestrally. I am predominantly a performing arts artist in the theater. I am also a producer with my theater called Akpik Theatre, which is my Inuvialuk name given to me by my great-grandmother. Likewise, I am a director, an actor, storyteller, pretty much anything connected with theater; I’ve been involved professionally for about 20 years now.

Q: What led you to go into theater?

A: It was a political response; I never really participated in theater until I was about 19 years old. I had an experience working in the States at an Indigenous environmental network gathering. I call it my getting-off-the-mountain moment. When I went to the States for this environmental network gathering, we were in Montana for three days near this mountain that was getting shaved down by mining, and the water was poisoned with arsenic, so you’re in this beautiful environment but you can’t drink or go in the water; it was purposeful so that we could talk about the environment, climate, and culture. I come from a region where we are a majority Indigenous population and are in leadership positions, but we still need to make sure our culture continues living, that we continue to bring our culture forward. I’m a storyteller, and what I decided to do was to find a way to keep our stories stay alive, and that was to be the best storyteller that I can be. So, I went from this traditional oral practice as a storyteller and went into the arts by auditioning for theater school.

Q: What do you hope JMU Students and other collaborators can take away from this process? 

A: To be entirely honest, it is to make sure to create a space where people feel good, feel good about themselves, and feel good about the work that they are doing. It is an embodied practice. We are working with Toby Twinning, who is an incredible composer. He composed three incredible pieces for the actors to perform. It is a physically active piece. I am not a director who likes to do a lot of walk and talk acting. I like to get our bodies moving. So, the piece has a lot of movement, and everything is alive. The set is very active. There is the vocal part of the performance, but all of these beautiful sounds go with the performance and are all very much engaged with one another.

What we are doing in the room is using land research and education as a form of embodiment to bring things to life through them. I just want the company to feel their best and do their best. Partially, because I think it is hard for young people right now to navigate the wild system that we are going through climate-wise, political-wise, everything that’s happening can feel overwhelming.

Q: What’s challenging about bringing this script to life? 

A: I think why we’re rising to the challenge is that this is an Indigenous play. It’s written by an Indigenous playwright though the embodiment of this script itself doesn’t require anyone to be Indigenous, which I think is the challenge and the gift. There’s a learning and knowing that must come with the script. What we’re asking them to do as actors is the blocking, memorizing lines, and find character inspiration through their artistic instincts. It can be challenging to do that if you don't know the colonial history of why you are doing it. I directed this play at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, and in Canada, there too none of the actors were Indigenous.

I created an e-course with two other professors because the truths of Indigenous atrocities in both Canada and the United States are not taught in depth in the education system. So, when you start talking about what is colonialism through a religious, artistic, and surveying lens, it can be overwhelming.

Q: What do you like most about The Birds? What do you like about the script? What is the rehearsal process like?  

A: So, the first week was just like sitting around the table. I think five people were like, “I can’t do this anymore.” But I’m like, “We must, we must get through the nuts and bolts of this because we build the world together.” After all, it’s embodied. It’s consensus and collaboration so, I come in with a few ideas of what I think the world is, but ultimately, I want them to build the world because they must live in it. We make decisions about the production of the play through consensus, asking questions like; What was your backstory? What did you do there? Where are we? What time are we in? Where are we in play? You know, what day of the week is it? They’re like, “Well, I think it’s this ...” This leads to rules that we’re all abiding by, which is beautiful. That’s the first week.

The second week, we played games for the first half hour of every rehearsal. It gets your body moving, gets your mind moving, and gets your voice warmed up all through play. After that, we dive in and start blocking. Plus, Toby does composition, he takes each actor and gets them on their voice. We’re starting to practice with the pieces he’s composing. As things are coming together, we'll keep building. It's a balance of individual growth work, getting an understanding of muscle memory, and then applying it to that space.

Q: What excites you most about working with JMU’s School of Theatre and Dance students and faculty? 

A: One thing I love about JMU that I’ve learned about here is that there’s an embedded sense of equity, diversity inclusion. It’s a driving value that’s at this university. When I was invited down, they had already decided to do The Birds and if I was interested in directing it. I came down to do auditions and left feeling very, very good. I thought all the students were so respectful, and thoughtful. Just everyone I met was, positive, and engaging, and it does seem weird that a-girl-from-the-North in Canada would come to Virginia.

Q: What advice do you have to give our students and young theater artists who may one day be guest directors?

A: I have been emphasizing in class to just be curious about the world around you. Go into the room humble, you know. Don’t go into a room thinking I’m the center now.

I am a bit of a trail breaker. I think that’s how I ended up in Virginia, right? You don’t just end up randomly in a place like this. You have to have done some things in your life. We’re still at a time when we're barely casting Indigenous people in non-Indigenous roles. In Hollywood, we are finally casting Indigenous people in Indigenous people roles, and that's a step. Telling our own stories is important. For a lot of my career, I’ve had to stay consistently curious to end up in spaces that maybe weren’t ready for me to be there.

And, now that I’m in these bigger spaces, it can also work in the other way. If you’re non-Indigenous, or non-BIPOC, you can still be curious, work within other people’s systems and learn. Ultimately, you graduate and the world is very different. It’s not about you. Oftentimes, the easier it is for you to understand that go into the place saying “I’m curious, and I’m not the center of this conversation.” It will make you a more enriched artist and possibly give you that longevity of a career that can sometimes be hard for artists to have, especially now.

Reneltta Arluk is currently the director of Indigenous Arts at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. She is responsible for the vision to design Indigenous Arts-led programming across all artistic disciplines and offer support for inclusionary programming for Indigenous artists campus-wide. She is also responsible for developing and strengthening partnerships with Indigenous and non-Indigenous artistic institutions regionally, nationally, and globally, creating spaces for Indigenous creative voices. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts and Acting degree from the University of Alberta, becoming the first Indigenous woman and first Inuk to graduate from the reputable program. Most recently, Reneltta is the first Inuk and Indigenous woman to direct at The Stratford Festival. There, Reneltta received The Festival’s 2017 Tyrone Guthrie - Derek F. Mitchell Artistic Director’s Award as Director of The Breathing Hole by Governor General Award-winning playwright Colleen Murphy.

For more information on The Birds: A Modern Adaptation of Aristophanes’ Comedy by Yvette Nolan, performance times, and tickets, visit  

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Published: Friday, March 29, 2024

Last Updated: Monday, April 1, 2024

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