If you can’t take a joke. Stay home.
That’s playwright Cliff Cardinal’s advice to potential SPARK Fest audiences who put his show Huff on their must see list.
“If you are a conservative person. If you get upset about swearing on the stage or someone doing something offensive, fucking don’t come. OK? I’m serious, you’re going to have a bad time. I don’t want you there. If you’re faint of heart or you can’t take a joke – don’t show up.”
Huff, Cardinal’s second play, is a dark, yet humorous look at teenage life on the reserve. The story follows Wind and his brothers as they struggle to cope with their mother’s death.
“It’s about First Nations kids who abuse solvents [who are] at high risk of suicide,” he says. “It was, to me, the most terrifying, taboo subculture in Canada.”
Growing up as a “First Nations kid” Cardinal, now 30, says he felt like an outsider. “My work is always about outsiders. Lonely people who do strange things to make a connection and this was that.”
Huff began life as a short story in 2007. By 2011, Cardinal began work on it as his primary project after launching his first play Stitch, which won both the Spotlight Award for Performance, as well as Theatre Passe Muraille’s Emerging Artist Award for the script’s notable artistic impression.
He’s currently the playwright in residence at VideoCabaret and has plays in development at Tarragon Theatre, Factory Theatre, Culture Storm and Soulpepper. “And I have a play for young audiences called Sidewalk Chalk that’s currently on tour with Geordie Productions throughout Quebec. And also I’ve got a music project called Cliff Cardinal and the Skylarks that you can hear on SoundCloud.”
Add to that a nine-week tour with Huff, in which Cardinal portrays 10 characters in a 75-minute performance, and he has one busy schedule. “It’s really just playing. I really just go from one group of friends to another. It’s a great way to make a living,” he says.
Cardinal is the son of actor Tantoo Cardinal, a member of the Order of Canada who appeared in many memorable films and TV series, including Spirit Bay, Dances with Wolves, Legends of the Fall, and North of 60.
“She literally … carried me with her in her arms, so it had a big influence on me. Creatively she’s a huge inspiration,” he says.
Although inspired by his talented mother, Cardinal didn’t begin his artistic career with classical training, rather his mom allowed him to take a semester off high school to sit in on rehearsals at Toronto’s VideoCabaret. He recently graduated from the National Theatre School of Canada.
“I have a classical training now, but I didn’t when I started,” he says. “All my training happened in clubs and on the street busking with my guitar and so it’s been about learning to write and perform with immediacy … I know that now, looking back, but at the time I was just trying to make money.”
Huff is a compelling theatre piece says Cardinal. “At some point along the lines I realized that I have to give all of myself. I have to really share the things that scare me the most, the things that hurt me the most. Otherwise it just wouldn’t be that good. Theatre has to be poetic, theatrical and has to be dangerous,” he explains.
“It’s awful. I hate that there are little kids who abuse solvents … but my way of exploring that is to laugh in its face, in the face of that, that horrible stuff. [To] try to find the joy and the play within it because when you’re in the midst of connecting in this way and doing this thing, it’s really sad but also there’s really funny things about it.”
Cardinal says he tries to connect with the joy amid the despair. “There’s so much joy in the life of a child and so the way to deal with it for me is to try and include both things. Have the fun and the play despite the terrible darkness.”
The takeaway, he says, is hope.
“Hope is the goal. That the audience has a visceral experience and the last thing they have is hope.”