Dennen Phillips always loved theatre, but stage fright kept him in the audience for many years. It all changed when he got involved with Turtle Island Theatre, and Kevin John Saylor cast him in a production of Anything Goes in 2012.
But the timing of Phillips’ theatrical debut was ill-fated. The year after starring in his first production was the year that Turtle Island Theatre was forced to close down. On the cusp of its 20th anniversary, the theatre company was locked out of its performance space, which ultimately resulted in the company severing its ties with Kahnawake Shakotiia’takehnhas Community Services (KSCS), according to Saylor..
“I was just getting my feet wet with it, finding the passion that I had for theatre and then it stopped,” said Phillips.
Saylor was the founding artistic director of Turtle Island Theatre back in 1993. Now, 30 years later, he’s reprising this role in the local company’s revival. Phillips and Saylor are working together to bring back the Turtle Island Theatre after-school program, which will be hosted at the Kahnawake Youth Centre (KYC) beginning February 7 and culminating in a variety show on May 25-26.
Fostering an environment for youth to discover the arts and the stage has always been at the core of what Turtle Island Theatre aims to do. Saylor explained that Turtle Island Theatre actually began in Kahnawake’s elementary schools, and the return to year-round programming marks “a bit of a reboot” for the company.
This past summer, Turtle Island Theatre worked with Starcatcher Productions to put on Urinetown, a musical that garnered 13 nominations at the Broadway World Montreal Regional Awards. Now Turtle Island Theatre is trying to extend this momentum into a year-round endeavour and develop the next generation of performers.
“It’s really wonderful to foster that kind of intergenerational community because there’s so much for youth to learn from the older generations, and also, older generations learn new things by engaging with the youth too,” said Turtle Island Theatre president Kyle Zachary.
Phillips, who is an animator for the program and vice-president of Starcatcher Productions, is a product of this kind of intergenerational community development.
“Before I joined theater, I was very shy, very introverted, and because of the stage, that opened up my career not only in theater but my previous occupation, which was at the radio station K103.7,” said Phillips.
“I have to blame Kevin for that cause he gave me the tools I needed,” he continued. Phillips is excited to give back to the community and offer the safe kind of mentorship and support that Saylor once offered him.
For Saylor, it is clear that theatre is his calling. He has spent decades working in the industry, mentoring youth, and creating avenues for their self-expression. He was even awarded a meritorious service medal from the governor general of Canada for this work in 2004.
Zachary was also quick to credit Saylor for his contributions to the theatre community in Kahnawake. “There wouldn’t be a Turtle Island Theater without Kevin,” said Zachary. “To move forward with this project with him back here is great and only great things are gonna come out of it because of that.”
Saylor sees theatre as a teaching tool, a means of socializing with others and a conduit to self-expression. It’s also a lot of fun, he said.
“The goal of theatre, especially with youth, is to teach them the skills that they can use all through life, whether they work in construction, whether they work in an office,” said Saylor. He emphasized that not everyone ends up in the industry, but that it’s important for youth to know that a career in the arts, in theatre, is possible and that programs like these are an ideal place to discover talents and develop skills.
Zachary echoed this sentiment, bringing attention to the myriad talents that have come out of Kahnawake and Turtle Island Theatre, like actress Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, filmmaker Tracey Deer, actress Brittany Leborgne, and performance artist Ange Loft.
Zachary went on to explain that the program, like all aspects of Turtle Island Theatre’s work, will be welcoming and inclusive. Registration for the program is now open, and parents can register their children at www.kahnawakeyouthcenter.ca.
Phillips and Saylor are eager to get to work activating the youth’s passion for music and performance, and they know that after a decade without Turtle Island Theatre, there is a lot of excitement in the community about its return.
“We have quite the backlog of potential superstars to find… We’re very excited to find that untapped potential in Kahnawake because it’s there. It just needs to be put in the spotlight,” said Phillips.