Getting Lost: Advice from Tomson Highway and Ken Gass

I’ve attended a lot events since I moved to Toronto: film festivals, gallery tours, author readings, festivals, and of course many many theater performances. Sometimes it seems I’m almost more clued in to the fun, cultural events than some of the Toronto natives I’ve met (almost . . .), but then again, I feel like it’s my job as a newcomer to cover as much ground and experience as much as possible in the next year.

Sometimes, it’s a lot of pressure. To get to every important cultural event, plus make connections to keep learning about dramaturgy and pushing my playwriting career forward. Then of course, full time studies as a Masters student in a one year program. Oh yeah, and in order to be a playwright, I have to keep writing new plays. I’m finding enough time for it all, miraculously, but I’m not always sure how. If I stop and think about the future for too long, I freak out about how I’m going to find ways to keep all of this going after my one year guaranteed is up. The inner planner in me cannot deal with the unknowns of the future–it’s a very universal human problem to have, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear.

That’s why I’m glad I not only attended Ryerson Faculty of Communication and Design’s Dean’s Lecture, but that I went with another young theater professional/artist/whatever we should be called. I had heard of Ken Gass, the Toronto producer and playwright who started Factory Theatre (and his news-worthy exit from Factory last spring), but I didn’t know much about Tomson Highway until I read up on his biography. He is quite the character. His childhood was blessed in many ways–born on an ice floe in Northern Canada, lived in the pristine Canadian wilderness with his large Cree family. Out of his experiences growing up there, attending residential schools, and working with social agencies in his 20s, Tomson Highway has written some amazing plays. In person, he is large as his biography. He couldn’t stop joking at the beginning–I could tell Ken Gass was getting antsy to start with some of his real questions.

My friend and I both got caught up in Tomson’s descriptions of gender in native culture, the influence of myth and different religions mixing in allegory for his work, and his predictions for the future–“The 21st century belongs to the indigenous peoples of the world.” He was able to frame all his struggles because of his sexuality, his First Nations background, and as a theater artist in such positive terms. It gave both of us new hope, just starting out in our 20s and following our dreams. Although I arrived at the talk exhausted, I left feeling a lot lighter.

My favorite piece of advice by far was when Tomson declared, “You should get lost in your twenties” (or something to that effect). I feel so much pressure from my peers and my professors to be outperforming the world all the time. To constantly be earning honors and building up my resume. These things are important, sure, and as a perfectionist, I won’t let them go. At the same time, it was great to hear someone older, wiser, and successful in the way I want to be shouting out the very words I needed to hear. I’ve had these different inklings, tangent-like dreams, recently that are pulling me in different directions. My end goal is still to write plays, but part of me also wants to learn how to speak and read French. I want to travel more. I want to . . . something. Tomson’s story and advice reminded me that it’s okay to keep these other projects going. That maybe that’s what will lead me to the big idea that will later be my big break as a playwright/screenwriter/writer of some sort later in life.

After all, writing is not tied to a specific age. What is the big rush? It’s not easy and it takes life experience and years of practice. As long as I’m still sharing my work and creating new work consistently, I could still be writing when I’m 90. And that’s a much sweeter goal to keep in mind.


About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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One Response to Getting Lost: Advice from Tomson Highway and Ken Gass

  1. Pingback: When I Don’t Need Advice from the Internet | gladlybeyondaustinausten

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