Huff Stuff: Darkness and humour inhabit a dream world

Cliff Cardinal plays over twelve characters in Huff. | Photo by akipari

Cliff Cardinal plays over twelve characters in Huff. | Photo by akipari

It’s all about the tough stuff, or Huff stuff, for playwright and performer Cliff Cardinal. Solvent abuse, sexual abuse and suicide are featured in his second play Huff, a story about what he feels young First Nations are going through. But Cardinal wants to let the audience have their own interpretation.

I think that First Nations kids who abuse solvents is really far out there- that expression you can’t see the forest through the trees… By doing our best to empathize with that perspective, especially with them, we get to see ourselves from a very unique perspective – some beautiful things and some of our unattractive angles,” says Cardinal, who wrote Huff about four or five years ago.

Huff is a one-man play about a young boy named Wind and his two brothers who experiment with solvents, and deals with the taboo topic of suicide. Cardinal himself performs over twelve characters in the play.

Cardinal, an indigenous artist based in Toronto, says he felt compelled to write a play about startling subject matter.

“It’s a scary subculture, which has invoked fear in me,” says Cardinal.

Finding his voice

Though Cardinal dropped out of high school at age 15, he later returned to study playwriting at the National Theatre of Canada in Montreal. Acting runs in the family – Cardinal’s mother, Tantoo Cardinal, is a well-known actress.

“My mom sent me to the backstage of the VideoCabaret in Montreal. They were doing their history plays, so my tenth grade was spent in the back of a theatre watching rehearsals,” he says.

Huff is Cardinal’s second solo play. His first play, Stitch, a one-woman show about a single mom who worked in porn, debuted at Toronto’s Summerworks Festival in 2011. Cardinal’s original intention was to write a show for his sister, but she didn’t end up doing a lot of acting in the production.

“It was my first play, so I was finding my voice. It had its own drive and what I was doing was learning to craft a story and write,” Cardinal says.

The positive reception of Stitch, which included winning awards, encouraged him to write another play. The process didn’t quite go as planned, but Cardinal thinks if people are compelled to tell a story or make a piece of art, they will find a way to do it.

“It’s weird that I set out to make something that is very beautiful and I never accomplish it; it’s always weird and awkward and a bit ugly and a bit loveable. To actually see yourself, myself, in a piece of art was a bit shocking,” he explains.

The audience’s role

Cardinal says Huff has proved to be a positive experience.

“I wrote it – it’s my voice in the world and I can actually hear it-as reflected by the audience. It’s been a defining challenge in my career,” he explains.

The interaction with the audience is very important, albeit the subject matter may not come easily for some, says Cardinal.

“It’s a dark play. I personally need a dark story, a dark piece of art, unified by pain, and not everybody goes for it,” he adds.

Cardinal wants the audience to make their own interpretation. For him, a play doesn’t truly become a play until it meets the audience.

Huff will be featured at the Firehall Arts Centre Feb. 2–6.

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