Big stage for Birch Island man

Nicholas Nahwegahbow

Nicholas Nahwegahbow snags roles in trio of plays

STRATFORD—Life’s been a whirlwind of activity for Nicholas Nahwegahbow since he started his first season onstage at the Stratford Festival, but to put a bit of a Shakespearean pun twist to it, the time he has spent so far at the festival has been just ‘as you like it.’

Birch Island band member Mr. Nahwehgabow is not currently in that particular pastoral Shakespearean play, but he is starring in productions of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘Treasure Island’ and an indigenous play by Colleen Murphy called the ‘Breathing Hole.’

The first two likely need little introduction, while the ‘Breathing Hole’ is described by the Stratford Festival webpage as: “Intersecting with Canada’s history from the moment of First Contact to a future ravaged by climate change, this saga follows the mythic adventures of a polar bear to a profoundly moving conclusion.’

‘Breathing Hole’ was especially commissioned by the Stratford Festival to mark Canada 150.

The 27-year-old Mr. Nahwegahbow is no theatrical novice, he has been studying for the theatre nearly all his life, attending the National Theatre School. It was in a National Theatre School production of ‘Hamlet,’ where he was playing the part of Laertes, that Mr. Nahwehgabow found himself recruited for the two-year stint at Stratford, finding himself following in the footsteps of such luminaries as William Shatner (think Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, televisions T.J. Hooker and more recently Boston Legal’s nefarious Denny Crane) and the amazing talent of Graham Greene.

The opportunity came through the Birmingham Conservatory. The Conservatory was founded in 1998 by then artistic director Richard Monette, and ever since the Conservatory has nurtured talented young actors for a future in classical theatre.

“I really didn’t expect to be selected,” admitted Mr. Nahwegahbow, but then one is rarely the best judge of one’s own talent. The judges obviously felt he was ready for the opportunity.

Mr. Nahwegabow will play Gregory in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ Tom Morgan in ‘Treasure Island’ and Qiluniq, Dufort in ‘The Breathing Hole.’ These plays mark his Stratford debut, but he has also appeared as The Doctor in ‘Vacuum,’ Laertes and the Player Queen in ‘Hamlet,’ Queen Elizabeth in ‘Orlando,’ Dave in Total ‘Liquidation’ (National Theatre School); Camp Follower in ‘King Lear’ (National Arts Centre). 

He has trained at the National Theatre School of Canada and holds a BA in Theatre Studies from the University of Guelph.

“Yeah, it’s been a lot of school,” he laughs, “seven years.”

Stratford has been an amazing experience, noted Mr. Nahwegahbow. He not only has been taking to the stage in the productions he is in, but he is getting the opportunity to study the work of other actors from the wings while he waits his time under the lights.

And then there is the sword fighting, lots and lots of sword fighting.

“I am working with John Stead, so I have been in a lot of fight choreography,” said Mr. Nahwegabow. John Stead is the head of stage combat at the Stratford Festival and a master instructor with the Academy of Stage Combat, stage combat coordinator for The National Theatre School and a member of the Society of Canadian Fight Directors. Mr. Stead has over 600 professional theatre credits as a fight director, including 24 seasons as the fight director for the Stratford Festival and 18 seasons with the Shaw Festival. Pretty heady stuff.

“It’s a lot of work,” he admits, but it hardly seems it when you are doing what you love.

One of the great things about working at Stratford is the depth of roles that a young actor can find themselves portraying onstage. “You aren’t just relegated to First Nations’ roles,” he said. “You aren’t pigeonholed.” He said that he found Stratford to be “an inclusive community.”

Stratford has the largest number of First Nations actors in 65 years on its roster this season, with four actors filling diverse roles in a number of productions.

As to the old English language common to productions of Shakespeare’s plays, Mr. Nahwegahbow takes it all in stride. “I understand it pretty well,” he said. Getting the handle on the rhyming syntax hasn’t been all that rough either.

The ‘Breathing Hole’ opens on August 18 and runs until September 22, with 22 performances to choose from. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ opened on June 1 and runs until October 21 with 29 remaining performances and Treasure Island opened June 3 and running until October 22 with 39 remaining performances.