Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Corey Payette, an interdisciplinary storyteller, writer, composer, and director in theatre and film. He is a member of the Mattagami First Nations, with French Canadian and Irish ancestry, and lives on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səl’ilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) peoples.
Known for his deeply moving, large-scale original musical creations, Payette’s work challenges the public’s notion of what musicals can be, inserting Indigenous perspectives and narratives into mainstream spaces, igniting conversations that inspire social change. Payette’s work explores themes of colonization, Indigenous language revitalization, cultural healing, reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and the complexity of historic and contemporary Indigenous experiences across music, theatre, and film. Payette’s deeply collaborative, multi-disciplinary, and community engaged creation process has been integral in shining a light on stories that have gone unheard for generations.
In 2021, Payette received the inaugural BC Reconciliation Award from The Honourable Janet Austin, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, created to honour those who have demonstrated exceptional leadership, integrity, respect, and commitment to furthering Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in the province of British Columbia. He is the Artistic Director of Urban Ink, past Artist-in-Residence with National Arts Centre [NAC] English Theatre, and is the founder of Raven Theatre. His musicals Children of God, Les Filles du Roi, Sedna, and Starwalker have won multiple awards and have toured extensively across Canada. He was awarded the John Hirsch Prize from the Canada Council, Jessie Awards for Composition and Direction, and Ovation Awards for Best New Musical and Outstanding Direction.
Tell us how you got your start writing plays.
I began writing first as a songwriter, but when I started writing my first musical Children of God it became very clear that in order to write the story that I was needing to tell, I needed to learn how to write the book as well. That’s when I started writing the book of the musical, and thanks to so many mentors over the years (Allison Grant, Sybille Pearson, Jillian Keiley, Sarah Garton Stanley, Margo Kane, Kevin Loring), they really helped to teach me so much about storytelling and how to create musicals.
Can you share your process of writing a musical, and why you choose that format for storytelling?
It takes me about 4 years to write a musical, starting from research & creation, to multiple readings and workshops, followed by music, design, movement workshops, and in Starwalker’s unique case a drag workshop to bring all elements of the production together. I started writing Starwalker in Spring 2019 in Winnipeg and now it is 2023 and we’re having our first production, which to me, is very much a part of the overall development of a show. That first interaction the musical has with an audience is essential and helps to shape the show beyond its “premiere”, the musical will never be done, I’ll just stop working on it.
I’ve always been a lover of musicals, ever since I was very young, and I knew I wanted to write dramatic musicals when I first heard and studied Sondheim’s Company and Sunday in the Park with George. These musicals had profound impacts on me as a storyteller, both in terms of their form but also how they created balance between comedy and serious subject matters.
Once I was able to weave my Indigenous cultural work with my musical theatre work I feel like my musicals really took a huge leap forward and I’ve never looked back. In my musicals, I’m creating a world where when a character can no longer speak, they sing. Allowing us to go deeper into a character’s desires, and emotions of what is often left unspoken.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to write a musical?
Believe in yourself and know that the amount of work it takes to create a musical is monumental. And when you’re starting it will seem like you have an insurmountable ascent ahead of you. And you do. But if you trust in the process, and take it moment by moment you will get there.
Another piece of advice, don’t jump to your feet before the work is ready. This comes down to gut feeling and experience, but you want to make sure the writing is far enough along so that actors, creative team, and collaborators have a strong foundation to build on. And that foundation takes time, so don’t rush it.
Finally, take breaks from your musical. Step away. Sometimes for months. And return to it with fresh eyes and ears. Live your life, and keep your ears open because much of the time the solutions to your musical problems will come in everyday moments with friends, family or on a hike in the wilderness.
Your musical Starwalker (for which you received the Tom Hendry Awards Dan School of Drama & Music Musical Award in 2022) is having its world premiere at the York Theatre in Vancouver, BC in February 2023. Can you tell us about the musical and what the preparation for this production has been like?
The story follows Starwalker, an Indigi-Queer Two-Spirit drag queen learning the ropes of the East Van Drag community. When Starwalker is introduced to Drag at the House of Borealis, their whole world changes, introducing them to a home they never knew they needed, creating a new persona that blends their grounded Indigenous cultural spirit with drag performance, resulting in an empowering and celebratory experience that only tearing down the patriarchy can provide. Featuring pop/rock music, paired with pulsing drums, sets the perfect musical scene for this modern-day love story. Musical Stage Company (Toronto) commissioned this new musical, giving me a blank canvas to create his work. This musical tackles issues of identity, strength, and resilience and is sure to leave audiences inspired.
I have been dreaming about this musical for the past 10 years, even though I’ve only been writing it for 4. We’re about to begin rehearsals and I am surrounded by such a wonderful group of creative collaborators. It is going to be an amazing show and I’m so excited for audiences to see it!
In 2021, you received the inaugural BC Award for Reconciliation. Can you tell us what winning that award means to you?
I feel like I’ve only just begun this work. It makes me feel like I’m on the right road and that my musicals are reaching people and making lasting change in the community. I’m inspired to keep going, to create more musicals that inspire deep and healing conversations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
What are you working on next?
When I started working on Starwalker, I reached out to three producing companies that had expressed interest in my new musical works and began all of them at the same time. Starwalker is the first of the three to reach the stage. The other new musicals are called On Native Land (working title) with Bard on the Beach and Monarch (working title) with the Stratford Festival. I will continue working on those following Starwalker’s premiere.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays and/or which artists are currently inspiring you?
I am surrounded by so many inspiring collaborators who are a dream to work with. Artists who have inspired me recently are Ralph Escamillan (aka Posh Gvasalia Basquiat), Cheyenne Scott and her play Wolf Cull, Kamila Sediego and her play Homecoming, Kim Senklip Harvey and her play The Mystics, Marie Clements and her film Bones of Crows, Darla Contois and her play The War Being Waged, Julie McIsaac’s brilliance in all things, actors Kaitlyn Yott, Raes Calvert, Chelsea Rose, Michelle Bardach, Dillan Chiblow, and I could go on forever.
Find more information about the February 2023 world premiere of Starwalker here: https://thecultch.com/event/starwalker/
And keep up with Corey on his website http://www.coreypayette.com/ or on social media:
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.