Tracey Nepinak is a theatre artist and film actor who has graced many of Winnipeg’s premier stages, working with different theatre companies and acting in film and television. She starred in Shakespeare in the Ruins’ Antony and Cleopatra, as well as Theatre Projects Manitoba (TPM)’s A Short History of Crazy Bone.
Nepinak was recently nominated for a Winnipeg Theatre Award (Evie) for her work on The Third Colour by Ian Ross at Prairie Theatre Exchange (PTE). This past year, she directed The Hours That Remain for Theatre by the River. In August, she directed Songide’ewin for Sarasvàti Productions.
Nepinak “created a wonderful creative space for the artists, honoured the stories of over 70 Indigenous youth who gifted us with their experiences and truly made magic during the pandemic,” Hope McIntyre, outgoing artistic director of Sarasvàti Productions, says. “Her breadth of knowledge and experience makes her an artist we would want to work with over and over again.”
Despite Nepinak’s long resume, she didn’t set out to have a theatre career. Born and raised in Winnipeg, her parents came from Peguis First Nation, and Nepinak has always kept close ties there. After studying for a year at the University of Brandon, Nepinak moved to Vancouver to take a business administration course. For her final assignment, she was supposed to do a financial analysis of Spirit Song Native Theatre company.
“I didn’t know anything about theatre,” Nepinak says. “It didn’t occur to me that it was something I could do as an Indigenous person.”
Afterward, she was invited to attend Spirit Song Native Theatre’s summer program, and that’s where she fell in love with theatre. She continued on with their nine-month program before moving back to Winnipeg, where she worked in a bank.
Shortly after she started working, the bank was robbed at gunpoint. “I realized that I would rather pretend to be staring down the barrel of a gun than actually be staring down the barrel of a gun,” Nepinak says.
She went on to do an honours bachelor’s of theatre at the University of Winnipeg. She co-founded the Indigenous theatre collective As the Bannock Burns with her husband Doug Nepinak, where she cut her teeth as a director. In 1995, she appeared in her first professional production, TPM’s Jack of Hearts by Harry Rintoul.
The most impactful show of her career was the award-winning fareWel by Ian Ross, which was the first Indigenous play to grace a mainstage theatre in Canada. Ross won a Governor General’s Award for the play, and the production represented Canada at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe later that year.
“Chief Louis Stevenson (of Peguis First Nation) bussed in two busloads of band members to see the show,” Nepinak says.”Nothing like that had ever been done, introducing an Indigenous story on a mainstage theatre.”
This followed on the heels of The Rez Sisters at RMTC’s Warehouse Theatre, Tomson Highway’s comic play about a group of Indigenous women. “That was such an amazing show, to see my life onstage,” Nepinak says.
As one of Manitoba’s most prominent theatre artists, Nepinak has lived through the evolution of Indigenous theatre, which includes the history being made now, as Canadian theatres are being forced to reckon with their racist histories and to demonstrate new anti-racist models.
“We’re in a defining moment now with COVID and the (anti-racism protests). Before this, people did not hear us in any significant way. The puzzle pieces are starting to fit into place,” Nepinak says. “It is really important we start telling these stories from an Indigenous perspective. We haven’t always had the support.”
Nepinak starred in PTE’s Third Colour in early 2020, in a role which garnered her an Evie nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress and reunited her with playwright Ian Ross. The play won a Evie for Outstanding New Work.
“It feels like coming full circle. My first (major) show was with Ian Ross, and that show (was like) looking back at my career at how much things have changed since fareWel.”
Nepinak is starring in Katharsis by Yvette Nolan from Oct. 29 to Nov 15. Commissioned and created for an empty theatre, the play is a collaboration between PTE and Ice River Films. For more information and to stream the production for free, go to pte.mb.ca/performances/katharsis.
Published in Volume 75, Number 08 of The Uniter (November 5, 2020)