Frances Koncan’s road to the stage has been a winding one.
The Winnipeg playwright and director’s first love was music. She studied piano and french horn at university, but when she began to find it unsatisfying, she switched to her minor, psychology.
In her last year of school, an elective theatre class reset her course.
"I got involved with stage management, and through that I got involved with theatre in general," she recalls. "I went to New York for the first time and saw a bunch of shows and met people my age who were doing theatre as a career."
She wasn’t quite ready to make the leap yet, however. She took a year off, during which she worked as a pharmacy technician, and then applied to grad school in playwriting and to law school.
"I got into both and I had to choose. I chose playwriting and my parents were not happy," she says, laughing.
Her family might be starting to see the wisdom of her decision to spend two years studying at Brooklyn College in New York City. At last year’s Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, she won the Harry Rintoul Award for best Manitoba play for her drama Zahgidiwin/love, a darkly comic fable. She also presented Flesh Coloured Crayons, a comedy show featuring standup, sketch and improv from a talented troupe of multicultural young women.
In June, Koncan, 31, was the recipient of the On the Rise Award at the Mayor’s Luncheon for the Arts. The honour, presented by the Winnipeg Arts Council, recognizes the promise of an emerging local artist and comes with a $2,500 purse.
"It was very unexpected," says Koncan, who appeared nonplussed to have won at the luncheon. "It was fantastic; it felt very motivational and inspired me to continue what I’ve been doing.
"For the past couple of years, it’s been a hobby more than anything, and getting that kind of feedback from the community made me think, ‘Oh, maybe I could do this in a professional capacity.’"
She used part of the money to buy a projector for her non-profit theatre group, Vault Projects, which is presenting Riot Resist Revolt Repeat at the Winnipeg fringe.
Throughout the rest of the year, Koncan can often be found doing standup or improv. But with this play, she’s tackling some no-laughing-matter issues, including water rights, health care and missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Set in a future walled city where water is scarce, Riot Resist Revolt Repeat follows a young Cree woman who is hospitalized while searching for her sister, who disappeared while trying to bring down the wall. It touches on politics in the age of Donald Trump and cultural bias in the medical system.
The work was inspired in part by pipeline protests at Standing Rock reservation in the U.S., but also by Koncan’s own experiences as a visible minority.
"I was reflecting on myself as an Indigenous person — what is my contribution to resistance and resilience of our culture?" says the artist, whose background is Anishinaabe and Slovenian. "Working in arts, sometimes I feel like I’m not hands-on with that; I’m not on the front lines. I’m not at political rallies giving speeches. It’s a reflection on that: what can my contribution be to this movement as we reclaim our tradition and our heritage?"
As a playwright, Koncan finds her work focusing on Indigenous issues tends to generate more momentum and interest, but she’s at pains to present a different slant than what’s often seen onstage.
"I think there’s this concept that if you’re an Indigenous person, you must be telling certain kinds of stories. I feel like a lot of the plays that we’ve seen about Indigenous people are about the themes we see in the news a lot, like addiction or homelessness, poverty.
"Those are all valid things we need to talk about and address, but they’re not the only things. There are so many people who are in school, they’re just living their life and they don’t see themselves represented anywhere. They see the extreme stereotypes.
"I’m from a very middle-class background, and I never had a role model or someone to look up to. With theatre, I can tell those stories, very average-Joe stories, but with greater awareness of certain issues."
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