Review: Michelle Thrush's INNER ELDER at Ottawa's National Arts Centre

Thrush seamlessly balances telling traumatic stories with elements of humour.

By: Apr. 12, 2024
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Hosting Gemini-award winning Michelle Thrush's Inner Elder at the National Arts Centre has been a long time coming. Directed by Karen Hines, this is a one-woman show written and performed entirely by Thrush. Initially intended as part of the inaugural season of the NAC's Indigenous Theatre in 2020, like so many other things, Inner Elder was delayed due to the pandemic. Thrush was welcomed to the stage on opening night with exuberant applause from the audience.

The smaller space of the Azrieli Studio, with its seating in a semi circular curve around the stage helped to convey the feeling of intimacy. On the stage were various groupings of rocks and boulders with criss-crossing strings reaching skyward, symbolizing a pathway of trees in a forest, as well as the interconnectedness between us, nature, and our ancestors. The limited staging was enhanced by excellent sound and lighting, while maintaining that the focus remained on Thrush (lighting and scenic design by Sandi Somers; and composer Sandy Scofield).

Inner Elder, Michelle Thrush, seated amongst boulders on the floor with strings leading skyward. - ©️Curtis Perry
Inner Elder, Michelle Thrush - ©️Curtis Perry

During the first half of the show, Thrush adopts the role of storyteller, recounting anecdotes from her life growing up in Calgary. These include the ups and downs of living with people battling substance abuse, despite their profound love for her, and stories from her time in the public school system where she was made to feel like an outsider, mocked and belittled by the people entrusted with her care.

Thrush had no role model to look up to, except for her kokum (“grandmother” in Cree). Thrush’s kokum is featured repeatedly throughout the piece, first as a super-hero out to avenge the many wrongs suffered by Thrush, and later as Thrush's inner elder, who finds meaning and wisdom in every detail of nature, but who can also find laughter in the unlikeliest of places.

Thrush seamlessly balances telling traumatic stories with elements of humour. The second half of the show has a decidedly different tone, as Thrush’s larger-than-life inner elder takes over the stage and gives a performance more closely resembling stand up-comedy than traditional theatre. Thrush’s ability to make the audience laugh with silly antics, while keeping the show's message of resilience and self-empowerment at the forefront, is a testament to her ability as an actor. Being able to poke fun at some of these events must also be therapeutic to some extent.

Inner Elder, Michelle Thrush standing, holding a suitcase. ©️Curtis Perry
Inner Elder, Michelle Thrush - ©️Curtis Perry

Through it all, Thrush unabashedly allows spectators to witness her vulnerability; in fact, she wears it like a badge of honour. And why not? The adversity that shaped Thrush’s life forced her to forge ahead and become the impressive artist that stands before us. Best of all, Thrush is a role model for all Canadians, but especially for Indigenous youth, giving to others something she yearned for in her youth, but found lacking.

At 55 minutes long with no intermission, Inner Elder is best suited to audiences 13+, as the descriptions of some events may be triggering; however, a reflection space is available for those who need it. Inner Elder is in performances through April 13th at the NAC’s Azrieli Studio and the April 13th performance will also be American Sign Language (ASL) interpreted. Click here for more information or buy tickets using the link below.


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