Tanis Parenteau ©Thoshography

#PersonOfChange: An interview with Manahatta’s Tanis Parenteau

“As a person who is Métis, I have yet to see myself or Métis culture/history represented in film or on stage.”

citizen of the Métis Nation of Alberta, Tanis Parenteau (she/her/hers) knew she wanted to be an actor in her final year of her Bachelor of Physical Education degree at the University of Alberta. Having just one more elective to fill she came across Drama 101…

“I thought ‘that looks fun!’. So I took that class and I discovered I had a passion for something. It opened up something I had never felt before. It was exciting and it was a way to express things I had never really expressed before in public. Usually we go through life trying not to be emotional but when I took that class, my expression was awakened and it was so freeing giving myself permission to feel what I felt in that class and that has now carried over to being about the work, being a voice for those who maybe aren’t ready to use their own voice yet. I love watching a play, film or tv show and being moved and inspired by it somehow and I love now being in the position to be able to inspire others by my work and the projects I get to be a part of.”

Parenteau currently stars in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Manahatta, while running her own production company, and maintaining an inspiring strength training routine. Her success empowers other Native actors and storytellers to continue doing the work. These are just a handful of reasons that make Tanis Parenteau a badass creative and a #PersonOfChange.

As a person who is Métis, when was the first time you saw yourself represented on stage or film?

As a person who is Métis, I have yet to see myself or Métis culture/history represented in film or on stage.

There has been considerable misrepresentation of Indigenous people in the Arts and media. Have you seen a shift in the cultural landscape? A change for the better?

Yes, I have seen a small shift and a change for the better but there is still tons of room for improvement.

“I feel like we’re just starting to see a very small growth in contemporary roles that aren’t based on harmful stereotypes but at the same time there are still a lot of roles I see that are still based on and perpetuate those stereotypes from the past — Natives in buckskin and fringe and feathers, and they all have long dark hair and dark skin. And there are a lot of actors playing red face by claiming they have Native blood in order to get a role when they aren’t actually a part of a community or nation.“

I give kudos to casting directors lately because they’re taking a step in the right direction by asking to see Native actors for Native roles but the powers that be above them, who have the final say in the casting process, could help even more by adhering to a stronger vetting process when it comes to claiming Native heritage.

Part of that positive change is the play ‘Manahatta’ at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Can you tell us more about it? The buzz has been incredible! You play multiple characters?

Yes I play two characters in Manahatta. I play Jane Snake and Le-le-wa’you. Jane leaves her family in Anadarko, Oklahoma to go work at Lehman Brothers on Wall Street in Manhattan in the early 2000‘s through to the time of the market crash in 2008. That storyline follows Jane’s trajectory working her way up through the company. It is a somewhat similar trajectory as a woman named Erin Callan who worked for Lehman Brothers at the time when Joe Gregory resigned and Dick Fuld was CEO. The other character Le-le-wa’you is a Lenape woman in the 1600s and we also follow her story as she is living on her ancestral homeland on the island of Manahatta as the Dutch colonists first arrived and we see how the Lenape eventually lost their land and were displaced and forced to leave. The two timelines and storylines are brilliantly woven together throughout the play — we go back-and-forth between the two different timelines and the three different locations (“present day” Oklahoma and the Manahatta/Manhattan in the 1600s and “present day”, respectively). It’s incredible to see how both storylines are extremely relevant to each other.

“The buzz has been incredible! After every single show at least one cast member gets stopped by a patron so they can tell us about how much they love the play, that they learned so much, are so emotional from watching and how grateful they are for the work that we’re doing and for telling this story. It’s very heartwarming. It solidifies why I do the work that I do with Native artists. I’m honored to be a part of it.”

How do you like working at Oregon Shakespeare Festival?

I love working at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The amount of support on every level is outstanding. Being able to work in a company that has this high of a production value is also so rare for an actor in the theatre. I understand why people come here and never want to leave. I actually did some research before I came out here to see if I could find anything online about working here and I found one article someone wrote on the Audition Update website and they raved about OSF. Everything they had written in the article I found to be true when I got here. And from being in the industry in New York, I knew OSF was a big deal to have on my resume. I highly recommend working here. It’s an actor’s dream come true.

How was collaborating with director Laurie Woolery and playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle?

Rainbow Dickerson & Tanis Parenteau ©Jenny Graham

Working with those two is another dream come true. They are both extraordinary, fierce, strong, inspiring women. Laurie Woolery is so hilarious too! She made the rehearsal room so comfortable and fun to work in. She cracked me up all the time. It was such a joy to be in the room with her. I always looked forward to going to work. She was very gentle with me when the time was needed and always very supportive. And even when we went through those sometimes hard times in rehearsal and I thought maybe I wasn’t doing what she wanted me to do, she still took the time and energy to support and guide me in a positive, constructive manner. She really knows how to talk to actors. I appreciate her so much. And she’s so brave! To say yes to taking on this play is a testament to her extraordinary vision. It’s not an easy play to stage and she knocked it out of the park. Where others were maybe apprehensive to try in the past, she has now paved a way for others to take on this play, in my humble opinion. She was always so open to collaborating with the actors, always open to our suggestions in and what we thought might work. I would love to work with her again.

Mary Kathryn Nagle is one of the most phenomenal human beings I have ever met. Besides being a brilliant playwright she’s also a lawyer who has her own firm so when she’s not writing a play, she’s writing a brief and changing the world via both mediums. I don’t know how she does it, she barely sleeps. She’s such an inspiration to me and she has been for quite some time since I first did her play Miss Lead in 2014. The work that she does in both the arts and in law makes change happen in the world. She fights for the rights for Native women and tribal jurisdiction and then she writes these beautiful, incredibly powerful plays that have such a strong impact on people — it makes them think and they come away a changed person because of what they see from her writing. And if that wasn’t enough, she’s also a terrific public speaker. She talks on many panels and I always learn so much from watching her.

Your cast mates also seem pretty fantastic and of diverse backgrounds. Can you share something you’ve learned from them?

Another great thing about this festival is that the company is made up of actors with all varying degrees of experience — as is our cast. I feel so lucky that the three veterans in the company that are in our show (Danforth Comins, David Kelly and Jeff King) have been here for so many years — 15 years, 27 years and 19yrs — and are all incredible actors, amazing people and ridiculously funny! They are such a treat to work and so giving, kind and professional. Sharing the stage with Sheila Tousey is a dream come true — that is an actor-bucket-list check off for me. She directed me five years ago in a Larissa Fasthorse play workshop at the William Inge Center for the Arts. Back then when I found out Sheila was going to be my director I was beside myself. Then fast forward to last year when I found out she was going to play my mother, I was overjoyed knowing I was going to have the privilege of acting with this incredible powerhouse of a woman for seven months on stage. I met Rainbow Dickerson this year when I got to OSF and she is so lovely. I love working with her. I love the dynamic we have — she’s a fantastic actress in such a generous human. Steven Flores has the biggest heart and a beautiful spirit. I met him briefly in New York when he came to one of the Spiderwoman shows I was in and he introduced himself to me after. And then awhile later one day someone reached out to me looking for a Native actor for a reading and I thought of him so I suggested him and then he ended up getting it. I just love that it feels kind of full circle that now he is acting with me in Manahatta. My whole cast and team feel like a family now.

Has the script changed a lot since The Public Studio presentation at The Public?

Yes the script has changed a lot since the Public Studio presentation. There’s a lot less of the script, things have been cut. But a lot of lines and scenes have been also rearranged and new characters of been introduced. But there’s also a lot of it that is still there. It was interesting when I started working on it in Ashland I found that there was still a lot of the old script from four years ago that I still had memorized…which was a blessing and a curse. It made the memorization process easier but then I had to work on letting go of some of the muscle memory that came with having those lines still in my body — I didn’t want a regurgitation of my past performances (and neither did Laurie) — I wanted to start fresh with Jane/Le-le and the script.

Any chance of it coming back to The Public for an extended run? Should we start a #BringBackManahatta campaign?

I have no idea of it going anywhere after this. So many patrons tell us after every show that they think it should go somewhere that so many people need to see this play. And we agree! However as an actor, where are usually the last on the hierarchy list of who gets that information as it comes in.

“fingers crossed it goes somewhere else! I’m sure starting a #BringBackManahatta campaign wouldn’t hurt.”

You also have your own production company. Do you think it’s important for actors to create their own content?

I do have my own production company — TDEP Productions. I started producing short films in 2015. Since then I have produced a handful of shorts, many of which I want to turn into series. So we can look forward to that in the future!

I think it’s very important for actors to create their own content. You can create material you need for your reel and to put on your website and on your Actors Access/Breakdown Express profile. Besides the content that you get from gigs you book, if there’s something missing you’re not getting from our from gigs you can fill in those gaps with your own content. You can have control over what you want put out there. And it also is a great way to put your energy into something that takes your mind off of auditioning/not booking gigs — those slow times/downtimes we experience as actors. For me, it took my mind off of all of that and I had a more positive mindset on a more frequent, regular basis because of it.

“Work begets work — other work came along because I had harnessed my creative energy and continued to use it.”

You are very into fitness. How does strength training influence the rest of your life? Your acting?

Tanis Parenteau ©Thoshography

I am definitely very into fitness. It’s my other love, my other passion. Strength training influences my life all the time. Developing strength carries over in so many parts of life-I have less of a chance of being injured if I am lifting something (a box, a piece of furniture, a suitcase), or if I’m running around on stage and jumping on and off set pieces (which I am currently doing).

“Some people say lifting weights is dangerous but actually, being weak is dangerous.”

As you age, if you are not keeping up with your strength and fitness, your overall health will decline so much faster than need be. I don’t want to find myself in my old age and look back and regret that I didn’t take care of myself earlier and that maybe I could’ve lived longer or a more active and vital life because of it.

You’ve guest starred and played Native roles in several hit TV shows from ‘House of Cards’ to ‘Designated Survivor’. Was Kiefer Sutherland a good scene partner?

Kiefer Sutherland was a wonderful scene partner! He was so prepared and invested in the work we were doing. He was such a pleasure to work with. The first scene we shot was on my first day, it was one of the later scenes in the episode where it’s just the two of us sitting in the Oval Office together. It was really great because him and I got to know each other at the beginning of our day before everyone else came in. In between takes he would ask me about myself and we would chitchat and crack jokes through the day. He gave so much to work with as a scene partner. I would jump at the chance to work with them again. At the end of our day I thanked him for a wonderful experience and for casting an actual Native actress in the role. We ended up having a really great conversation about Native representation in TV and film and he understands why that’s so important. He’s a good ally to have in the industry.

You can learn more about Tanis Parenteau by visiting her website. If you happen to be in Oregon ‘Manahatta’ is currently playing through October 27th, 2018 at The Thomas Theatre (15 S Pioneer St, Ashland, OR 97520).

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Genderqueer Dominican artist based in NY. Writer #PersonOfChange Series, showcasing BIPOC & LGBTQ+ warriors.