Growing up, at times, Sheldon Elter felt like he was caught between two worlds.
The actor, writer and comic grew up Métis in Northern Alberta, with an abusive father. He received racism from two sides and internalized some of it himself.
Those experiences form the basis for his one-man show, Métis Mutt, written and performed by Elter and being put on at the Mann Art Gallery this week by Spark Theatre.
“it’s an autobiographical one-man show about growing up in Northern Alberta. It’s got a lot of themes in it,” Elter said when reached by phone last week.
“It explores family violence, drug and alcohol abuse, receiving racism from both sides being mixed blood. It explores a lot of my standup comedy and how my upbringing affected by standup. I came into a realization of my own internalized racism and my own struggles with drug and alcohol abuse.”
If it sounds dour, it isn’t. Elter said the show is infused with a lot of humour and is ultimately one about hope.
“It’s dated in the sense that it’s a period piece in a way, giving a slice of life and what it was like growing up being Métis in Northern Alberta, experiencing racism from both sides of the fence,” he said. It’s about hope and taking responsibility for yourself. I think that’s always an important story to hear. It’s not about getting people to feel sorry for me, it’s about inspiring people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and push forward.”
The show itself started as a seven-minute monologue Elter wrote for a class project.
“When I was asked what my theme was for my monologue, I didn’t have anything planned. The first thing that came to my mind, through exploration, I knew I wanted to talk about being mixed blood, and then my journey as a stand-up comic and my exploration of my own drug and alcohol abuse.”
That’s where the title, Métis Mutt, comes from, Elter said.
“Once I had the title, it came together that way.”
Once Elter graduated from theatre school, he turned that seven-minute monologue into a full-length play. It features snippets of his comedy routines and 35 different characters, all performed by Elter himself.
“You see the journey of Sheldon as a young man. You see some pieces of comedy I used to do in the late nineties, and you see my journey as I come to terms with my own racism” he said.
“The comedy changed and the jokes change, and I deconstruct things near the end of the show to give a truth to every joke I’ve been telling.”
He brought the show to NextFest in 2002, and Edmonton Fringe later that same year.
“It sold out every show, won a couple of awards and then it took off from there.”
Elter has since brought the performance to Ottawa, Nova Scotia, Vancouver, across Alberta, to Toronto and even as far as New Zealand.
Now though, he’s looking a putting the show away for good.
“I think so,” Elter said when asked if the Prince Albert run would be his last performance of Métis Mutt.
“It’s hard to speak in absolutes. You never know what’s going to happen. I’ve been doing this for quite a long time, and I’m ready to put it to bed.”
Elter isn’t sure if he would let other actors or theatre companies produce his show.
“It’s just so personal,” he said.
“I had to ask permission from a lot of my family in order to tell these stories.”
Elter is excited to be bringing the show to Prince Albert, as his mother is three generations from the Red River Colony.
“It’s kind of great to go to Saskatchewan and be able to share this story,” he said.
The setting itself also adds meaning. Elter will be performing Métis Mutt inside the main gallery at the Mann Art Gallery, surrounded by the current exhibition: NO I do not speak Cree by Audrey Dreaver. Like Elter, Dreaver uses her art to explore questions about identity.
“I’m very excited to see this exhibit,” Elter said.
“It’s a good pairing because when you think about loss of language and what that does for your cultural identity, there’s something really great about people who are still searching for their identity and are brave enough to keep trying despite obstacles in front of them,” he said.
“Not knowing your language doesn’t mean that you’re not Indigenous. It’s about exploring your own Indigeneity without your language. I think it’s really interesting — because I don’t speak Cree either.”
Elter’s show will run May 2, 3 and 4 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and available at the E.A. Rawlinson Centre box office.
Elter said that while the show handles some dark topics, he thinks audiences will leave feeling lifted up.
‘I think they’ll be feeling full of hope,” he said. “It’s got lots of humour in it, which is necessary to help balance out some of the intense themes I’m talking about. You’ll see lots of character changes.
“It will be a fun, fast-paced, inspiring show.”