Bring Light By Laughing Through Darkness: Elissa Kixen’s Indigenous Comedy as Medicine
"You are good enough. You are good enough. You will always be good enough. And you've always been good enough." These are the inspiring words that Elissa Kixen. a comedian, drag artist, and teacher has for their younger self. They are Anishnaabe from Treaty #3 territory and Couchiching First Nation. Kixen teaches theater at Manitoba Theater for Young People and teen dating violence prevention with You Matter out of Ganiganijik.
Their career path was not something they would describe as “on purpose.” They started improv comedy at 16, teaching as a teacher’s assistant in their late teens and got involved with drag while supporting their child in doing so. Kixen is high school educated and completed theatre and comedy classes through Second City in Los Angeles and the Manitoba Theater for Young People.
“Medicine is what makes you feel good and community makes you feel good and laughing makes you feel good.”
A mentor in their field, Kixen shares their gifts with their creative community. “I'm not the type of person that creates something and then sits on top of it, guarding it with my talents. I create things so that other people can also gain the experience and the skills to do what it is that I do. And then, rather than me having this special thing that nobody else has, then we have more people doing what I can do and that just spreads throughout the community,” they explained. Those creative talents have helped them navigate hard times.
"Being Indigenous in Winnipeg is kind of a scary thing. I don't ever remember a time being alive where that wasn't something that was scary."
Kixen describes the experience of being othered for being Indigenous and queer, facing discrimination in the form of racism, homophobia, and sexism. Comedy was an escape and a coping strategy. Growing up in a family that valued non-violence response, comedy was good medicine when things were tough. They didn’t expect to make a career of it, but that’s what happened.
These days pandemic life has brought its own challenges and Kixen has had to find ways to cope. Initially feeling internal pressure to create something new and exciting every day, Kixen eventually embraced the opportunity to rest, connect with their kids, find new ways to tell stories and jokes, create drag content with their daughter and learn from their funny family.
“I think what gets a lot of us through this is being able to connect with each other.”
While acknowledging the heartbreaking reality of pandemic life, Kixen points to the gains made in access through virtual attendance. People who would otherwise not be able to attend shows due to physical mobility or mental health challenges have been able to explore entertainment safely. Kixen’s been invited to do virtual comedy shows which is a new format for them.
Kixen is still trying new things as an adult and had advice for youth setting out on their own to find new opportunities. They note that any change can be scary if you’re separated from your people and routine but they have a suggestion to make the change more manageable.
“Find your people, find the people who will love and support you and will accept you for you. I think that's something that we don't talk about as Indigenous people. When we're separated from our family and our community, we don't talk about creating more community, because community doesn't just stop with where your roots lie. You're spreading seeds and you're spreading little bits of yourself wherever you go.”
In the work that they do, Kixen is inspired by their kids and culture but also by bringing to light tough topics. “ I like to talk about subjects like racism, like sexism, like depression, like poverty, all these things that I've definitely experienced and sort of bring it into the light and talk about it. Because a lot of times for a lot of people, it's like the elephant in the room. We all have these things and we all deal with them and in 2020, it's still so taboo to talk about it,” they explained.
They describe the process of pulling out the things that have harmed them out from under the bed and telling them “now you’re going to help me write some jokes.” Kixen is inspired by their own ability to overcome things and they believe in the power of others to do hard things too.
Their message to youth is nothing short of inspiring. “I would like to say that no matter what anyone tells you that they want you to be or that they want you to do, that thing in your heart, that feeling? Go with that. Go with that and no matter how impossible it may seem, it's not impossible because there's many people out there who've proven that overcoming is a journey,” they encourage.
Building a life of performance and engagement, Kixen turns the challenges of life on their heads and gives many who have reasons to cry an opportunity to smile and feel a little less alone. Improvising as they go, their ability to be versatile is a skill that is much needed in uncertain times. Blending instruction, mentorship and artistry, Kixen takes on a vital role in the community for which they are perfectly cast: Indigenous role model.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.