Cliff Cardinal talks about bringing his one-man show, Huff, to the Sydney Festival

Award-winning Canadian Indigenous performer and playwright, Cliff Cardinal, and Native Earth Performing Arts are bringing the critically-acclaimed one-man show, Huff, to Sydney this January. The piece follows Wind, a First Nation’s boy who escapes his own painful reality by sniffing solvent. Chatting to us from the theatre home of Canada’s VideoCabaret – where he is currently writer-in-residence – Cardinal gave us a sneak peek into the world of Huff

Let’s start with the title of the show, Huff. It’s not a word that you hear a lot in Australia – what does it mean?

Huffing means to abuse solvents. To sniff gasoline or glue. To get fucked up. The kids in this piece are huffing as a way to escape their reality, so that’s where the title comes from.

There are a lot of similarities between the treatment of First Nations people and Indigenous Australians – the reservation communities, the forced removal of children from families, the ongoing social issues and substance abuse – is this something that made you want to come to Australia and share your work?

It’s a taboo subculture that really intrigued me. But I didn’t do the play to call attention to a social issue. I don’t have all the answers. But it’s a subculture that does have relevance for many people. Substance abuse is a way out of our despair; an attack on hopelessness.

I feel a responsibility to say it how I see it. To tell the story as truthfully as possible. But my only agenda is that people should be more kind to one another.

If you’re easily offended, don’t like swearing, don’t want to see someone doing disgusting things on stage, then don’t come; I don’t want you there. But if you want to see something that’s not on your own terms, then you should definitely come to this show.

Huff does deal with some pretty heavy subject matter, but it’s also described as a ‘darkly comic tale’. How important is humour when dealing with serious topics like substance abuse, grief, depression, etc?

We’re going to a dark place. But when you laugh, it’s a cheap anaesthetic. It allows you to take a breath and keep imagining.

When people come to see this show they know it’s about dark things, so they brace themselves. But when you laugh you open up. It’s a physical reaction. And that’s when I can really get to you.

Theatre should be experienced viscerally. This is a story you need to experience through the body. People understand the physical. We all know what it’s like to get sweaty palms before a job interview. That’s a real experience. I want to make the audience feel, rather than think.

You play more than a dozen characters in this piece but can you pick one that we can explore in a bit more detail…

Sure. Let’s do Wind. He’s this young kid, with a vivid imagination and he’s huffing gas. When you put those things together you get this magical realism, this dream-state, which I try to bring to the stage.

Can you describe Wind in three words?

Depressed. Funny. And the third word I’d say is Fart.

What’s your favourite line to say as Wind?

I don’t want to give away spoilers – there’s a reason why it’s my favourite line!

Fair enough. Is there a line that you think sums up the character or gives us a bit of an insight into him?

“Turn off your fucking cellphone!”

Okay! Sticking with the lighter side, what is Wind’s favourite flavour of ice cream?

Pralines and cream. In a lot of ways Wind is me. I don’t do him with any affectations, or an accent or anything. I just do him as me, so I think he’d have the same favourite flavour of ice cream.

If you could meet in real life, what advice would you give him?

Keep passing the open windows.

And finally, in this real life meeting, would you kiss him, kill him, or cross the street?

I would kiss poor little Wind! I love my little characters, with their braces and their glasses.

This is a piece about outsiders, and I like stories about outsiders.

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Cliff Cardinal’s one-man show Huff is playing as part of the Sydney Festival from 24-28 January. For tickets go here.