Editorial: Back to School

by Michelle MacArthur

“If we do not prioritize racialized students—and Indigenous students, and LGBTQ students, and women students—then we perpetuate the status quo in our post-secondary institutions and in Canadian theatre more broadly.”
-Michelle MacArthur, Issue 13.2

Three days after excitedly accepting the position of editor-in-chief of alt.theatre: cultural diversity and the stage, I was offered, and also accepted, a tenure-track assistant professorship at the University of Windsor’s School of Dramatic Art. This happy collision of events has borne several opportunities for cross-pollination between my two roles. I have a vested interest in how alt can be used in the classroom to enrich syllabi and spark discussion and debate, and find myself mining our archives for material offering alternative perspectives to those dominating our textbooks. For example, later this term students in my first-year Nature of Theatre class will read Catherine Hernandez’s Principles Office column from our last issue. Her wide-ranging discussion of everything from arts funding models to theatre’s disconnection from the world’s conflicts and injustices provides a vital starting point for our unit on the future of Canadian theatre and a counterpoint to the course textbook’s handling of diversity, which silos the topic into a single chapter rather than integrating it into a holistic approach.

My work at alt also informs how I view the academy. Engaging as an editor with articles that examine art, politics, cultural diversity, and activism from myriad approaches has sharpened my critical perspective as an educator. What is the role of post-secondary institutions in sustaining the glaring inequities in the Canadian theatre industry exposed and examined in the pages of alt? What are our responsibilities as educators and administrators in redressing these inequities and ensuring our work has a positive impact beyond the ivory tower? In a time of “alternative facts,” when the rights of minoritized and marginalized individuals are under constant threat, how can theatre programs foster critical, ethical, and active citizens? University, college, and conservatory programs play a key role in Canadian theatre ecology, training the next generation of practitioners and influencing everything from their tastes to their creative processes. If Canadian theatre is #sowhite, to borrow the hashtag from my last editorial, then our training grounds bear significant responsibility.

The cast of Medea in rehearsal. A production in 2015 by Chromatic Theatre – a company dedicated to producing and developing work by and for diverse artists. (L to R) Justin Michael Carriere, Carly McKee, Jenna Rodgers, Chantelle Han, Makambe K. Simamba, Ali DeRegt. Photo Credit: Diane + Mike Photography.

Higher education should be scrutinized on several levels for its contribution (or lack thereof) to diversity and equity in theatre, from the students we recruit and admit to our programs, to the faculty and guest artists we hire to teach for us, to the works and artists we choose to include on our stages and in our curricula. These activities do not operate independently, but are highly imbricated, which also means that failures in one area tend to perpetuate shortcomings in another. For example, a drama department with an all-white faculty may encounter problems attracting culturally diverse students, who, failing to see themselves or their experiences reflected in the program or teaching staff, may choose to go elsewhere for training; when poor recruitment efforts result in a homogenous student body, this same drama department will not be able to cast plays that reflect the diversity of the communities that surround it; a season of plays by and about white people then has a further alienating effect on audiences and prospective students . . . and the cycle continues.

In preparing for this piece, I asked my editorial assistant Rachel Offer, a BFA acting student here at Windsor who just started with alt in the fall (welcome, Rachel!), to look into the last five seasons of our main stage to see how many plays by people of colour were produced here. She found that one play in the last five years (each year consisting of a season of six plays) was written by a non-white playwright. These statistics are sadly not an anomaly: two other Canadian schools with comparable BFA programs had only slightly better results, with one school featuring four plays out of 32 written by playwrights of colour, and another with two out of 24. The gender breakdowns of playwrights at our three schools also reflected inequities: 27% of the plays produced at Windsor in the last five years have been written by women, compared to 19% and 20% at the other two institutions looked at. These findings are in line with Nicholas Hanson and Alexa Elser’s research on gender and theatre productions at post-secondary institutions. Their study looked at a sample of 434 school productions over a three-year period in Canada, from 2012 to 2015, and found that 18% were written by women, 73% by men, and 9% by mixed-gender partnerships—lower participation rates than in professional theatre (36). Their conclusion—that “the typical school play is not just an artistic showcase; it reifies a canon of celebrated works and restricts the participation of women” (39)—can be extended to failures in producing culturally diverse works as well. The lack of diversity on our university and college stages not only limits the opportunities afforded to marginalized and minoritized students, but also enforces the idea that artistic work of value is created by white men. Our graduates carry this idea into the professional theatre world—whether consciously or not—and they must contend with it in their roles as audiences, arts workers, and theatre practitioners.

“While it is easy to excuse production choices by saying they reflect the resources available to us, we need to stop blaming our shortcomings on the students we don’t have, and start to look more critically at our practices and the (broken) systems that support them.”

I focus on post-secondary productions here partly because it is top of mind, as my department has just announced a season of six plays for next year that shows no improvement on our track record, but also because our university and college stages reflect the constellation of systemic inequalities discussed earlier. While it is easy to excuse production choices by saying they reflect the resources available to us, we need to stop blaming our shortcomings on the students we don’t have, and start to look more critically at our practices and the (broken) systems that support them. Catherine Hernandez suggests several strategies to redress these deep-seated inequities: hiring more diverse teaching staff; educating teaching staff in anti-oppressive values; implementing a “much more aggressive diverse application process to ensure the student body is multicultural”; and diversifying the curriculum beyond the canonical (white) narratives that dominate it (30). Prioritizing racialized students, as Hernandez argues, “means we are incubating theatre creators with different perspectives” (30). If we do not prioritize racialized students—and Indigenous students, and LGBTQ students, and women students—then we perpetuate the status quo in our post-secondary institutions and in Canadian theatre more broadly.

The articles featured in 13.2 also address the connections between diversity in education and training and the professional theatre world. In “Decolonizing the Storyteller’s Art through Land-Based Practice,” developed from their contribution to the working group Energizing the Acting Community—Realism in Actor Training and Performance, Jill Carter and Sherry Bie highlight the absence of Indigenous voices in mainstream actor training and practices. Asking whether developing “an energetic, transformative theatre that serves a multi-ethnic, multiply-abled population” means “tossing out European forms, theories, and stories,” Carter answers in the affirmative: “[I]f those “others” are not granted admittance to the training grounds (as students and instructors) or granted a platform to speak from, then the inclusion of their forms and/or knowledge systems amounts to little more than misappropriation.” Carter and Bie propose an “expanded notions of realism” that considers the land and its ancestors in its processes; these processes of decolonization offer “possibilities of re-worlding that might find their genesis in classrooms and rehearsal halls, then mature to realize their promise on public stages.”

Franco Saccucci and Makram (Matt) Ayache also examine how what goes on in the rehearsal hall affects and is affected by the world outside of it. In “On Being (Un)Popular, Pedagogical, and in the Prairies,” they reflect on their work using a popular theatre model within the context of a university. They founded In Arms Queer Theatre Company (now known as In Arms Theatre Collective) as students at the University of Alberta to provide a space for LGBTQ “artists and activists who would use their own personal stories to create provocative, engaging, and intentional art, aimed at educating and community building in our mid-size prairie city.” Their article details the insights they gained as they negotiated their values as popular theatre practitioners and their formal training as educators, leading them to conclude that queer theatre in 2017 must be educative—not only in its role engaging with the general public, but also in creating opportunities for participants themselves to learn from one another.

Jenna Rodgers, a Calgary-based director and dramaturge and author of this issue’s Principles Office column, conceives of mentorship in a similar way, where teaching and learning factor into both ends of the equation. In “Navigating the Chasm,” Rodgers reflects on the barriers connected to race, class, and gender that prevent people from ascending from “emerging” to “established” artists. Like the other contributors featured in 13.2, Rodgers turns her attention to education and training, examining how mentorship might be restructured into a process that is educative for mentor and mentee, evolving beyond oppressive practices that “perpetuate inequity” and finding “ways to decolonize theatre practices.” Her argument here underlies the other pieces in this issue and Hernandez’s article as well: redressing inequities in our training grounds starts with rethinking entrenched notions of artistic value and the practices that spring from them. This process begins when educators commit to going back to school, reconceptualizing ourselves as learners, not just teachers. I hope that these articles, and the rest of the offerings in this issue, will open up further reflection and discussion about the connection between our training institutions and the landscape of professional theatre in Canada. As we continue to develop alt’s newly redesigned website, we are actively exploring how we can support these discussions through our online activities. We are currently assembling web resources for educators, including lists of plays by culturally diverse and women writers, in order to support efforts to develop more diverse and equitable curricula and school productions. We will keep you posted on our progress, and welcome you to contact us with ideas for other resources you’d like to see on our website.

Ali DeRegt as Chorus in Chromatic Theatre’s production of Medea, 2015. Photo credit: Diane and Mike Photography
Ali DeRegt as Chorus in Chromatic Theatre’s production of Medea, 2015. Photo credit: Diane + Mike Photography

Before signing off, I want to acknowledge Aaron Franks and Sarah Waisvisz’s work on this issue, as it marks their official start as alt’s new associate editors. Their bios are included in the contributors page (or click here!) so you can get to know them a little better, and to this end they will each be contributing pieces in future issues as well. Sarah has also been busy online, commissioning reviews for alt’s revamped website. Our hope is that by curating regular reviews on culturally diverse and politically engaged theatre across Canada for our website, alt can shine the spotlight on companies and artists that do not typically receive a lot of coverage in the mainstream media. We also hope to provide alternative perspectives on theatre and performance occurring in the mainstream, bringing race, gender, class, sexuality, and other facets of identity into the foreground of critical discourse. If you have a show that you would like covered by alt or if you’d like to write a review yourself, we welcome you to contact Sarah at reviews@alttheatre.ca. We also welcome you to keep the conversation going by responding to our reviews online at any time through our website or social media.

This issue was originally published as the editorial in issue 13.2 of alt.theatre.
Works Cited

Hanson, Nicholas, and Alexa Elser. “Equity and the Academy: A Survey of Theatre Productions at Canadian Post-Secondary Institutions.” Canadian Theatre Review 165 (2015): 35-39.

Hernandez, Catherine. “So . . . Why do we do this?” alt.theatre: cultural diversity and the stage. 13.1 (2016): 28-30.

Photography in this article by Diane + Mike Photography.

Learn more about Chromatic Theatre and their work in developing and supporting diverse voices in Calgary, Alberta.

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