Reality Checks and Balances
by Michelle MacArthur
“Ask yourself: Are you just a cog in this machine, or are you ready for actual change?”
-Catherine Hernandez, Issue 13.1
In late January 2016, Toronto’s Canadian Stage Company announced its 2016-17 season, which the company’s press release touted as featuring “heart-stopping storytelling and genre-bending performances by Canadian favourites.” While the season does indeed feature many innovative artists such as Jordan Tannahill, Marie Chiounard, and Robert Lepage, what it does not feature—as many were quick to note— are any people of colour in the roles of director, playwright, choreographer, or translator in any of its thirteen Canadian productions. On the heels of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, this glaring omission inevitably drew widespread criticism across social media and in the mainstream press. As Globe and Mail theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck put it, “What came next was entirely predictable – and, in my view, understandable. On came the online outrage, out came the hashtag #CanStageSoWhite.”
#CanStageSoWhite—both the trending hashtag and the inequity it described—offered a reality check on several levels. Canadian Stage’s lack of diversity in its recent programming reflects an urgent and broader issue in the national arts landscape, where people of colour and Indigenous peoples are vastly underrepresented in key creative roles in the theatre. While there is a significant need for research to measure exactly how much they are underrepresented, a quick look at other theatre companies of comparable size and funding shows that Canadian Stage is not alone in turning a blind eye to equity and diversity. For example, as Nestruck points out, Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre employed no directors or playwrights of colour in its 2015-16 season. Soulpepper, another Toronto theatre company of comparable size, fared slightly better in 2015 (read: not well at all). According to my count, one of its eleven mainstage shows was directed by a person of colour, and another one of the eleven was written by a woman of colour—Happy Place by Pamela Sinha, who was one of two women playwrights to have her work presented on the mainstage that season.
What is not inconsequential about these three companies is the lack of diversity in their leadership. While not all white male artistic directors program such homogenous seasons, it is possible to trace a relationship between diversity in this top job and diversity in other creative positions. Research on gender equity in theatre, which has been undertaken more extensively, can shed some light on this relationship. For example, in my 2015 national study for the Equity in Theatre initiative, I reported that women artistic directors in Canada were more likely to hire women directors and slightly more likely to program women playwrights in their seasons than men artistic directors (19, 24). Research in England has also found that women playwrights tend to write more roles for women (25). What this suggests is that diversity at the top of a theatre company will have a trickle-down effect, increasing the opportunities for minoritized and marginalized individuals to work as directors, playwrights, actors, and designers. While we need more data to quantify this equation, it is illustrated in many Canadian theatre companies with diverse leadership. For example, Factory Theatre’s 2015-16 season, programmed by Artistic Director Nina Lee Aquino, stands in stark contrast to its Toronto counterparts cited above. Half of the six “Canadian classics reimagined” comprising Factory’s most recent season were directed by people of colour, half were directed by women, and half were written by people of colour.
Interestingly, however, when it comes to addressing equity and diversity in theatre, the burden of responsibility often falls on artistic directors like Aquino for whom these issues are not a problem, while those whose seasons perpetuate inequity point to accomplishments elsewhere or opt out of the conversation altogether. This was the case with Jocelyn’s response to criticisms of Canadian Stage’s season. When initially questioned about his programming choices, Jocelyn pointed to examples of diversity in past seasons and in the current season’s casting, the latter being a strategy that, as Djanet Sears writes in a blog post about the controversy, is often used as a way to address diversity concerns. While non-traditional casting is an important step towards inclusivity, as Sears points out, “diversity is also about embracing culture-specific or gender-specific voices.” Those voices—the voices of diverse playwrights and directors—she asserts, can widen audiences’ perspectives of the world and attract new audiences (and revenue!) to theatres.
As the #CanStageSoWhite hashtag multiplied, Jocelyn’s response became more evasive. Nestruck reports difficulties contacting him for an interview in his Globe column: after multiple attempts from Nestruck, Canadian Stage eventually sent him a statement with no further comment and posted an apology from Jocelyn on its Facebook page. Jocelyn’s promise in his statement to Nestruck—to “open our theatre in the coming months for a more substantive discussion around the representation of Canada’s diverse voices in the theatre today”— materialized when Canadian Stage hosted a workshop facilitated by the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion in May, which was held in camera and closed to the media. While this kind of workshop is important and the choice to keep a closed session was purportedly made to create a safe space for participants, we might ask whether this was a sufficient response to the company’s programming oversights.
I’ve focused on the example of #CanStageSoWhite not because I love a catchy hashtag (though I do love a catchy hashtag) and not to single out one theatre company or artistic director, but to illuminate some of the issues I have been thinking about as I transitioned into my role as the new Editor-in-Chief of alt.theatre this spring. Indeed, questions of diversity and equity are not new to alt or its readers: for nearly twenty years, alt.theatre has been a leader in facilitating conversations around the intersections of art, politics, cultural diversity, and activism; spotlighting marginalized artists and companies that do not always get coverage in other media or scholarly outlets; and advocating for positive change in artistic and socio-political arenas. What I’ve been thinking about over these last few months is how and to what degree these conversations have changed in the last two decades, and how we can move beyond naming the problems that many of us are already aware of to actually solving them. #CanStageSoWhite shed light on the shortcomings of a theatre whose very name suggests it represents a country, and mobilized artists and audience members to speak out about inequities in the Canadian theatre community more broadly. How can we maintain the momentum of hashtags and movements like this one? Are these conversations merely preaching to the converted, or are they reaching new ears and changing minds? How can we get artistic directors like Jocelyn engaged in this work so that it doesn’t just fall on those who are already overburdened by it? The renewed energy propelling the current conversations around equity and diversity in the arts is exciting and promising, and like many others, I want to know how we can translate it into meaningful and sustainable action.
I realize there are no easy answers to these questions, but I look forward to exploring them in the pages of alt along with the rest of the editorial team and our many contributors. The articles featured in 13.1 reflect alt‘s mission of mapping meeting points between art and activism; a key question across the issue is how theatre and performance (and our understanding of these terms) must change in order to support equity and diversity, on stage and off. To that end, we are proud to be kicking off a new special series of short articles that will run across all four issues of Volume 13. Curated by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard on behalf of ADHOC (Artists Driving Holistic Organizational Change), the Principles Office gathers artists from across the country to engage in a nuanced analysis of contemporary issues in the performance community. Our first two articles of the series, by Cole Alvis and Catherine Hernandez, issue several important challenges to audiences and artists regarding our responsibilities in actively working towards change. Hernandez’s closing question—“Ask yourself: Are you just a cog in this machine, or are you ready for actual change”—is one that resonates throughout the issue.
This issue also marks some other transitions at alt that I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge. I am thrilled to be working with Aaron Franks and Sarah Waisvisz, who joined the alt team this summer as our new associate editors. As Features Editor, Aaron will be commissioning articles and working with writers and artists to prepare their work for publication. As Reviews editor, Sarah will be on the look-out for books and performances to cover in alt and will work closely with reviewers; she is also heading-up a new online reviews section that we will detail in our next issue. This summer we also welcomed Lesley Bramhill to the team as Community Manager, who, with our intern Mikaela Clark-Gardner, has enlivened alt’s web and social media presence (among many other accomplishments). And last but certainly not least, I want to acknowledge the amazing work that Crystal Chan has done in leading the project to revamp alt’s website, which I encourage you to visit at www.alttheatre.ca. Crystal has been the backbone of alt since she came on as Manager in 2015, and 13.1 marks the end of her work with us. I wish her the very best as she moves on to other projects and hope that we can share her writing in the pages of alt in the near future.
What has always excited me about alt.theatre, as a reader and contributor, is its ability to foster a unique space where diverse and sometimes diverging voices can come together to exchange ideas; debate urgent political, social, and artistic issues; and provoke action. As alt’s new editor, I am honoured and delighted to help curate this space.