“Adding It Up”

(En)Gendering (and Racializing) Canadian Theatre

written by Rebecca Burton in February 2007

In 1982, Rina Fraticelli released her landmark report, The Status of Women in the Canadian Theatre, revealing that women accounted for 10% of the produced playwrights, 13% of the directors and 11% of the artistic directors (5). Contrary to popular belief, the theatre industry had not achieved gender parity; women suffered severe marginalization, near invisibility, and systemic discrimination. I first encountered this germinal report as an undergraduate student in the early 1990s while researching the history of women in Canadian theatre. I was astounded by the bleak figures, and as I went on in my studies to specialize in women’s theatre, I wondered why subsequent research had not been conducted, later discovering that neither of my responses was unique. With the dawning of the new millennium, calls to “re-open” Fraticelli’s report were increasingly heard in light of the continued discrepancy between the perception of equality and the first-hand, often marginalized experiences of many women in the field. How far had women come? Was there genuine equality in the theatre sector, and, if not, what could be done to remedy the situation? The posing of these questions, and the level of intergenerational interest generated by the topic, led to the establishment of Equity in Canadian Theatre: The Women’s Initiative.
The Women’s Initiative is composed of a varied group of theatre practitioners and academics operating with a two-fold mandate: to assess the current status of women in Canadian theatre and to develop appropriate action plans to help rectify remaining inequities. Given my academic pursuits, I was hired as the main researcher for the Initiative’s pilot project, a twenty-first-century “follow-up” to Fraticelli’s benchmark study. One of the research components involved a national survey sent to theatre companies of all shapes, sizes, and regions in the summer of 2005, the results of which figure prominently in the Initiative’s recently-released report, Adding It Up: The Status of Women in Canadian Theatre. The following is a brief overview of the Initiative’s findings.
For the most part, it is the triumvirate of artistic director, director, and playwright that determines the nature of theatrical culture on Canada’s stages.

As Chart 1 illustrates, women have not yet surpassed the 35% participation mark in these key positions; (white) men continue to predominate in the “triumvirate of power.” Artistic directors (ADs) exercise the greatest amount of authority, as 90% of the surveyed companies indicated that their ADs are solely responsible for playwright/production decisions, and 76% reported that their ADs independently choose director hires. We found that the preponderance of male ADs perpetuates male domination in the areas of directing and playwriting, as well as in acting, set, lighting, and sound design. Men run 67% of the companies, and they hire male playwrights and directors 76% of the time respectively, male designers for 70-88% of the productions (costuming excepted), and male actors two times as often as female. As these statistics suggest, theatres with male ADs (MADs) have lower rates of representation for women than companies with female ADs (FADs); for example, female directors are hired for 55% of the FADs’ productions, compared to only 24% of the MADs’ productions (resulting in an overall figure of 34%). The greater a company’s profile and government subsidy, the more the under-represented women are, as only 20% of the ADs at the most resourced and prestigious of Canada’s theatres are female (down from 33% overall).
Whereas men generally occupy top positions of power, women tend to predominate in secondary and behind-the-scenes roles, functioning as satellites of support to the main creators as stage managers and dramaturgs/literary managers, or in positions associated with domesticity and organizational support, such as costume design and general management (see Chart 1). Women also abound in administrative and customer service positions, forming the majority of office and contract workers, part-time staff, and box-office employees. The industry’s employment patterns reveal a stereotypical segregation of labour organized according to antiquated conceptions of conventional gender roles. This situation perpetuates gender inequity, it invalidates and obstructs the development of female artists, it potentially stunts innovation and progression in the industry and the art form, and it deprives audience members (59% of whom are estimated as female) of inclusive and representative experiences of cultural import.
For people of colour—defined as Aboriginal, Chinese, South Asian, Black, Filipino, Latin American, Southeast Asian, Arab, West Asian, Japanese, Korean, and Pacific Islander—the statistics are not as comprehensive as those for gender, as information regarding the racializing of certain positions was not requested (due to the survey’s format). Still, as Chart 2 demonstrates, people of colour are poorly represented across the board, and they are occasionally excluded outright, as in the field of dramaturgy/literary management. FADs hire greater numbers of people of colour than MADs, particularly in production positions, but the findings are dismal in both instances, indicating systemic discrimination. The numbers for people of colour are reminiscent of those uncovered for women by Fraticelli in the early 1980s, which suggests that it might be as long as another quarter- century before marginal improvements are realized. Without access to key positions of authority, people of colour will remain largely absent from the nation’s stages, and Canada’s theatrical culture will continue to reflect a white dominant order that fails to embody the country’s multicultural identity.

A gender-based analysis of the theatres reveals additional differences aside from employment characteristics. FADs have a higher incidence of theatre for young audiences (TYA), production tours, and use of non-traditional venues, and they produce more Canadian content, play premieres, co-productions, and collective creations than MADs. FADs are also disadvantaged in particular areas: they have a lower incidence of incorporation, not-for-profit status, and charitable status; they utilize union hires, industry contracts, and wheelchair accessible venues less often; and they rent and change both rehearsal spaces and performance venues with greater frequency than MADs. These deficiencies compound instability, and they potentially affect a company’s profile in the larger community, the quality of the theatrical experience, and by extension audience and critical reception, all of which can influence the overall funding and success rates of the FADs, disadvantaging them further still.
The disparities experienced by the FADs are primarily related to financial inequities. FADs generated only 61% of the total revenues that MADs did in 2004/05 (55% of the earned revenues, 63% of the fundraising monies, and 81% of the government grants). FADs receive a greater percentage of project grants (76% overall) than MADs (65%), but fewer FADs obtain prestigious and sustaining operating grants (67% overall) than MADs (80%). As both theatre heads and individuals, female practitioners receive a proportionately smaller percentage of government funding than their male counterparts. These economic discrepancies have serious consequences, affecting a myriad of areas, such as the activities described above, as well as the FADs’ ability to pay their employees well (with few exceptions, MADs reimburse their workers with higher rates of compensation). Monetary insufficiencies manifest in increased adversity, scarcity of resources, limited personnel choices, practitioner burn-out, and company marginalization as the FADs struggle to do more with less (i.e. producing more Canadian content with less government funding). Company groupings aside, female playwrights and directors generally receive less remuneration than their male colleagues, primarily because women tend to be engaged by smaller, under-funded.
Lack of access to key positions of power, limited opportunities and resources, occupational ghettoization, significant under-representation, and economic inequity are a few of the disadvantages currently faced by women (and often by people of colour) in the Canadian theatre industry. For a more detailed account, readers should consult the full report posted online at (see the Works Cited for details). I will now move to a discussion of the difficulties that the Initiative encountered, and some of the responses that the study elicited, as the various community reactions further demonstrate the character of the theatre sector, the (secondary) status of women and people of colour, and the need for an industry-wide revolution in consciousness.

As both theatre heads and individuals, female practitioners receive a proportionately smaller percentage of government funding than their male counterparts.

It was strongly felt that the Initiative should be as inclusive as possible, but this objective posed certain (and unexpected) problems. Questions about the sexual orientations of the industry’s workers were originally included in the survey, although a test-run quickly revealed that companies were unwilling to identify their employees in this manner (due to an invasion of privacy), so this line of inquiry was necessarily abandoned. The decision to investigate racialization in tandem with gender also turned out to be a more contentious endeavour than we originally anticipated, as such questions garnered fewer responses than most others. Some people did not feel comfortable assigning a racialized label to their colleagues, others believed that such requests were unconstitutional, some were offended by what they perceived as a hidden agenda for affirmative action, and others argued that so-called diversity issues threatened to eclipse the project’s focus on gender. Nonetheless, recognizing that gender and racialized discrimination are interconnected phenomena with intersecting histories, and that any study on the status of women must be inclusive of all women, particularly in the context of Canada’s multicultural society, the Initiative persevered with this aspect of the study despite controversy and resistance.
It seems that the unwillingness of the companies to identify and account for their hiring practices indicates a reticence on their part to acknowledge systemic discrimination, much less work towards its end. Rather than answer the questions posed, some responded by condemning the Initiative’s perceived “political correctness” as a threat to artistic primacy, as if the former is an evil that automatically negates the latter. Others suggested that the composition of their audiences does not warrant the hiring of greater numbers of people of colour, demonstrating little understanding that if theatres change their programming practices to reflect Canada’s multicultural identity then similar alterations and increases in audience membership might also occur, which would benefit both society and the theatre industry as a whole by encouraging greater diversity and breadth of representation.
Given the companies’ voluntary participation in the study and the extensive time commitment required to complete the survey, difficulties were also experienced in relation to the survey’s return rate. Particularly telling is the fact that a proportionately larger number of companies with female ADs completed and returned the questionnaire than companies with male ADs, which, to my mind, provides additional evidence of the secondary position women occupy in the industry. The general lack of interest in and support for the study on the part of the MADs signals a failure to commit to the rectification of current gender (and racialized) imbalances. We encountered a similar indifference (and sometimes complete silence) obtaining statistical information from some of the arts councils: out of thirteen provincial and territorial bodies, only seven provided information, and three of those submitted incomplete data; with the handful of municipal councils that were approached, only one (the Toronto Arts Council) supplied statistics. The project is apparently viewed as a passé “women’s issue” with no relevance to the larger community, even though women make up the majority of the industry’s workers, arts councils’ constituents, and theatres’ audiences. If government granting agencies and theatre companies refuse to make a concerted effort to become actively involved in effecting positive change in the industry, I can’t help but wonder how the situation will ever improve.
Common responses to the report’s findings further highlight a general apathy, and sometimes outright condemnation, for the project at hand. Many find the statistics to be just as they expected (with no shock or surprise about the under-representation of women or people of colour), and some are relieved to find that the figures are not as low as they feared, but both responses somehow render the results both tolerable and acceptable. Others interpret the numbers as substantial improvement made over time, despite evidence of gender and racialized discrimination, and this kind of positive (mis)interpretation manifests as complacency with the status quo. Somewhere along the line, the myth of equality triumphed and the bar for gender parity dropped; how else can a 30-35% participation rate for women be deemed acceptable, standing-in for and replacing the 50% marker that would actually denote equality?
Another common reaction is a rejection and refutation of the statistics, usually taking one of two defensive forms. The first is an attempt to poke holes in the study’s methodology to disprove the soundness of the analysis. The failure of more than half the country’s theatres to complete the survey is often and conveniently invoked as evidence that the Initiative’s results are distorted and invalid. In fact, the greater response-rate of the FADs means that an absolute “best case” scenario for the representation of women is provided; if more MADs completed the survey, the figures for women would have dropped further. This line of attack seemed to preoccupy the report’s reception at PACT’s 2006 AGM, and yet, as one attendee pointed out, when a TYA study was presented in a subsequent session, not one single question was raised about methodology. The second response is an effort to deflect, or re-direct, responsibility and culpability for the sector’s gender and racialized imbalances. For instance, with people of colour, the demographics found in the larger population are often questioned in an effort to excuse the low industry numbers. According to Statistics Canada, “visible minority” women (not including First Nations women) form 22% of the population in British Columbia and 19% of the population in Ontario; a rate of representation that is not mirrored in the provinces’ theatres at any level (27).
The reception of the report, the obstacles encountered throughout, and the results of the study indicate that the Canadian theatre industry is resistant to engaging actively in discourses and/or actions focused on improving gender and racialized inequities. The sector can generally be characterized as apathetic, demonstrating complacency with the status quo, and at worst, as openly hostile, justifying the current state of affairs, denying responsibility, and disputing the very existence of discrimination. Such reactions only underline the necessity of the Initiative’s project and the urgent need for redress, pointing further to the revolution in consciousness that needs to occur in order to engender actual equality. All people have a responsibility to recognize discrimination and to do all they can to end it, and society needs everyone working towards this end. There are no easy answers, but the Initiative’s report contains a number of recommendations for educational institutions, theatre companies, arts councils, and groups of concerned citizens to help offset the imbalances. These include equal opportunity committees, training and mentorship programs, active solicitation of applications from qualified women (and men of colour) for key industry positions, government incentives for employment equity, and community networks/alliances focused on gender and racialized issues. Canadian theatre will only play its role as a major cultural platform and will only achieve its highest potential for excellence once it offers the fullest range of creative opportunities to all of Canada’s citizens. Clearly, we have a way to go yet.

Works Cited
Burton, Rebecca. Adding It Up: The Status of Women in Canadian Theatre – A Report on the Phase One Findings of Equity in Canadian
Theatre: The Women’s Initiative. October 2006. Professional Association of Canadian Theatres. 2006 <>. Path: Services; Communications/Publications.

Fraticelli, Rina. The Status of Women in the Cana- dian Theatre: A Report Prepared for the Status of Women Canada. June 1982. Unpublished.

Statistics Canada. Women in Canada: A Gender-Based Statistical Report, 2005. Fifth Edi- tion. Ottawa: Target Groups Project, Minister of Industry, 2006. Statistics Canada. 8 Aug. 2006
< 503-XIE/0010589-503-XIE.pdf>.

Rebecca Burton is the main researcher for the Women’s Initiative’s pilot project and the author of Adding it Up: The Status of Women in Canadian Theatre. She has a BA and MA in theatre, and is currently completing her doctorate degree at the University of Toronto’s Graduate Centre for Study of Drama with a dissertation on the emergence of contemporary Canadian feminist theatre in English, 1967-1977. Rebecca is also an educator, an occasional practitioner, and the board secretary for Sarasvàti Productions.