Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

Obsidian Theatre’s production of “Shakespeare’s Nigga” by Joseph Jomo Pierre Actor: Joseph Pierre, Hands: Ulla Laidlaw Photographer: Adam Rankin 2013

It seems a bit strange to write about how our artistic institutions have failed us  since it was that very fact that led to the founding of theatres like Obsidian and fu-Gen. It was precisely because of the lack of representation that culturally diverse artists had no other choice but to come together to tell our own stories. I think that we naively thought that this would somehow spark the rest of the theatres into changing their practice and delving deeper into the non-white stories. Well we know how that turned out.

In the 2002-2003 Toronto Season I was a Dora juror for the General Division and as such I took it upon myself to keep race stats on the 80 odd shows that I saw. Non-white performers came in at the 12-13% range. I suspect that if you did the same study today you would find just about the same percentage and only that high because of the culturally diverse theatres that sprang up and are still producing. So in effect the burden for non-white creation and production has stayed within our own respective communities and not moved the bar forward by very much. Of course there are outliers. Kim’s Convenience has been shipped all around the country and pretty much most of the regional theatres get a great two-fer for their next grants. Asian and Canadian and after that box is checked I suspect that their playwrights units still won’t have a high non-white component.

Each year I go to the Theatre Ontario Showcase where graduating acting students all arrive to do their two pieces and a song (if they sing) for an odd collection of artistic directors, agents and frankly some people that I don’t even know who they are or why they are there. Other than the Humber Theatre School (full disclosure: I am the Chair of the Humber Theatre Advisory Board), there is minimal to no culturally diverse component to those graduating classes. The average class size has grown to around 20 and in at least 3 schools I didn’t even bother to go in and watch because there was no one of interest there for me. By interest I mean that they had no black actors in their graduating classes. In fact on that Sunday there were approximately 150 graduates and of that number there were only 5 black actors. Lest you think that these schools were from the far flung reaches of Ontario I must assure you that they were not. A fair number were all from Toronto, and downtown Toronto at that, and even at the Distillery you could find more diversity at Balzac’s than in that theatre.

I was able to meet those 5 artists, introduce them to each other, and arrange for them to come and meet with me after graduation for a get to know each other lunch. So where are all the non-white actors? I don’t know but I suspect that the conservatory based model comprised of an European aesthetic coupled with a universally white teaching staff might have something to do with it. The reason that Humber is able to be so successful (usually but not always) is that they are working more from a devised theatre model and they actively seek out culturally diverse students as an essential part of their program. Apart from Humber those schools who do somehow manage to graduate one or two non-white students you will find that those students are not actually given the essential tools for success once they graduate. Received Pronunciation is fine but where is the Received Street or the Received Caribbean dialect work that they will need to get those first jobs?

Obsidian Theatre's production of "Black Medea" by Wesley Enoch Actor: Tiffany Martin Photographer: David Hou 2008
Obsidian Theatre’s production of “Black Medea” by Wesley Enoch. Actor: Tiffany Martin. Photographer: David Hou 2008

Obsidian is a member for both PACT and TAPA. They are both good organizations that strive to do their best to reflect the plurality of their membership. In that context it is no wonder that the minority companies are indeed in the minority and thus those issues are always sidebar ones. If it is only now in 2014 that a comprehensive survey on the racial makeup of the PACT member theatres is being created, we have to admit that there has been no baseline ever for this information. In spite of numerous requests for this information to the Canada Council for the Arts, no one seems that interested in anything other than gender statistics – and then only if they are in aggregate and not broken down by race. Thus you may be able to say that the hiring of female directors is up or down by 5% in any given year but you cannot find out what the race percentages are. Without facts we have nothing but anecdotal evidence. But we do know that the service organizations have lost a good number of Indigenous and culturally diverse members over the last few years. Thus those organizations have become increasingly white.

So where in fact does that leave us? Well for myself I have begun to absent myself from the ongoing “nowheresville” of panel discussions, advocacy groups, and endless complaint sessions. I have a severe case of explanation fatigue and it became apparent that if I wanted to avoid rampant bitterness distorting my work I had to step back and stop explaining all the time. The organizations that seemingly cannot make the jump to any kind of real understanding need to change their organizations in a way that will gain them insight. A hint: hire more non-white people and you will really learn a lot.

Obsidian cannot afford to wait for other organizations to find their way. We have to focus on the work at hand and continue to strive towards excellence. Yes I know that the word excellence is a contentious one but really I think that I know it when I see it.

We all started in this business to create art. We yearn for great art, for art that finds an audience and touches them deeply. If the organizations around us cannot aid in that endeavour then I challenge us to live the adage: Lead, follow, or get out the way.



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About the Author

Artistic Director of the Obsidian Theatre Company since 2006. He is a Dora winning director, nominated for a Merritt Award, Life Member Award from C.A.E.A.. He was the Grid's #2 2013 Theatre MVP and the Toronto Sun Performing Artist of the Year in 2011. He is the recipient of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada Women’s Caucus Bra d’Or Award for supporting and promoting the work of Canadian women playwrights 2011, Mallory Gilbert Leadership Award Jury 2011, Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts Silver Ticket Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Arts 2010.