More than a hashtag: Making diverse, inclusive theatre the norm

Interesting story on some of the challenges in improving diversity in theatre:

Personal stories of race, gender and sexuality shared in a Caribbean hair stylist’s chair. A glimpse into a convenience store and an Asian-Canadian family’s struggles. A thoroughly remixed Hamlet delivered in English and American Sign Language.

Canada is no stranger to acclaimed plays told from diverse perspectives, but a new wave of theatre artists is pushing past existing boundaries to make inclusive storytelling the new normal.

“I want a contemporary colour palette. I want the people of the world that I see around me to be telling those stories,” says director Ravi Jain.

“That homogenous world that I see onstage [traditionally]? It’s just not my world. I don’t recognize that.”

Toronto-based Jain’s latest work is his Shakespeare reboot Prince Hamlet, featuring actors in gender-swapped roles, performers from different racial backgrounds and a key character who is deaf and narrates the story in American Sign Language.

Prince Hamlet

Why Not Theatre’s latest production is Prince Hamlet, a reboot of the Bard featuring actors in gender-swapped roles, performers from different racial backgrounds and a key character who narrates the story in American Sign Language. (Bronwen Sharp/Why Not Theatre)

It’s the latest reason his aptly named Why Not Theatre, currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, has earned kudos for innovative, thought-provoking and entertaining productions that offer something fresh to devoted theatre-goers, while also appealing to communities underrepresented in the performing arts.

“That’s the thing for me,” he says. “Can we let people be their fullest selves when we tell stories and let their experiences they had growing up be the lens through which we see the story told?”

Making change

Canada has seen past blockbusters like Trey Anthony’s da Kink in my Hair or Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience and the work of indie troupes such as Cahoots, FuGEN and Obsidian, which specialize in stories from diverse communities. But Canadian theatre overall has long been a bastion of white, European stories. There’s still a distance to go toward more inclusive representation, especially for the larger, more established companies.

“If you look around, you go to the theatre and a lot of times – especially at the established ones – the audience is predominantly aging white people,” admits Martin Morrow, president of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association.

“There’s definitely a serious awareness of a lack of diversity in the past and a real sincere attempt to improve that today,” he says.

Theatre has yet to regularly reach some large, untapped audiences – in part “because what people are seeing on the stage are not the faces on the street,” according to Morrow.

Chantelle Han and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee in Kim's Convenience.

Despite the massive success of plays like Kim’s Convenience, truly diverse stories and productions are still more the exception than the norm in Canadian theatre. (Bruce Monk)

A generation of artists raised on traditional Canadian theatre is now changing the game, settling into roles as sought-after and influential creators, leaders and decision-makers.

They’re revitalizing the scene by casting a wider net of collaborators and highlighting unheard perspectives. The argument heard in the past, that Canada didn’t have the necessary pool of diverse actors, directors, playwrights and other creators, no longer holds. Being inclusive – as other industries have shown – makes financial sense.

“The private sector figured out that it was good for business and good for society to have a more diversified workforce and to try to promote change at all levels of leadership. It seems like we’re just figuring that out now [in theatre],” says director and playwright Jovanni Sy,

The challenge of every theatre company in Canada, especially in urban centres, is to navigate the divide between engaging existing subscribers and attracting new ones, he says. Sy has seen thousands of new audience members visit Richmond, B.C.’s Gateway Theatre for the first time after he introduced a contemporary, Chinese-language adjunct to the mainstage offering: one that appeals directly to residents of Chinese heritage (who comprise nearly half of Richmond’s total population).

As artistic director, Sy’s approach has been two-pronged: choosing programming that “shows the rich, multicultural nature of modern-day Richmond,” and reaching out with initiatives like the Gateway Pacific Theatre Festival “as a way of opening our doors and making a bigger tent.

“People want what’s comfortable to them,” he explains, but “one of the beautiful things about theatre is it lets you glimpse into someone else’s reality, lets you sit in someone else’s shoes for a couple of hours.”

Source: More than a hashtag: Making diverse, inclusive theatre the norm – Entertainment – CBC News

Rick Salutin’s related comments about entry barriers to the arts, particularly for those from less wealthy families:

A recent depressing study of Toronto schools found that kids who go into public high schools for the arts are disproportionately white and wealthy: 67 per cent white versus 29 per cent in the general school population.

Half of the students come from 18 “feeder schools” that lacked diversity; a quarter from just five largely “homogeneous” schools; 57 per cent come from “high income” families versus about half that in the general school population.

Not surprising since the former, unlamented school board director Chris Spence once said the purpose of “academies” and special schools was to offer “private school opportunities within the public system.” Whose kids did you think all those special programs (including French immersion) were created for?

But it got me thinking about who rules in the arts altogether. A few years ago I found myself frequently checking family backgrounds of actors, mostly because with Wikipedia, you can: they usually start with family background.

So Hugh Grant’s forebears are “a tapestry of warriors, empire-builders and aristocracy.” Zooey Deschanel’s parents were a cinematographer and actor. Benedict Cumberbatch’s are actors; his granddad was from “London high society” and his great-granddad was Queen Victoria’s consul-general in Turkey. Gene Hackman’s dad, though, was a typesetter who abandoned the family.

Let’s not overstate. The arts have typically implied nepotism and privilege, even in cases of black sheep who scorned the family firm to run off with a theatre troupe. But there was something down-market about the arts that made room for the lower orders — especially with the mass audience that came along with movies. Most of all, you didn’t need a university degree to get a foot in.

There were outsiders and scalawags like Charlie Chaplin, who grew up rough and learned to hate middle class dogooding social workers; or Edward G. Robinson, who lived in a tenement and became a toney art collector to compensate. There was a coarser look to many of them; you didn’t need perfect features. It was even was an asset not to have them since that mass movie audience could identify. Charles Laughton actually played romantic roles. One of the last was Hackman, who didn’t seem to know he wasn’t Cary Grant. (Grant’s parents, on the other hand, were a factory worker and a seamstress.)

But the privilege element has now moved up to another level. This is partly due to the so-called “culturalization” of the economy, where art is no longer economically peripheral. It’s as gainful and respected (or more so) to be an actor, musician (or news anchor) than a tycoon. In fact, they all sort of blend.

This shift gets most noted, naturally, in the U.K. with its hyper sense of class. There’s debate about a takeover by “posh” actors: Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Tom Hollander — stars of The Night Manager — who all went to the same private elementary school; the former two went on to Eton, alongside Eddie Redmayne and Damien Lewis. Almost everyone attended Oxford. This may underpin the “Downtonization” of British TV drama. In Canada, we tend to phrase these trends in terms of race, but it largely amounts to the same thing.

Much (in fact, too much) depends on education, especially with the decline of other routes to the arts, like provincial rep companies in the U.K. In the early years there are arts programs, where wealthier parents can fundraise for supplies, such as musical instruments or theatre trips — though here they can’t yet buy actual arts teachers for their kids’ schools.

Then come university programs that are harder to access with rising tuition; and even if you get there as a poor kid, you probably need to work rather than try out for plays.

The grad programs follow, which require auditions (which often demand fees) and prepping for those. The same goes for writing, where postgrad creative writing degrees have become ubiquitous, though what they mostly provide is simply time to write.

What gets lost? Voices — literally in the case of actors. I knew a theatre director who made a note during auditions: “has access to class.” That won’t matter much if you don’t have writers who write about class, as David Fennario did in Canada.

What would’ve been lost if Mozart’s or Chopin’s dads hadn’t been composers and teachers? But wait — what of all the latent Mozarts and Chopins whose dads weren’t? How much richer might the world that kids arrive in have been?

Not to mention the small matter of justice (social variant).

Source: Guess who’s coming to auditions: SalutinThe arts use to be more welcoming of outsiders and scalawags but now appears to be the domain of the privileged.

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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