Arts boards still don’t represent Toronto’s diversity: Bob Ramsay

Good comparative analysis:

Four years ago, I wrote a Star column on the shocking white maleness of the boards of Toronto’s “Big 6” arts groups. Back then, all 25 board members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra were white.

Two years ago, I wrote an update. Surely, in the most diverse city in the world, the Big 6 would diversify their boards to better reflect their donors and audiences. Many big arts groups appoint board members precisely because they have the means to help raise serious money from their communities.

Unfortunately, it seems Not in Our Back Yard. In fact, in 2015 things got worse for the Canadian Opera Company (COC), where all 36 of their board members were white. In Toronto, the visible minority had just become the majority, yet the COC couldn’t find a single person from this new majority to help guide and secure their future.

So how is the state of diversity now? Well, I described the pace of diversifying big arts boards between 2013 and 2015 as “glacial.” But glaciers are receding faster than some big arts boards are advancing on this issue. So let’s call the progress between 2015 and now “snail-like.”

First, it’s important to note that not all the big arts boards are lagging in diversity. Some are leading in it and always have. For example, TIFF’s board of directors is made up of seven white men, six men of colour, five white women and two women of colour.

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) are doing pretty well too: The ROM’s board has six white men, three men of colour, six white women and four women of colour. The AGO’s board has 21 white men, four men of colour, 15 white women and two women of colour.

Meanwhile, the National Ballet of Canada board may have more women members than men, but of the 20 women, not a single one is a woman of colour. Not one. And of the 15 men, just one is a man of colour.

The Toronto Symphony board (reduced from 27 to 13) has seven men and six women on it board. All but one is white.

Once again, the Canadian Opera Company board lags behind. In 2015, 30 of its 42 board members were men and 12 were women. All were white. Today, with a board of 35, the number of women has fallen to 11, with not one being a woman of colour. Today, just two of its 22 male board members are men of colour.

Some people will argue that the arts aren’t obliged to have their leadership reflect the makeup of the general population. I buy that argument too. But all the organizations mentioned here are in the excellence business. This means they’re also in the engaging-new-communities business.

This is why I don’t buy the argument that people from non-European cultures just aren’t interested in opera, especially since the “from” can now be several generations past.

Worse still, why could the COC not even recruit a single member to its board from a ‘white’ culture that’s bathed in opera for centuries? Not one Russian-sounding name appears on the COC board. What’s more, this year, the COC hosted the two most famous opera singers in the world for a sold-out “night to remember” concert: baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and soprano Anna Netrebko. Guess where they’re from?

In my previous informal reviews of arts board composition, I’ve argued that more diverse boards will help the Big 6 expand its pool of ticket-buyers and financial supporters. Given that the arts are more challenged than ever on these two fronts, I thought that just made sense.

Source: Arts boards still don’t represent Toronto’s diversity | Toronto Star


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.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Oscar winner, says Canada informs her work

Nice Canadian connection:

Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who won the Academy Award for documentary short, credits her time in Canada for helping inform her powerful storytelling.

“When you live in a country like Canada, you begin to realize how right things can be,” Obaid-Chinoy told CBC inside the Oscars press room after her win. “Then when you travel back to Pakistan and to other countries which are in conflict, you can see what’s going wrong.”

Her winning documentary short, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, is about honour killings, told through the eyes of Saba Qaiser.

“She wanted her story told,” said Obaid-Chinoy. “The impact of her story is tremendous, because it is going to change lives, and it’s going to save lives, and there can be no greater reward than that.”

Qaiser, 18, fell in love with a man against her family’s wishes. Shortly after they eloped, her father and uncle shot her in the head and left her for dead. Her survival led her to become a rare voice for women in similar situations and the one needed for Obaid-Chinoy to tell the story.


Pakistani-Canadian journalist and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy accepts the award for Best Documentary Short Subject Film for A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness at the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California Feb. 28. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

“I think it’s important to see what what human beings are capable of,” said the filmmaker.

Obaid-Chinoy, who now lives in Pakistan but has spent a lot of time going between Toronto and her home country, said her work has prompted difficult conversations that often risked her life but that there is “payback” in doing so.

The filmmaker and journalist also won an Academy Award for her 2012 documentary Saving Face, about women in Pakistan searching for justice after suffering acid attacks.

That win made her the first Pakistani to capture an Oscar.

“The power of being nominated for an Academy Award really does mean for a country like Pakistan that you can change laws.”

Source: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Oscar winner, says Canada informs her work – Arts & Entertainment – CBC News

Canada Council’s diversity focus brings new opportunities, challenges

Ironic that this story comes out the week of the #OscarsSoWhite nominations. And interesting that this initiative dates from the Harper government, not the new government’s diversity and inclusion agenda:

The Canada Council for the Arts is getting a new funding model in April of 2017 – a total rethink of the Ottawa-based granting council that reduces its number of programs from 148 to a streamlined six.

As details of this shift have started to emerge in recent weeks, however, the most striking change may be the direct tying of diversity to funding for large arts organizations for the first time since the Canada Council was established in 1957. It’s not just the diversity of art and artists that will come under scrutiny in the future at institutions with revenue of more than $2-million. If the administration or backstage crew at your opera or ballet company, or the audience for your symphony or theatre company, or the board of directors of your art gallery, does not demonstrate a “commitment to reflecting the diversity of your organization’s geographic community or region,” this will now affect the size of grant received from the federal arts council.

“It’s clearly an assessment criteria – it’s no longer a wish,” says Simon Brault, appointed the director and CEO of the Canada Council in 2014 for a five-year term. “The companies that are performing the most will get more money – it’s a real incentive.”

With the Canada Council’s budget expected to double over the next two years – from $180-million to $360-million, if the Liberal government keeps its campaign promise – Brault will actually have the new funds needed to achieve his objectives. “We want to make sure [the doubled budget] is not a money pit – to make sure that we are advancing the quality of production and the progression of diversity.”

With this move, the Canada Council finds itself in line with current thinking in other multicultural countries. Just over a year ago, for example, Arts Council England (ACE) shifted its priorities – announcing that arts organizations that did not show progress in diversifying their programming and audiences could see their grants cut. And results are already being seen, with Black and Minority Ethnic (a British term) representation in the arts work force supported by ACE increasing from 13 to 13.7 per cent – the equivalent of an additional 576 jobs.

Judging by conversations with many of the artistic directors, executive directors and administrators at Canada’s top theatre and dance companies and orchestras this week, the initial reaction to the Canada Council’s new assessment criteria – where diversity is second only to artistic excellence – has been overwhelmingly positive, even if these arts heads eagerly await more concrete details on how it will work.

Source: Canada Council’s diversity focus brings new opportunities, challenges – The Globe and Mail

Russell Smith: Asylum seekers are the stars of this Canadian arts initiative

MamalianInteresting initiative to encourage understanding and integration, using the arts:

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how art has been interpreting the European refugee crisis. I was reminded after that of a Canadian artistic initiative currently happening in Germany that has direct contact with recent migrants. It is the work of the Toronto-originating theatre/social planning group called Mammalian Diving Reflex, directed by its creator, Darren O’Donnell.

The goal of this company is not to write plays and to put them on a stage, but to create social events that bring people together. They claim they aim to “trigger generosity and equity.” They do wacky things like getting children to give adults haircuts, but also deeply serious things like their current work in a small town in Germany, Hemsbach, near Mannheim.

There they have just finished a lengthy project centred around a reception centre for recent immigrants, designed to bring the newcomers and the German-born townspeople together, in an effort to find jobs for the immigrants.

O’Donnell himself stayed in the immigrant dormitory, with his co-worker Chozin Tenzin (also from Toronto), in a couple of beds that had been left vacant when some of the inmates were taken away by police. The town has about 80 recent asylum seekers staying in the holding centre, from everywhere from the Balkans to India. He then organized goofy events such as a cooking contest, for the refugees and for the German-born, in which participants were forced to use difficult ingredients from all over the world in their dishes.

The short-term goal was to facilitate interaction and understanding; the long-term goal is to leave a system of similar events in place, to continue after O’Donnell’s company leaves. (He calls this system the Hemsbach Protocol.)

O’Donnell likes in particular to work with teenagers, which he has been doing in the Ruhr region of Germany since 2013. It is only coincidentally that his work there became entangled with the refugee influx to Germany. His last project there, part of the Ruhrtriennale festival, near Dusseldorf, was called “Millionen! Millionen!” – a line from the Romantic poet Schiller’s Ode to Joy. (Yes, the one Beethoven used in his Ninth Symphony.) That poem is the European Union’s anthem and mantra, particularly for its now painfully relevant line, “Be embraced, you millions.”

The project was, like most of Mammalian Diving Reflex’s things, hard to define – social outing, urban planning, performance. In collaboration with a German theatre collective called Mit Ohne Alles, they got a bunch of teenagers of diverse immigrant backgrounds to go camping for a weekend, then take careful note of each interaction. Some talked deeply, some fell in love.

The performance, crafted afterwards, was a kind of barely-scripted play in which the teenagers recreated, for an audience, some of the interactions that had taken place over the weekend, with large images projected and everyone who had participated on the stage at once. The theme was “embracing.” Now that newer immigrants from the war-torn Middle East and Africa are showing up, such forced embracings will have a different edge and a different echo.

In theatre terms, this kind of practice is a kind of experimentalism called “post-dramatic,” an idea of the German critic Hans-Thies Lehmann. The primary intellectual influence on O’Donnell is the work of Nicolas Bourriaud, the art curator who wrote about “relational aesthetics,” the theory that stresses an artist’s role as catalyst for social interaction rather than centre of attention.

Source: Russell Smith: Asylum seekers are the stars of this Canadian arts initiative – The Globe and Mail

Why Teach Multicultural Literature? | Bhakti Shringarpure

I would call it world literature, and agree that more exposure to different perspectives is better (and we are fortunate in Canada to have many Canadian writers who draw upon their formative experiences in their country of origin).

This is a bit of an over-the-top debate between a student, commenting on Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and his professor, Bhakti Shringarpure. However, illustrates the sensitivities of some.

Why Teach Multicultural Literature? | Bhakti Shringarpure.