A time to act

Call for systemic change in the local theatre industry

The global resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has prompted the local theatre community and its historically white-led organizations to acknowledge and try to dismantle age-old barriers for local BIPOC artists. 

In an attempt to understand the roadblocks and hear voices of Artists of Colour, the local members of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres organized a virtual roundtable on June 22. 

Carson Nattrass, the artistic director of Rainbow Stage, says “the BIPOC community is grossly underrepresented in Winnipeg. That’s undebatable.

“There are barriers at every level, because it’s an art form that is dominated by the culture that brought it here. That’s where the conversation of representation comes into play.”

Kelly Thornton, artistic director at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, played a key role in bringing the artists and theatre organizations together for the roundtable. 

“The roundtable was organized in less than 10 days, and we received hundreds of questions from artists,” she says.

These conversations are meant to amplify the message of anti-racism and the struggles of BIPOC artists. While the intent of these discussions might be noble, it’s easy to lose track of what’s important: the voices of the BIPOC artists. 

Thornton points out such an instance during the roundtable.

“Ninety minutes was designated as the amount of time (for the roundtable),” she says. “People started to lead off with statements, and half an hour went by. People started to go, ‘Get to the BIPOC artists. Why are you silencing the BIPOC artists?’”

The questions BIPOC artists want answers to are centred around equality of opportunity, the protection and security of artists and how change will be enacted by leading theatres in the city.

“There were many well-thought-out questions that were proposed to companies that have been around for a long time and how and when we’re going to answer those questions,” Nattrass says.

Even though stories of struggles and challenges can catalyze change, many artists often don’t speak up due to fears of losing current and future opportunities. Thornton, who spoke to numerous artists, says “There was worry and concern about whether truth-telling will be reprimanded and if truths of the BIPOC artists will actually cost them jobs in the future.”

Stephanie Sy, a local actor and theatre artist who was a panelist in the roundtable, expressed her disappointment with the discussion on Facebook.

“I speak only for myself: that roundtable was incredibly disappointing and frustrating and mind-boggling,” Sy wrote two days after the roundtable. “I was hesitant to be a part of it but was hopeful, (but it left me) unsatisfied. It scares me a little bit that (the artistic directors of Winnipeg’s theatres) couldn’t get together to come up with a better plan than what happened two days ago.

“I know the job is really difficult. We all know this. But this is the job. This is your job ... If you don’t know how to do the work or want to do the work, then you’re not the right person for it. Be this person or make space for the person that can imagine and envision exciting possibilities for our theatre community that can include all of us.”

Sy cited a list of questions for the panelists that other BIPOC theatre artists Melissa Langdon and Frances Koncan prepared and delivered before the roundtable, and expressed her frustration that these questions weren’t addressed.

In order to see radical change and empower artists, local theatres need to interrogate systemic racism, dismantle barriers and become truly anti-racist in practice. According to Thornton, anti-racism is about “taking action and having the intention to break down racism in our society and institutions.”

Being hopeful, she says, “there is a huge amount of work to be done, and we’re all working right now to build actionable steps going forward.”

Published in Volume 74, Number 25 of The Uniter (May 1, 2020)

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