Last summer, in the midst of global protests against anti-Black racism, Canada’s long-running Stratford Festival issued a statement admitting its complicity in upholding white supremacy. Soon after, many theatres and performing arts companies in the country followed suit.
There has been a collective call to address systemic racism within the Canadian theatre landscape. Finally, the performing arts community decided to address the systemic injustice — from hiring practices to governance models to workplace culture — that has been observed by theatre practitioners for decades.
As an applied theatre scholar who is involved in socially engaged creative practice and who has created community theatre projects dedicated to social change, I believe another way theatre companies can address racism, representation, cultural sensitivity and tokenism in the Canadian theatre landscape is to nurture and mentor BIPOC leadership.
Last year, while I was working at the Belfry Theatre, a regional theatre in Victoria, British Columbia, as the manager for community and artistic connections, I collaborated with Belfry artistic director, Michael Shamata, to host a forum with local arts groups about racism in the theatre.
At the forum, the attendees came up with a collective list of issues that need to be addressed. The list included actionable items.
One of the action items was the need to engage the management of the major theatre companies and create learning opportunities for BIPOC artists in the region.
This conversation and set of actions became the inspiration for an arts leadership training program for BIPOC artists and art administrators.
After we sent our action list to major performing art companies in Victoria, we set up meetings with some senior management of major arts and post-secondary educational institutions in the Capital Regional District (of southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands). Shamata and I led the meetings with a focus on two questions:
- Where do you see your theatre in five years with regard to issues of leadership, representation, and systemic change?
- How do you plan to get there?
In our meetings, we found that neither of our group’s questions was addressed. A lot of time was spent talking about initiatives that companies had already taken. But we felt it was a first step towards change.
Arts leadership program launched
After the initial meetings, Shamata and I felt more immediate action was necessary and so we proposed an early-career art leadership training program. One of the goals was to create opportunities for BIPOC artists and cultural administrators.
The Arts Leadership Training Program is meant to be a learning exchange opportunity between early-career BIPOC artists interested in arts leadership and management. It is built on the idea that “we all have something to share and we all have something to learn.” The program will be funded by the partners.
Along with our home, Belfry Theatre, we collaborated with the following organizations: Canadian College of Performing Arts, Victoria; Common Weal Community Arts, Regina; Dance Victoria; Globe Theatre, Regina; Pacific Opera Victoria; University of Regina, Faculty of Media, Art and Performance; the University of Victoria, Faculty of Fine Arts; Victoria Conservatory of Music; and Victoria Symphony.
Anti-colonization as a goal
As we develop the program, anti-colonization and the challenge to white supremacy is a major guiding principle. Part of that process is to challenge white superiority, nationalist history, and truth. Organizations involved asked critical questions around power, privilege, and colonial knowledge, and the ethics of creating a program like this, something I have examined in my scholarship. We co-created the curriculum in seminars with artist-participants as a way for them to shape the learning content.
The ethics of doing sensitive work
The institutions involved acknowledged the colonial and oppressive system that they have inherited and continue to perpetuate. By committing to a program like this, they hope there will be a change in the ecosystem.
The 10 selected participants will intern with some performing art institutions that are partners in the program.
Prior to the start of the paid internship, we will host a series of seminars for partnering performing art institutions on racial justice, cultural sensitivity and equity, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace. We hope this kind of workshop will help to set up the interns for success.
It is my hope that a program like this can be a beginning of a shift in arts leadership in Canada. Perhaps other arts institutions can find ways to create and redistribute resources in ways that will shape existing racial inequality and launch platforms that will support equity in arts leadership in the country.
We have already received a high volume of applications for a program starting this summer. We encourage interested BIPOC artists to follow the Belfry Theatre or me on social media to stay tuned for further opportunities to connect.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.
This post was written by Taiwo Afolabi.
The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.