By Carol Beauchamp, Executive Director, Theatre Ontario
At long last summer is here, and as the temperature rises it’s a great opportunity to sit in my air-conditioned office and take a few minutes to reflect and plan for the future. It is no secret that theatre companies and theatre artists around the province are grappling with the wicked challenge of building audiences for the future, and engaging with our audiences in new and exciting ways. There are many factors impacting audience development, including an uncertain economy, seismic technological changes, and shifting demographics. As I meet with people in large and small communities around the province, the question of engaging with diverse communities is a common thread to many conversations. At Theatre Ontario, we are always looking for ways to help our members proactively respond to challenges, and while there are no simple solutions, there are certainly a number of avenues that we can explore collectively, which is what inspired us to partner with the Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario (CPAMO) to present a panel discussion at our annual general meeting on Diversity, Engagement, and Inclusion in Theatre, with a goal of exploring some positive strategies for engaging with diverse communities.
The panel discussion was moderated by charles c. smith, who in addition to being a published poet, playwright, and essayist, is a lecturer on Cultural Pluralism in the Arts at the University of Toronto Scarborough as well as being the Program Lead of CPAMO. In his remarks, charles stated that an important aspect of cultural pluralism is “about unpacking those stories that all of us can connect to. We’re all in the process of ‘trying to know.’”
This was a terrific opportunity for everyone who attended to hear the compelling and inspiring stories of the panelists: Yvette Nolan, Ravi Jain, Trevor Schwellnus, and Soheil Parsa, each of whom are busy theatre artists from diverse backgrounds who have navigated a unique path in the theatre sector by building inclusive practices and strong collaborative relationships.
Yvette Nolan (Algonquin/Irish), a playwright, director and dramaturg and former Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts, encouraged us to continue to look at our communities from different perspectives—she used the analogy of a tree; when you walk around a tree and look at it from a different position, you gain a different perspective or outlook. Yvette shared a recent experience she had working on a play with the hearing impaired and deaf culture, a challenging and rewarding experience that involved integrating and translating Shakespearean text, American Sign Language, and spoken word. Working with diverse cultures requires us to acknowledge where we come from and where we are now in order to know where we are going. As a community it is important that we take a look at who isn’t represented on stage—what kind of theatre is going to talk about our community as a whole and tell our community’s story?
Ravi Jain, a multi-award-winning actor, director, producer, educator, arts activist, and Artistic Director of Why Not Theatre noted that “in order to understand inclusion, it’s important to understand exclusion.” Ravi shared that as artists, much of how we work is often done out of necessity; for example, he created his theatre company in order to create work for himself and he shared a story about mounting a hit show in Urdu. Part of the success of this particular show was that he had staff working front of house who spoke the language of the community (Urdu), creating a welcoming and comfortable environment for the audience. He encourages us to put thought and care into how we communicate (both language and culture) to different cultural audience groups. For example, some cultural groups may not understand that it’s important to arrive early to pick up tickets prior to the show.
Trevor Schwellnus, a scenographer, and Artistic Producer of Aluna Theatre, together with his partner Beatriz Pizano, talked about how his company was similarly established out of necessity by Beatriz who is originally from Colombia. Trevor strongly believes that outreach into communities is important—working with individuals to help them own their story. Collaborative creation can help to unlock each person’s and each community’s story. An interesting and creative idea that Trevor shared to help outreach and communication, is to consider using subtitles as a design element for your show. You can use different languages for the same show depending on the audience you’re reaching out to. You need to be able to speak to the community in order to build a space for the community.
Soheil Parsa, an award-winning director, actor, writer, dramaturg, choreographer, and teacher, whose professional theatre career has spanned thirty years and two continents, shared his story of escaping revolutionary Iran and studying theatre at York University in the early 1980s—he was one of the first Middle Eastern theatre students in Canada. Soheil found that he was unable to easily connect with theatre in Toronto in the early 80s, and like our other panelists, Soheil created his own theatre company from a desire to explore avant garde theatre. He believes that we’ve come a long way in terms of diversity and inclusion, but we also have a long way to go.
Our panelists agreed that theatre is gradually becoming more intercultural, and that by working within each other’s communities our resources can go further, especially when funding resources are shifting. Ethno cultural theatres are often more focused on community engagement—engaging with the broader community. Our panelists believe that there is a tremendous opportunity for collaboration and partnership for theatre companies with each other and with the communities that surround them—partnering to produce theatre that represents the story and voice of the community.
Without doubt theatre is a dynamic art form that is continually evolving, telling our stories in new and innovative ways—it is a constant and exciting process of exploration, looking at different perspectives as part of the creative process, but also as part of the process of engaging with our audiences in a meaningful way. A point that I found compelling and was emphasized by each of the panelists was that need to step back and take another point of view or perspective when we engaging with diverse communities, whether they be ethno-cultural, geographic, seniors, or communities with disabilities:
- Are we telling their story? In other words, do the plays we perform resonate with the people that live and work in the communities around us?
- Are the plays we are performing in a language that the community can understand?
- Does our audience understand the conventions of attending the theatre, for example, picking up tickets prior to performance time?
- Are we accessible to the community? For example, is transportation or parking an issue? Is our marketing and outreach in a language or format that is readily understood by the audience/community we are trying to engage with?
- Have we included members of the community in our volunteer group/paid staff to help us better respond?
- Do the actors on our stages reflect the people that live and work in our community?
Everyone that attended the AGM panel discussion was inspired and excited, and a number of people I spoke with felt that they had gained insights into new ways of becoming more inclusive by asking and answering some of these questions. There is no cookie-cutter approach. Building relationships and understanding takes time, but the first important step is understanding what we don’t know, and then taking the time to see another perspective.
For myself, I am looking forward to continuing these important discussions and helping to bring similar panel discussions to other communities across the province. I look forward to coming together, and challenging ourselves to look at theatre as well as the communities in which we create and perform our work, from a different perspective that just might open new and exciting opportunities to build our audiences and share unique theatrical experiences.