#UrgentExchange Stop Abuse & Exploitation in Toronto Dance

Left to right:    Kate Nankervis, Tina Fushell, and Robyn Breen of the Love-In, Kristina Lemieux and Sedina Fiati of Generator, and Oriana Pagnotta of the Love-In.

Left to right: Kate Nankervis, Tina Fushell, and Robyn Breen of the Love-In, Kristina Lemieux and Sedina Fiati of Generator, and Oriana Pagnotta of the Love-In.

In December, we partnered with the Toronto Dance Community Love-In (now a Resident Company at Generator) and Daniels Spectrum for our first ever #UrgentExchange devoted to dance. Together with the Love-In, we asked community members to vote in Twitter and Instagram polls choosing between the topics “Accessible Process Now” and “Stop Abuse and Exploitation.” The results were 50/50 on Twitter, so the deciding votes were on Instagram, where 74% told us that what was most urgent in dance was stopping abuse and exploitation: how do we dismantle harmful power structures and create safer spaces?

On December 17, we gathered at Daniels Spectrum. ASL interpretation was provided by Rogue Benjamin. After introductions from Generator and the Love-In, we invited participants to rotate through each of the following four topics, in 25-minute sessions:

  • Social Location facilitated by Jiv Parasram: understanding the ways in which we ALL hold power and privilege

  • Race facilitated by Rodney Diverlus: examining the race problem in dance, and what we can do about it

  • Gender facilitated by Sze-Yang Ade-Lam: from understanding how gender plays a role in conversations about power, to asking everyone’s pronouns

Community Agreements, facilitated by Sedina Fiati: what they are, what goes into building them, and how to incorporate them into your process

We also had an open table available for folks who had other topics they wanted to discuss. Before we started, a participant proposed that this be a space to discuss Accessibility. Unlike many other #UrgentExchange conversations (like #MeToo One Year Later on December 9), there was no recorded or live-streamed component to this event - this was to encourage open and frank dialogue. Instead, we invited “witnesses” to observe each of the four topics, as well as the open table, and write down their thoughts and learnings. What follows are the responses of our five witnesses, along with resources we suggest for further learning. To find out more about each of the witnesses, scroll down to the bottom of the page.

General Resource for Talking about Power and Privilege Diversity Toolkit: A Guide to Discussing Identity, Power and Privilege

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Molly Johnson responds to RACE, facilitated by Rodney Diverlus

First up, this discussion was COMPLEX - beyond a summary listing of what we got into, I don't have the means with which to fully share it. The following is one distillation of my experience and what it sparked for me - I could offer many others.

I'm a witness at the race table and as a white person talking about race, my cheeks are pretty fucking red as soon as I speak. I don't want to fuck up, you don't want to fuck up -  there are different measures of what that means at this table. Discomfort is necessary. Discomfort is something I have spent a lot of my life avoiding. Discomfort is a thing some of us get to avoid and some of us are thrust into, and that becomes real apparent real fast.

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The speed dating vibes are almost useful in that there's no time to waste and we get to it as quickly as we can but it feels a little too emblematic of [my experience of] the dance community - and the white capitalist hetero-patriarchal society from which it takes its cues - AKA as a place where good intentions and conversation starters abound but very rarely result in meaningful change. The system is in full effect even in environments like this where the intention, I believe, is wholehearted.

One of the prompts Rodney gives us is to answer what is missing in the conversation on race in dance. I look around the room and think not so much about what topic is missing but about who is missing: 99% of the white men in the dance community are missing, dance artists over the age of 45 are missing, the power holders in the dance community are missing - the two previous categories and the educators, presenters, funders, and artists who are on operating are missing. These people are not in the room. These people need to be in the room. I take my sharpie marker and write this down on my little post it note. But then what? I write it here and maybe somebody reads it and feels called out but then gets over it and pays attention. Or...business as usual.

It's weird and informative and enlightening and troubling to see Rodney run the same drill for each session. All I can think about it is how many times he's had this conversation. He's civil and articulate and kind. I recognize these things and how I appreciate them and then recognize the scary mental space of appreciating racialized people conducting conversations about something that is actually pretty fucking abhorrent in a civil, articulate, kind way so that white people can feel okay inside the conversation about the thing they created and continue to perpetuate but mostly avoid discussing. None of that is exactly what it is but it's also not not that.

What is missing in the conversation on race in dance? White people are missing. Urgency on behalf of white people is missing. The point is very often missing. We are still getting confused between having enough and having privilege. We are still crying meritocracy at the same time as knowing full well that meritocracies are a fallacy when each of us begins with very different resources, very different access points, and that this dance world is still being built for a certain kind of person to thrive.

Resources “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh, Jonathan Osler on Moving from Actor to Ally to Accomplice

Mikaela Demers responds to SOCIAL LOCATION, facilitated by Jiv Parasram

On Monday, December 17th, #UrgentExchange Stop Abuse and Exploitation in Toronto Dance was co-hosted by Generator TO and The Dance Community Love-in at Daniels Spectrum. All who attended rotated between four tables every 25 minutes, set up with stationary facilitators focused on different topics. I had the fortune to sit with Jivesh Parasram who was facilitating conversation around the topic of social location or position.

After quick introductions, Jiv led our table in a fairly common exercise:

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The Power Flower, with all of its flaws, is designed to demonstrate where you fall in the societal power structure of a chosen community. The idea is, that through completing the Power Flower, as a group, conversations between table members will surface. Jiv explained the Power Flower with transparency and facilitated each group with a personalized sense of care. As a witness of three different groups of people who came to the table, it was hard not to notice the radical differences between groups as a whole during their experience of the Power Flower.

Group 1 selected a community of focus and flew through completing the Power Flower. When Jiv asked, for example, “Sexual orientation? Which group has the most power in community X?” answers from the group came with immediacy, confidence and often from multiple people. Some categories did give some group members pause, but it seemed that even lack of knowledge was admitted with certainty and in the spirit of learning. ‘Human/Non-human’ is an example of a category that resulted in an exchange between an artist who admitted to not understanding what the category meant. A fellow artist reciprocated, with care, on a perspective to consider for this category (SUCH A BEAUTIFUL MOMENT). But in general, the group went around the Power Flower and the categories were filled in with small clarifying conversations by different folks in the group.

When Group 2 was asked the same questions by Jiv, responses were more frequently returned with whole minutes of silence. Answers came as offerings; suggestions or guesses in quiet voices and a questioning tone. The group was preoccupied with the semantics of the exercise as opposed to the goals, spending the majority of their time dissecting the Power Flower as opposed to generating productive and critical discourse. By the end of the 25 minutes, a third of the Power Flower had been completed.

In reflection, there were a number of takeaways from the evening:

  1. The varying responses in groups as a whole and the productivity or level of understanding surrounding the topic of social position is a reminder that it is important to recognize and call out power structures around us.

  2. The Power Flower requires the active participation of its participants. Much like creating change, active conversation in a safe space provides more learning opportunities and overall productivity.  

  3. Members of the Toronto Dance Community are at varying levels of understanding or comfort with conversations that focus on critical observation and reflection on the community.

Upon reflection, group 2 brought to light blind spots or areas to be considered in future conversations for the Toronto Dance Community. Seeing gaps in understanding or an inability to participate is essential to continuing conversations of this nature with goals of critical discourse and affecting change in a community as a whole.

Resource Express Yourself: Crafting Social Location Maps and Identity Monologues,” The New York Times

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Kallee Lins responds to COMMUNITY AGREEMENTS, facilitated by Sedina Fiati

Efficiency. Legacies of colonialism. The way things have always been done. Inequalities and hierarchies in the creative process. These were some of the responses cited as reasons why community agreements have historically not been used in the studio.

Implicit in hierarchical processes of dance creation is that the product is prioritized above the people involved. As a collaboratively built document, community agreements have the ability to flip this equation and fundamentally shift the distribution of power. Creating an agreement allows a group to explicitly – and contractually – answer the question, “How do we want to operate in this space?” Its strength comes from everyone involved agreeing to what is included and seeing their needs reflected.

During our #UrgentExchange conversation on the topic, facilitator Sedina Fiati outlined three key questions to scaffold a community agreement:

  1. How do we want to be treated?

  2. How will we deal with conflict?

  3. What accessibility needs do we have?
 


The second question is crucial – it builds in an accountability structure. Who can performers go to if someone causes them harm, particularly if it’s the choreographer/director at fault? Should a “mediator” be named to resolve intractable conflicts? While a safer, more joyful creative space may be the goal, ensuring the rules of that environment are enforced is vital to its sustainability.
 


Participants were urged to consider accessibility in a broad way, and to ask themselves what would allow all participants to not only function, but to thrive. This approach considers physical barriers like venue accessibility, and less visible obstacles like access to childcare, knowing when performers will be paid, or the use of video and other memory aids in rehearsal.
 


Specificity in detailing how a group wants to be treated is crucial, yet what became clear in responding to question one is how rarely we’re asked to articulate our needs in a work setting. Common responses expressed a desire to be treated “with respect” and “with dignity”. The next level of conversation prompted us to describe exactly what those conditions look like. For some, it meant that “the physical and emotional health of each person is valued,” that “there’s permission to fail, slow down, and divert,” and that “my opinions will be listened to”.

While community agreements are a practical tool to create a safer work environment, perhaps their greatest strength is in providing the space to question our needs and envision what a fairer, more equitable process of creation looks like. The possibility of better creative spaces exists; we can start by rewriting the terms of engaging with one another.

Resource Nikki Shaffeeullah discusses Container Building at #UrgentExchange in January 2018

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Nickeshia Garrick responds to GENDER, facilitated by Sze-Yang Ade-Lam

I'd like to preface this by saying that #UrgentExchange organized by Generator is a necessary start to the thoughts and conversations needed to inform change within the Dance and Arts community. If we are fighting for equity, accessibility and fair representation for those on varying spectrums (QTBIPOC, BIPOC, NB, People with Disabilities etc...) within the Toronto Arts Community, it starts with these discussions in hopes of bringing about action.

The topics being discussed for the event were Gender, Race, Social Location, Community Agreements and Accessibility, all being facilitated/witnessed on separate tables. Those attending had approximately 20-25 minutes at each table before they had to move on to the next one. I personally would have preferred us all being able to sit together and openly discuss the topics as a large group, as what was being said wasn't mutually exclusive. The set up for me resembled speed dating, being pressed to quickly get your points in before the timer went out, which can be increasingly difficult when delving into these topics, especially for individuals on varying points of the intellectual spectrum.

Being a witness for the event also allowed me access to the thoughts and suggestions of those who participated. The topics discussed were necessary, but folx were looking for more prevalent and urgent topics such as the #metoo movement, intersectionality, meritocracy, ableism etc... Other main points were, how do we get these conversations in the dominant arts institutions within Toronto? If we're fighting for institutions to update their methods of hiring, teaching/training and offering programs that are more accessible, how do we get them to change? How often will #UrgentExchange be held, and will we discuss what actions to take?

With the advent of revolutionary movements such as #BLM and #timesup, action has been made to change the mentality of corporations. The arts community in Toronto should be under the same scrutiny to change their ways as well.  

Ultimately, #UrgentExchange was a night to stir things up and get people thinking about the major issues. Hopefully these talks will continue, in hopes of reaching the dominant Arts companies in Toronto so that our thoughts and concerns do not fall on deaf ears.

→ Resources Working with Trans, GNB and GNC Artists, on ArtistProducerResource.com, “Finding Our Way in a World of Gender Fluidity” on Howlround

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Fabien Maltais-Bayda on THE PROCESS & OPEN TABLE

The topic of December 17th’s #UrgentExchange was abuse in our dance communities, and more specifically, how to stop it. It’s a subject both pressing and challenging, not only because systemic abuse is a complicated matter rooted in longstanding power dynamics, but also because stopping it remains a hefty task requiring no small feat of endurance.

It was interesting to note that quite little of what I witnessed at #Urgent Exchange addressed abuse directly. This may be due to the evening’s structure, with participants rotating through sub-categorized tables: community agreements, gender, race, social location, and an open table that convened a conversation on abilities during one of the event’s multiple sessions. Significant topics in themselves, these themes tended to become the focus of discussion at the tables I observed. Yet beyond mere logistics, the event’s tendency to coalesce around topics alternate to the tagline may have had much to do with the main issue at hand. Abuse and exploitation are rarely simple questions of bad or inconsiderate behaviour. Rather, they are inherently tied to power – its imbalances and hierarchies – and are always circumscribed by factors like ability, gender, and race. To work at stopping abuse requires, almost as a prerequisite, active engagement with these social formations. It is perhaps unsurprising that, in the context of a single evening, this is about as far as things got.

Each of the conversations I observed held many important moments, but since I was tasked with witnessing the open table, it seems useful to note just a few of the ideas generated around it here. Of course, it’s important to remember just how inaccessible Toronto’s dance infrastructure is. One participant noted that engagement with the city’s contact improvisation community remains nearly impossible for many since events tend to be held at Dovercourt House – a building with many stairs and no good options for getting around them. Another significant point raised in the discussion was that accessibility is never one-size-fits-all – doorways and halls meant to provide access, for example, might be wide enough for some wheelchairs, but not others. The conversation foregrounded that accessibility requires us to consider the diverse needs of individual bodies, and asserted the importance of centering folks with lived experience.

Returning to #UrgentExchange more broadly: without a coherent plan of action generated, without the “stop” of its title put in motion, the evening and its goals might be considered unfulfilled; indeed, some of the community feedback I’ve heard suggests this. But such a feeling is also hardly surprising. Thinking back, I cannot recall even one event meant to tackle an important issue facing our community that did so comprehensively. (And this certainly includes those I’ve organized or coordinated myself.) Issues of systemic abuse, of equity, of access, are immensely complex, and a gathering of two, three, or even four hours will always be unequal to the task of making change. This isn’t to excuse or justify our many shortcomings as organizers and community members – rather, I want to re-assert the constant collective effort that tackling oppressive structures requires. If #UrgentExchange served, primarily, to begin unseaming the sturdy social fabrics of the status quo that allow abuse to continue, it succeeded in something important. Now, I think, it rests on all of us – organizers, participants, witnesses – to pull the threads further, and to build actions out from these moments of reflection.

→ Resources on Accessibility ArtistProducerResource.com: Audience Accessibility, Artist Accessibility, Writing an accessibility statement for your event or website; HowlRound.com: Article Round-Up

About the Witnesses

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Molly Johnson

Born and raised on Cape Breton Island, Molly Johnson makes body-based texts and performance projects exploring alternative ways of being in a capitalist patriarchal society. A Dora Award-winning dance artist, Molly has danced for and with many brilliant humans including Nova Bhattacharya, Susie Burpee, Sabina Perry, Julia Sasso, Riley Sims, and Heidi Strauss. She has spent a decade performing in public spaces with Dusk Dances, toured internationally with Montréal’s Danièle Desnoyers/Le Carré des Lombes, and was a key collaborator with Marie France Forcier from 2007 to 2016. Her collective and individual work has been presented at PS: We Are All Here, SummerWorks, Kinetic Studio, Dancemakers, Mile Zero Dance, and the Halifax Fringe Festival. Based in Toronto, Molly is co-artistic director of hub14 art + performance works and a freelance writer in the space between. thisismollyjohnson.com
Molly was a member of Generator’s 2018 Performance Criticism Training Program.

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Mikaela Demers

Mikaela Demers is an emerging artist and producer originally from Northern Ontario. She has been a member of earthdancers, Lila Ensemble, Parahumans, the Garage, and worked as a performer for Vanessa Jane Kimmons, Allen Kaeja, Love Letters Cabaret, Brian Solomon, Megan English and Fernando Troya. Demers has been a part of numerous collaborative choreographic performances including Celestial Play (2013), checkbox (2015) and most recently maelstrom (2017), a co-choreographed work that toured to Toronto and Thunder Bay. Her current independent creative process is based on the physical study of eye focus and awareness. Demers hosted her first independently produced show the pack: creature in May 2018. She is a member of Branch Collective, and the producer of Branch Intensive, a week-long dance intensive hosted in Sudbury, Ontario. Demers has hosted three rural residencies to date in Sudbury and on Manitoulin Island. Mikaela is part of Generator’s 2018/19 Artist Producer Training Program cohort.

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Kallee Lins

Kallee moved to Toronto in 2012 to meld her love of the performing arts, research, and writing. After completing an MA in Theatre and Performance Studies at York University, and spending a number of years in the PhD in Dance Studies program, she worked as the Marketing and Communications Manager for the Dancer Transition Resource Centre. Today, Kallee is the Manager of Membership & Community at Imagine Canada, an organization working to build a strong, resilient future for all charities and nonprofits. She sits on the Board of Directors of Dusk Dances and Dance Umbrella of Ontario.

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Nickeshia Garrick

Nickeshia Garrick was born in Toronto, Ontario and has been performing since the tender age of six. She received her dance training at the NYIDE (New York Institution of Dance and Education), National Ballet School of Canada, Toronto Dance Theatre and Simon Fraser University.  

Nickeshia holds a BFA from Simon Fraser University (Vancouver), is currently working toward the 2019 Premiere of No Woman’s Land with Roshanak Jaberi and Karen Kaeja, and has recently become a 2018 Dora Mavor Moore Award winner for Outstanding Ensemble in Pool (no water).

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Fabien Maltais-Bayda

Fabien Maltais-Bayda is a writer, researcher, and arts administrator based in Toronto. He was a Dancemakers Writer-in-Residence in 2016/17, and was shortlisted for the Ontario Association of Art Galleries art writing award in 2017. He writes for Canadian Art, Canadian Theatre Review, The Dance Current, esse, and Momus, and recently published an essay on curation and the dance retrospective, co-written with Joseph P. Henry, in the Berghahn Books volume Curating Live Arts. Fabien currently works as the Administrative Director for the Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists - Ontario Chapter.

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#UrgentExchange #MeToo One Year Later

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Last January, #UrgentExchange asked “Who is A Monster? What Makes A Monster? Am I Monster? #MeToo What Next?” - three days after the news broke about Soulpepper.

One year later, we partnered with PARADIGM productions and Daniels Spectrum to investigate how #MeToo has impacted the performance community: from triggers in the rehearsal process, to the changing role of the stage manager, to nudity and violence on stage, to the biases and blind spots that hold back change.

On December 9, 2018, we gathered at Daniels Spectrum following a performance of The Philosopher’s Wife, written by APT grad Susanna Fournier and produced by Resident Company PARADIGM productions. (Pictured: Generator’s Kristina Lemieux and PARADIGM’s Susanna Fournier and Alison Wong.)

Part One: Watch the Videos

We began with presentations exploring three perspectives across disciplines: Meghan Speakman on Stage Managing with #MeToo, Matthew Eldridge on Intimacy and Touch from the Perspective of Health Practice, and Andrea Zanin on Consent and Power: Lessons from Kink. Watch the videos below!


Inspired in part by this #UrgentExchange, the Toronto Star’s Karen Fricker wrote “One year after Soulpepper, what stage have we reached?” including reflections from both Meghan Speakman and Sedina Fiati. Read her article here.

Part Two: Read the Highlights

For the second half of the event, Generator’s APT Facilitator Sedina Fiati (pictured below) sat down with The Philosopher’s Wife team to talk about how they tackled these issues in the production. We heard from playwright, producer and actor Susanna Fournier, producer Alison Wong, and actor Chala Hunter. As a jumping-off point, we asked participants to share what they noticed about the production, and what their questions were (responses pictured below). You can watch the whole conversation on Periscope, or read some highlights below:

“It took me a long time to become the proud feminist killjoy that I now am.” -Susanna

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On the Relationship with the Audience

Susanna “I think in terms of getting to a point in my practice as a playwright where I am now starting to really meet and develop audiences, for me I think the theatre contract is a stand in for a kind of social contract. So, I've invited you all to come into a space, and I’ve made something and brought other people in and I’m going to offer something, but I need you to come, and so, now we are in relationship with each other. I’ve asked you to come into relationship with me. And so I need to be aware of what my desire is, why have I asked you here, what do I think I have to offer you, what do I hope you might receive, and what am I hoping you might bring to this relationship that now we are in together.”

Alison “Introducing this work to an audience involved setting the stage, so to speak, for conversation. And really working with the intention that these plays are not meant to be let loose into the world and have them, necessarily, speak for themselves; the intention that we want to work in a way that allows the audience to come back to us, whether it is through conversation on the internet, whether it is through events like #UrgentExchange. Even the fact that it’s a trilogy, so knowing that we are building a relationship; the idea is that we want to build a relationship with our audience so that these ideas and the themes that are in the play continue to evolve and we continue to contemplate them each time we meet each other.  And trying to, as much as we can with the resources we have available, to create avenues for that.”

On Theatre and Trauma

Susanna “I deal with a lot of difficult topics in my work, and I know that I am looking to create a kind of ritualized space; that potentially we can come together and grapple with some of these traumas in a way that creates even just a moment with which we can feel through them. Because I think if we are not willing to feel through them, they won’t pass through us. And so that is a really delicate thing, to go: I know I am purposely asking folks to come experience a wound, and I think if we can experience that together there is a possibility for changing a narrative around it, or allowing it to maybe leave our bodies, work through our body. I think theatre is a place for and of the body and I feel that I live in a very disembodied culture. And even sometimes in the act of theoretical talking about, of analysis around trauma, analysis around power, it’s like yes: in my head, and my body is not included. And what I find in theatre is when I am moved it’s because I am allowed to feel my way through the things I experience, not just intellectually, but in my heart, and my gut, and I guess that is the power of catharsis.”

On Power in Process

Susanna “I am learning a lot as a playwright and a producer. There is a huge amount of power you have as a playwright, in that I’m choosing content and I’m choosing whose story we are looking at and where should we look in a story in the same way the director can tell us where and who to look at. As a producer I feel that it is the most crucial realm of putting a different kind of politic in action, because I wield our culture’s powerful symbol, which is where does the money go. And you can create a process that reflects where you want to put that money. But you also choose who is on the team, how the team is going to gather, what are we going to talk about, what are we going to prioritize.”

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Above: production photos from The Philosopher’s Wife. Cast: Chala Hunter, Aviva Armour-Ostroff, Susanna Fournier and Danny Ghantous. Photography: Haley Garnett and Bernie Fournier.

Chala “A question I have been asking myself in many rooms, as a performer, certainly, but just as a person on the street, or in my home, or in any community or room that I happen to be in, is about how I can embody a kind of equality or community or togetherness or how I can embody the way that I hope or wish power could function in our communities, in our society. And that’s a question; I don’t have the answer to that, but I’m asking it of myself in many different circumstances, and as I ask it, trying to catch myself when I am behaving in ways that I feel I have been conditioned to, out of fear, or learned power structures, or all sorts of things. And so I would say that within the rehearsal hall, especially having been a fairly involved part of the conversation around #MeToo or Not in Our Space, or many of these conversations around harassment and consent in the performing arts and in the world, I’ve been looking to embody in rooms, to be an ally. To show in my behaviour that I will ask questions, ask for consent, be respectful, but also kind of demand it for myself. And that means doing things that make me uncomfortable, like saying no, like asking questions when I don’t understand something but feel embarrassed to ask the question. Even standing next to someone that I feel might be vulnerable in a moment, and that’s an assumption, certainly sometimes, but I’m trying to trust my intuition in those moments and err on the side of being caring and hopeful, rather than this kind of silent ‘I’m going to stay away from a situation or moment that seems like it might be dangerous, or someone might be feeling a bit vulnerable, or they maybe they need some help. And I don’t mean that specifically in this process: I’m talking about in the last year of my life, and I operate in the same way in grocery stores now as well, which I find is necessary sometimes; crazy things happen everywhere.”

Sedina “Now I’m asking myself what kinds of spaces I want to create, and who do we need to be in the space for it to be affirmative and joyful, what do we need to say. …We really have to cultivate character in ourselves, as theatre artists, black performance artists. We are always like ‘In the room, in the room’ but if you are not that outside of the room, how will you be it, how will you suddenly summon up the courage, how will you suddenly summon up knowledge that you don’t have? It behooves us to keep having conversations like these.”

On Safety in Process

Susanna “We do need to always be taking the temperature in the room and go: How are we doing? Is this enthusiastically working? Or are we all like ‘Oh, knives in the air, elephants all over the place?’ And if that happens let’s talk then, before one of the elephants pierces another elephant. If we feel the temperature rising, we can always go ‘Are we ok? Is there something we need to discuss? Has something happened?’ Cause that might have happened two days ago. People’s reactions to things - I was chronically: something bad happens and three days later I’m upset. But I’ve learned to just kind of deal with it. We can’t expect everyone in the moment to react like, ‘Hi, I have the language and tools with which to do this.’ They may react three days later by having a small meltdown in a corner. I think it’s another reason why having producers in the room - or having outside eyes who are watching the process, just there for feedback - is really important. Because I’m still learning, and I still miss moments. There are still moments where I go, ‘I should have said something.’”

Chala “Asking questions is so important, just checking in with people, like kind of maybe more than seems reasonable, is important… There is so much talking that has to go down to make people feel safe.”

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Photos: Speakers Meghan Speakman (left) and Andrea Zanin (right); PARADIGM productions in conversation with Sedina.

On Yes and No

Chala “I had an experience of realizing that I think of no as a rejection, or as like, ultimately negative; as a creative rejection, as a personal rejection, when really what I discovered through this process was that yes and no are both just pieces of information towards greater understanding and more complicity, and that is very fundamental for me.”

Sedina “Our theatre training has trained us out of ‘no.’ Yes and… but the spirit behind yes and is let’s collaborate - it isn’t do what you want. It isn’t yes to anything. It means a spirit of collaboration and that’s what we should be entering into. ‘No’ means, close this door but open a different door. Because that means we have to be creative in the way we do things…‘No’ can be so generous because you are helping the other person navigate, instead of letting them walk into a minefield.

Responses to #UrgentExchange topic THE WHITE GUY SHUFFLE: Changing Hiring Practices in Canadian Theatre

On January 15, 2017, Generator and the Toronto Fringe Festival hosted an #UrgentExchange on the topic of:

THE WHITE GUY SHUFFLE: Changing Hiring Practices in Canadian Theatre

What is an Urgent Exchange?

Urgent Exchange is an opportunity for the community to nominate topics that they think are both important and timely conversations that we need to be having as a collective. During the Next Stage Theatre Festival, we hosted two discussions: one topic is crowdsourced on Twitter with the active hashtag #UrgentExchange, and the other we pick based on conversations we keep hearing in our offices and among our peers. (More about #UrgentExchange).

Why did we pick this as an urgent topic needing a platform?

In 2016, over half a dozen Artistic Director jobs were up for grabs across Canada. While many were excited at the chance to finally diversify the leadership of some of our country's most recognizable institutions, all of the positions were filled by white men.* How can we influence boards and hiring committees to change homogenous hiring practices? We invited the community to examine the mechanics of how these decisions are made and strategize how the community can be of influence. (Links to background reading provided at the bottom of this post)  

*Since the Urgent Exchange in January, more AD roles have been announced and happily we are seeing more diverse voices filling artistic leadership roles.

#UrgentExchange in action at Theatre Passe Muraille

#UrgentExchange in action at Theatre Passe Muraille

Why isn’t this on Twitter?

Unlike previous #UrgentExchange dialogues that were live-streamed in their entirety and live-tweeted using the hashtag, this session was partially closed to protect participants who may have wanted to share personal or sensitive experiences during the group breakouts.

As this exchange brought the often closed-door activity of hiring practices to a public discussion, we felt it was important to ensure that some part of the experience is still open to people who weren’t able to be in the room. Therefore, we asked a few people for their thoughts:

ALLISON WONG

“In the Canadian Theatre business, we seem to believe that a certain type of person is supposed to run things. There’s a pervasive ideology that rewards non-risk-takers and seekers of institutional status when it comes to Artistic Leadership in Canada. A mold that “successful” and “enduring” companies are supposed to fit into; a perfect formula of art-making and balanced business. Our boards are made up of the most amazing members of our community, but they are tasked with hiring in a field in which, often, they do not have professional experience. In a well-meaning desire to build the legacy of an organization, they can be led to disproportionately consider how well a candidate can model existing “best practices” (which by the way aren’t working for a lot of companies as it is, but that’s for another #urgentexchange), rather than investing in a candidate’s ability to innovate practices for their organization specifically, and their art, specifically.

A barrier that artists from equity seeking groups face is that they are not expected to fit into this certain type. There is not enough precedent for how the stories we want to tell, the perspectives we hold, marry into these assumed best practices. I like to imagine a future where equity seeking artists are mentored to lead by flexing their muscles in exploring and developing the ways they want to connect to community, to build resources, to give the work the support it requires; where governing bodies require existing leadership to create apprenticeships that reward creating new solutions for art-makers, rather than modelling old ones; where funding bodies measure sustainability by looking at an organization’s ability to adapt and change to its ever evolving community of artists and audience.”

Alison Wong is a director, performer, and producer. Her work in opera and theatre has taken her to the United States, Italy, the Netherlands, and India. Currently wrapping up her 5th season as Artistic Producer with b current, other Toronto-based companies she’s worked with includes MYOpera, Canadian Opera Company, Factory Theatre, and Small Wooden Shoe.

JIVESH PARASRAM

“Despite a majority representation of women in this conversation, it was demonstrated that white women were occupying the most discursive space. Perhaps proportionately enough due to who was there by demographics, but within that space, the same micro-aggressive tendencies (interruptions, authoritative reinterpretations, etc.) that have come to be reductively associated with “White Guys” were quite present as well.

The concept of whiteness was not addressed, nor was the colonial ideology at play in the structures of boards actively questioned. (But there was an implied invitation to do so when the concept of the board was introduced.)

Finally, the implication that the absence of White Male ADs in attendance was equivalent to a lack of representation of leadership felt a bit off. Disrespectful to two ADs who were in attendance, both of whom are female POC artists; and who lead operationally funded organizations, and who have also (as a bonus!) actively advanced inclusion throughout their careers.

For many people this was the first time engaging with this topic in such a public forum. And that this event gave an opportunity to do so is excellent. 

Moving forward, I would just highlight that what can happen in spaces such as these – open democratic-ish spaces – and indeed did happen - was the replication of systems of oppression that can prevent the advancement of discourse.

Democracy is not equitable –and there is no universal experience. We just have to remind ourselves of that and ensure that we are always striving to actively listen more.”

Jivesh Parasram is a cultural worker of Indo-Caribbean descent. He is Artistic Producer at Pandemic Theatre, and the Associate Artistic Producer at Theatre Passe Muraille.

KATIE LEAMEN

As an emerging artist myself, I had no idea what the board of directors did or the decisions they made until I started taking the meeting minutes at Generator’s board meetings. I have witnessed the important advocacy and education that comes from having multiple artists on our board to help encourage artistic risk-taking in board members more accustomed to making decisions based on safe, traditional business practices.

While there are many steps to be taken to encourage better inclusion in Canadian hiring practices for artistic leadership positions, I personally think that the first step - which is manageable without any increase in budget or resources - is to challenge every board of directors of arts organizations to recruit at least one (preferably more) artist to join their ranks. This will enable artists to advocate from the inside and empower them to make decisions that affect their peers, while giving wider perspective to board discussions, and support to the Executive Director or Artistic Director. Artists are trained to make strong choices, and we need to encourage them (and ourselves) to be in the positions to make them.”

Katie Leamen, Director of Coordination and Communications at Generator, and Artistic Producer of No Porpoise Productions. Also testing her hand at playwrighting with some success.

KRISTINA LEMIEUX

“Four thoughts:

1. I regularly wonder about what more I can be doing with my privileges while still fighting against the systematic barriers that hold me back, often at the expense of others held back by those barriers in different ways. I often feel unclear on what “battles” I can enter into and which ones I have the chance of “winning.”

2. The White Man Shuffle asked the question of what barriers hold you back from accessing leadership jobs in the arts. These institutions and structures are settler, Eurocentric structures designed to uphold capitalism and hierarchical means of organizing. These events are generally attended by those excluded from those structures, who are equity seeking, but generally with little power to enact the changes they want to see.

3. What if the folks who are identified as equity seeking or historically disenfranchised just don’t give a fuck about these organizations? I have zero interest in working for The Citadel, Touchstone Theatre, Western Stage or any of these other institutions that just reinforced white supremacy with these hires and these institutions, in theory, are designed to speak to me.

4. Seeing yet another white man hired in an artistic leadership job leaves me feeling harmed, with less hope and more tired. I want to work in spaces where leadership is about ideas and capacity to connect to people. Knowing how to fundraise, write grants, read financials statements or advocate for policy change are important skills, but they are not the skills I find inspiring. “

Kristina Lemieux, Executive Director of Generator, is a recent transplant to Toronto from Vancouver where she was a producer, facilitator and manager of live arts.

MAMITO KUKWIKILA

“My career in theatre is relatively new and young as I started out in film (and still continue to work in film) and I think one of the challenges or barriers that I felt when I first journeyed into theatre in Toronto was this sense of not belonging due to my sense of not "knowing". I did not think I had a leg to stand on with regards to having an opinion on a show or engaging in a piece of theatre as an actor as my "knowledge" on theatre was not up to a certain "standard". But who's standard, right? For someone like me - a woman, black, new to the country, new to the city, theatre in Toronto can be intimidating to navigate because what one sees is an ecology that is lead and driven by predominately white male voices making artistic choices for the majority and what that suggests to a someone like me is that my experiences and voices can only be filtered through a predominately white patriarchal framework. This, of course, is not unique to Toronto. Creating art is an amazing privilege but that privilege should not be reserved for the few. I would like us to move to a place in which there is room for arts organizations and theatre companies to take more risks in terms of artistic leadership and move away from what can sometimes feel like a top down model but towards a model that fosters mentorship and collaboration.”

Mamito Kukwikila is an actor, writer, producer and programming coordinator for b current Performing Arts Theatre Company. Mamito now resides in Toronto.

KAREN FRICKER (Toronto Star) 

Karen attended both Urgent Exchange discussions this year and followed up on the topic in her article, "World Stage returns, female theatre heads retreat: A season of reflection and greatest hits for Harbourfront festival while Next Stage panel considers ‘white guy shuffle’. (Jan 25, 2017)

NEW:  

"White Guy Shuffle" is becoming a national meme it seems as it is picked up in this article by Jessica Werb from The Georgia Strait on the West Coast. "Arts Club Theatre's search for new leadership prompts debate"  (May 24, 2017)

 

Thank you to everyone who came out to listen and share their thoughts!

Thank you to everyone who came out to listen and share their thoughts!

Background reading (links in the article title):

·        White Fragility in the Hour of Chaos by Michael Wheeler (SpiderWebShow)

·        Briefing Notes for Hiring Committees by Christine Quintana (SpiderWebShow)

·        Trying To Be GoodRoundhouse Radio interview with Kristina Lemieux Nov 2, 2016. "This week I had the great honour of being asked to speak with Heidi Taylor and Emelia Symington Fedy on Trying To Be Good on Roundhouse Radio. We talked about our work in the arts, feminist beginnings, fights, Hilary Clinton, and hopes. Here's the notes I took during the talk and the link for your listening pleasure." 

·        Basing pay on salary history is a harmful, borderline-unethical practice that we need to abolish by Vu Le (Nonprofit with Balls)

·        Our hiring practices are inequitable and need to change by Vu Le (Nonprofit with Balls)

·        Palm Springs film festival ex-interim director was offered half the salary of her male predecessor, lawsuit claims by Brett Kelman and Bruce Fessier (The Desert Sun)

·        New Study Investigates Why Few Women Hold Leadership Positions in Theatres by Olivia Clement (Playbill)