Diversity in Theatre Part 2 – a related article by Richard Ouzounian from 2004

In the world of, the more things change, the more they stay the same, check out this article by Richard Ouzounian that was published in the Toronto Star in 2004 (The Star doesn’t have articles older than 4 years old online, but this is reprinted with Richard’s permission)  It’s a bit depressing how relevant this article is four and a half years later.


Jan. 18, 2004. 01:00 AM

About face
Visible minorities aren’t seeing themselves on Toronto stages, but theatres are working to change that


It’s not just a question of black and white.

If you’re talking about the status of visual minorities on Toronto’s stages, that statement rings true for several reasons.

First, our multicultural city is home to Asian, Indian and Hispanic artists as well as black.

Second, while virtually everyone admits we’ve got a problem, no one can agree on whose fault it is and how it can be remedied.

Actor and activist Sandi Ross said, “Theatre should mirror the society we live in, but the large, publicly funded theatres of our city seem to be reluctant — or at least timid — about putting on stage the faces of the very people who are helping to fund them.”

Ross made that statement in January, 1994, but she could still say it today. Consider this:

The current population of Greater Toronto consists of 43 per cent visible minorities.

In their current seasons, the seven largest not-for-profit professional theatres in the city employed 79 actors from visible minorities out of a total of 394, a rate of 20 per cent.

If you add the two major festivals — Stratford and Shaw — to the mix, the figure becomes 106 out of 622, or 17 per cent.

That’s a considerable gap, and while everyone agrees the winds of change are blowing, they’re not moving rapidly enough for many people.

All of this has come to the forefront recently due to an incident last month at Factory Theatre.

Chilean-Canadian playwright Carmen Aguirre accused artistic director Ken Gass of not being sufficiently proactive in hiring actors of colour for a workshop of her play, The Refugee Hotel. Various accusations were made, including the allegation that Gass had uttered the phrase “actors of colour are not superb.” (Gass has since denied that categorically.)

The irony of the situation is that Factory and Gass have both been known for their constant championing of diversity in programming. In fact, this season, 36 per cent of their actors are from visible minorities, the highest rate in the city.

Feelings generated by the Aguirre controversy made this issue fresh in everyone’s mind when a crowd of 150 packed the Artword Theatre last Monday for a panel discussion on the status of visible minorities in the Toronto theatre community.

Bobby Del Rio was the driving force behind the meeting. This Chinese-Canadian playwright and actor spearheads the organization INCLUDE (Integrating Networks of Cultures, Learning and Understanding Diversity in Entertainment).

The panel of artists consisted of Andrew Moodie (the black actor/author of Riot), Keira Loughran (the Asian actor/author of Little Dragon), Michelle Latimer (the Métis actor of Paradise Falls) and Gass (the Caucasian head of Factory).

The outspoken Moodie broke the ice. “Look, our current situation is frustrating because we have an incredible number of actors of diverse backgrounds who are capable of participating in the theatre life of this city. But it’s not about taking the stage away from someone, it’s about sharing it.”

There was agreement that many Toronto theatres had become more proactive in their programming, making an effort to schedule plays by black, Asian or Indian authors, but even that posed some problems.

“I’ve found racism on both sides,” shared Latimer. “Sometimes I go to an audition, they know I’m Métis, they see my long black hair and they say, `Oh good, she can play the character of Raven!’ but then they take a second look and say, `Wait a minute, she’s got blue eyes…'”

Loughran cut to the heart of the matter. “Look, we know that when there’s an Asian play, they’ll cast Asians, but we want to know what’s happening with all those other roles that don’t have a label attached to them.”

Without naming it, she had raised the issue of colour-blind casting, where directors fill roles with the actors they think best, regardless of their racial background.

Some of our theatres succeed in this area better than others. One of the most progressive in the last 15 years has been the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre For Young People (formerly Young People’s Theatre).

Its current level of casting from within visible minorities is 32 per cent, and it has kept figures like that for many years, since the tenure of Maja Ardal as artistic director.

“I remember playing the title role of Alice In Wonderland there,” recalls Loughran, “and at first some people were surprised not to see a blue-eyed blonde, but the kids got used to it and liked it fine.”

Other theatres making strong efforts in that direction are CanStage with 28 per cent and Buddies in Bad Times (24 per cent).

But the greatest concern for many visible-minority actors has been their failure to make a significant dent in our three classical companies: Stratford, Shaw and Soulpepper.

Gass acknowledged that “the problem is greatly exacerbated when you have theatres living in certain kinds of traditions. The question is how theatre is going to acknowledge that problem and break that cycle.”

Last season, Stratford cast 16 per cent of its acting company from visible minorities (not including the chorus of children from The King And I), while Shaw’s figure was 4 per cent and Soulpepper’s was 3 per cent.

Soulpepper, through its publicist, Carrie Sager, declined to provide any statistics, stating that “Soulpepper doesn’t see any of its artists, on stage or off, in terms of the colour of their skin.” The Star compiled the figures from its own records.

Odette Yazbeck, Shaw’s director of communications, cited a number of issues that contributed to its low figure, including the lack of classical theatre training available for visible minorities, and noted that “while offers have been made, we are often turned down because of our mandate and our location.”

Stratford’s executive director, Antoni Cimolino asserted that “We profoundly value diversity and while we feel we’ve made big strides recently, we’re not yet where we want to be. We’ve just got to get on with it and do it.”

Everyone has different ideas on how it should be done.

Loughran, just hired at Stratford after failing to even land an audition there six years ago, believes the answer lies in each actor’s sense of self-determination.

“I know a lot of Caucasian actors who sit around their living rooms and bitch about how they don’t get called in for auditions. Well, I’m not going to be like that. Sure, I know it’s shitty that you have to bang on doors and people aren’t calling you up, but you know what? Get the gig, do your work and let the work speak for itself.”

It isn’t always that easy, cautions Gass: “The most frequently employed actors keep working. It’s a vicious circle. But how do actors who aren’t in that club break through?”

Jacoba Knappen, executive director of the Toronto Theatre Alliance, which helped organize the evening, suggested that “maybe part of the problem is that most of the theatres are run by middle-aged white men.”

Moodie countered that: “You could put a black person in charge of a theatre company and that wouldn’t necessarily mean black people would come to that theatre or that things would be done any differently.”

Most theatre professionals in the city agree that working to fix the system from within is a necessary, if sometimes difficult procedure.

“What’s on the stages of Toronto has to reflect what’s in the city of Toronto,” said Martin Bragg, artistic producer of CanStage, “and sure, it’s not always the easiest thing to accomplish, but it’s one of our major priorities.”

The overwhelming consensus seems to be that change has to start further back, in the educational system.

This spring, nearly 200 students will be graduating from the province’s theatre programs and only 10 per cent are from visible minorities.

Contrast this with prominent American theatre programs such as Carnegie Mellon in
Pittsburgh, where the average figure is 25 per cent and their current first-year program features 48 per cent non-white students.

“Diversity recruitment is a huge issue for the university and they give it their full support,” explained Elizabeth Bradley, chairperson of Carnegie Mellon’s theatre department.

Philip Silver, dean of fine arts at York University, conceded that his first-year theatre program currently has an 8 per cent enrolment from visible minorities, and although “some years have been higher, it’s a representative figure, although it’s not one that I’m happy with.”

Silver is already working to change the racial mix of the teachers as well as their pupils, because “the students have to see their future in the faculty.”

Diana Belshaw, director of the Theatre Performance Program at Humber College, believes that hands-on recruitment is the answer.

“I would start going after the kind of kids you want in high school, hell, in grade school. You’ve got to let them know there’s a place they’d be welcome.”

Belshaw also encourages the theatres to keep making new opportunities because “sometimes our students get discouraged and quit if they don’t think there’s anything waiting for them out there.”

Or as Gass put it at the end of last Monday’s meeting, “If we want change to happen, we’ve got to work at it … all of us.”